Getting into the Game

Understanding the evidence for child-focused sport for development

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Children in Laos taking part in the ChildFund Pass It Back program.

Key Messages

By the Numbers

ChildFund Pass It Back won the UNICEF Safeguarding Children in Sport Award at the prestigious Beyond Sport Global Awards in 2017.

Main findings from the survey:

  • Most S4D programmes were in Africa, and within each region, programmes tended to be located in the higher-income countries.
  • Programmes reported serving 10 to 14 year olds with poverty a common risk factor. They were attracted to programmes because of their use of sport.
  • Practitioners reported that, much more than simply improving children’s sports participation and skills, they also hoped to enhance children’s soft skills and empowerment and reduce negative behaviours.
  • Programmes reported that they were moderately effective to very effective in meeting their sport and non-sport objectives. Yet this perception was mostly based on self-evaluation.
  • Staff strengths included relationships with children, especially when both were from the same community. Reported challenges included job-related issues such as lack of incentives and career development opportunities.

For more, download the full report.


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Mathare Youth Sport Association

Since 1987, Mathare Youth Sport Association (MYSA) has been using sport for social improvement and community development in Kenya. Today, it engages over 30,000 children and young people in sport activities through a range of interventions, which include, among others, work readiness and employability programmes. These aim to help youth participants develop knowledge and skills to access employment opportunities after education through career guidance, skills training, internships, career fairs and job placements. For each programme, MYSA links inputs with activities to programme and community outcomes through a visual pathway that is connected to its theory of change. The organization collects data to show participants’ progress in gaining the knowledge needed for identifying career paths and perceived understanding of the application process. Through a high degree of self-reflection informed by data and focus group discussions, MYSA is able to build stronger links between its programmes and its desired outcomes.

S4D programmes that work for education are those that:

  • Create a positive teaching and learning environment where participants and educators can engage in problem identification and problem-solving to enable critical thinking around the challenges that participants and their communities face.     
  • Recruit, train and develop quality educators – whether they are teachers, coaches, mentors or volunteers, they need to facilitate positive relationships, support youth and teach the key competencies and skills. Their contracts and benefits are also key factors that need to be considered.                         
  • Meaningfully engage key stakeholders and local experts, including participants, families, communities and schools, to meet programme goals. In one example, a programme brought participants back as mentors and coaches, to apply their contextual knowledge and experience.

Challenges to S4D programmes seeking to improve educational outcomes include:

  • Designing and delivering quality education-focused S4D initiatives without local experts and stakeholders, such as schools, can prove challenging. For example, this can lead to learning materials not reflecting the needs of participants, inadequate training of implementing educators, or bullying being replicated in S4D initiatives.
  • Overreach in setting objectives and attempts to meet multiple social goals rather than prioritizing
    goals based on target-group needs. Education interventions, coupled with other goals, can create
    challenges for the S4D organization in terms of available staff capacity. 
  • Lack of research on and clarity around how sport can play a larger role in achieving educational outcomes, particularly in regard to academic performance.

Download the report summary and full report for policy recommendations on S4D for education.

Social Inclusion

Barça Foundation – Contextualizing social inclusion

Each year the Barça Foundation works with over 120,000 children through its social inclusion and violence prevention programmes in 50 countries. Among the Barça Foundation’s many efforts to improve the lives of vulnerable children is its FutbolNet Methodology, a sports-based social intervention that has reached more than 22,000 refugee children since 2016 in Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Spain. FutbolNet aims to increase participation in inclusive and adapted recreational sports, develop inclusiveness, promote the active participation of children with different abilities, foster inclusion between refugees and host communities, and improve social educators’ skills in using sport as a teaching tool. Teams are comprised of different genders, disability statuses, origins and skills, and all are encouraged to participate in the game.

S4D programmes that work for social inclusion are those that:

  • Develop team sports that are participatory and yet can beadapted to meet the needs of all children and youth (in terms of format, rules, kit, equipment and facilities, etc.). 
  • Create supportive, participatory environments that also publicly recognize the accomplishments of individuals from marginalized groups.
  • Promote sports that challenge norms of ability and gender suitability, to remove social barriers that
    prevent marginalized children and young people from participating in sport.
  • Build the capacity of marginalized young people and facilitate their participation in all aspects of the programme.

Challenges to S4D programmes seeking to improve social inclusion include:

  • Sports cultures (e.g. masculinization of sport) that promote elitism and exclude certain children and
    youth (e.g. a specific gender or LGBTQi youth), thus acting as a barrier to inclusion.
  • Family or community (societal) views that sport is not for marginalized children who historically have been excluded from sports or are new to sports.
  • Pervasive structural inequality, deprivation and inaccessible sites that limit inclusion – whether because of cost or because of physical disability.
  • A lack of good research on the effectiveness of different approaches to diversity.

Download the report summary and full report for policy recommendations on S4D for social inclusion.

Child Protection

AMANDLA’s Safe-Hubs for child protection

AMANDLA is a South African non-profit organization that aims to create safe spaces by using football to engage youth in holistic development through daily, after-school activities. Its ‘Safe-Hubs’ provide structured play, sport activities and training in life skills and employability. Sport serves as the foundation for building relationships among vulnerable children, youth and adults. Coaches are trained in first aid, child protection, and as child and youth care workers. Social workers are present on site for counselling and providing reliable referral pathways. Young people are central in all decision-making. AMANDLA prioritizes monitoring and evaluation. Data collected through multiple strategies are constantly evaluated and reported, and critical reflection allows for learning and improvement. Evidence shows a reduction in contact crime in the area surrounding the Safe-Hubs, with large numbers of participants showing more resilience to peer pressure, setting goals and demonstrating motivation to achieving these. Through its Social Franchise System, AMANDLA aims to implement 100 Safe-Hubs across South Africa as well as to roll out Safe-Hubs beyond Africa by 2030.

S4D programmes that work for child protection are those that:

  • Contribute to protection of children and young people through the development of agency via the promotion of social capital and relationships of support that can lead to education and employment.
  • Are set in a safe space that provides a sense of security to socialize without stigmatization or
    scrutiny by authorities.
  • Develop conflict resolution competencies and can encourage cooperative behaviour. For example, fair play with discipline for violations, such as penalties (as opposed to rewards) for overly aggressive behaviours.
  • See coaches as role models for athletes to help reduce gender inequities and gender-based violence by generating discussions related to violence involving
    other athletes and increasing bystander intervention.

Challenges to S4D programmes seeking to promote child protection include:

  • Lack of evidence on how sport can be used for child protection and the risk that localized interventions overstate potential effects on systemic drivers of violence, such as social norms and biases.
  • Evidence that points towards inadequate regulation to safeguard the protection of children in sports.
  • Understaffing of child protection-trained programmers.
  • Some sports that continue to expose children to multiple forms of risk and violence that are normalized within the sports’ contexts and cultures (and supported by reward/power structures and hypermasculinity).

Download the report summary and full report for policy recommendations on S4D for child protection.


Fútbol Más – Community empowerment

Fútbol Más operates in more than 70 neighbourhoods in seven regions of Chile, in addition to Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay and Kenya. Its initiatives include recovering public spaces for protection and training, and promoting interaction and recreation in emergency contexts. The organization's model uses football to promote children's well-being and community solidarity. Fútbol Más targets families and communities to promote the long-term, sustainable impact of its programmes. Its young participants aged 6 to 15 are supported by trained resilience tutors aged 16 to 20. Families participate in Neighborhood Coordination Teams, which help the tutors to lead the management of the programme until they can do so autonomously. Fútbol Más also connects local stakeholders with community leaders, supporting community members to be their own advocates. It aims to foster partnerships between children and adults, expanding their local circle of support and contributing to community empowerment and sustainable development. futbolmas.org/en/

S4D programmes that work for children’s personal empowerment are those that:

  • Deliver in autonomy-supportive and mastery-oriented sports climates. For example, programmes that use the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model to promote individual empowerment.
  • Foster team sport and collective agency. Team sports supported by caring relationships with peers and programme adults (i.e. coaches and mentors) also work for the empowerment of individuals.
  • Support participatory approaches using experiential learning and reinforcing community connections, such as with families or through civic engagement.
  • Promote children’s civic engagement by encouraging the participation of families and communities.

Challenges to S4D programmes seeking to improve children’s empowerment include: 

  • Existing negative social perceptions of certain groups of children and youth.
  • Pervasiveness of the deficit model approach, which overemphasizes shortcomings and overlooks the strengths of children and young people – thereby undermining the promotion of empowerment and agency.
  • Adultism, whereby adults assume children cannot or should not contribute to participatory activities (including design and implementation of S4D). This, again, discourages participation and can disempower.
  • A lack of intentional design to ensure that programme processes facilitate empowerment.
  • A lack of guidance/consensus on defining and measuring empowerment – as both an outcome and process, which can be difficult to disentangle.

Download the report summary and full report for policy recommendations on S4D for empowerment.


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The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable.