Playing the Game

A framework for successful child focused sport for development programmes

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Playing the Game:

A framework for successful child-focused sport for development programmes

Sport, recreation, and play are improving children’s health and wellbeing all around the world. Sport for development (S4D) harnesses the power of sport to help children improve their health and develop social, educational and leadership skills while playing and having fun.

For over 20 years, UNICEF has advocated for the role of sport, recreation and play in children’s development. In 2006, a pioneering partnership was signed between UNICEF, the Barcelona Football Club (FC Barcelona) and the Barça Foundation. Since then, the lives of over two million children in seven countries have been improved through sport, play and protection.

In 2017, UNICEF Innocenti launched the Getting into the Game research which explored the global literature on the impact of sports on children’s well-being. It found that sport, when appropriately delivered, can improve four key areas of children’s lives: education, social inclusion, child protection and empowerment. The study also highlighted the need to strengthen the evidence base on S4D, including what interventions work, how they work, and for whom they work.

To do this, the new Playing the Game research draws on ten qualitative in-depth case studies undertaken with S4D organisations across different regions, contexts, and issue areas (education, social inclusion, health, empowerment and child protection).


A guiding framework for S4D programming

The S4D framework follows the three stages of the programming cycle: from design, through implementation, to scaling and sustainability.

  1. Warming up: Programme design and context, including focused targets, partnerships, and funding sources.
  2. Playing the game: Implementing programming, including curriculum, coaches, and monitoring, evaluation and learning.
  3. Winning streaks: Scalability and sustainability, including challenges and best practices in replicating and adapting to new contexts, and developing resilient programmes.

The aim of this study is to produce a broad evidence-based framework that players in the S4D sector can continue to build on, and refine, as well as to adapt to different programme objectives.

The framework highlights eight key elements for quality S4D programming for children, which constitute the core considerations that S4D organizations should make when starting or scaling up existing programmes. Safeguarding is a crucial element across all stages to ensure the safety and well-being of children.

Key Messages

The S4D programming framework presented in this report is intended to assist implementing organizations, practitioners and policy makers and donors.

S4D organizations and practitioners can use it as a road map for programme design, as it provides a checklist of the key elements to consider. The case studies represent examples of how they can be elaborated.

In applying the framework, the key lessons are:

  • No programme component stands alone: All the elements of programme design are interconnected; components cannot be implemented in isolation and lessons learned about one aspect can contribute to the improvement of others.
  • Build on what already exists: Organizations need not build from scratch when starting new S4D programmes, as there are plenty of curricula and evidence to provide a starting point that can be adapted according to selected targets, local needs and Theory of Change (ToC).
  • Develop smart partnerships: No organization can do it all alone and building partnerships with other organizations (e.g., community-based organizations, corporations, international non-governmental organizations, government bodies) can help to ensure the smooth running of the programme as well as its sustainability and legitimacy.
  • Invest in coaches: No matter how well designed a programme is, recipients will not experience the positive effects of S4D without well-trained, childcentred coaches. Good safeguarding training also ensures that coaches keep children safe and do not pose a hazard to them. It will also enable them to recognize danger signs.
  • Find a balance between standardization and customization: Once established, a programme should naturally reach as many children as possible while maintaining quality. For this, it is key to have a well-defined but also simple methodology that can be revised to fit new contexts and to adapt to crises such as COVID-19.
  • Invest in monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL): Investing in regular monitoring and evaluation, embedded within the programme, and enhancing the related lessons learning culture/mindset contributes to long-term success and impact.

Policy makers and donors can use this framework as a guide for well-designed programmes, which will present all the components presented in this framework. 

Key messages for policy makers and donors are:

  • No component left behind: When assessing a programme, it should be possible to see how it addresses each of the framework components. Even in the early stages when a programme is not fully developed, it is recommended that a mechanism is included to identify potential for improvement and adaptation. A clear ToC would indicate this.
  • MEL requires resources: MEL systems can be timeand resource-consuming but are extremely valuable as they contribute to programme improvement and effectiveness. Donors should support their integration in programming and delivery, and acknowledge that data collection for MEL purposes should not be done casually (along with other activities) but needs to be planned for and implemented with attention to detail.
  • S4D is a valid tool to support the achievement of the SDGs: A well-developed ToC shows the link between the activities and expected outcomes, while Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and research can measure whether what is predicted in the ToC really happens. When positive outcomes are achieved, they can contribute to achieving the development impacts outlined among the SDGs.
  • Integrate S4D in school activities: Schools are effective places to conduct S4D sessions. Local and national authorities should consider including S4D as part of the curriculum, augmenting the beneficial effects of physical activity by adding personal and social development.
  • Safeguarding is the condition sine qua non: Funders and government bodies should demand that S4D programmes incorporate safeguarding practices and support referral services. Organizations should be, and feel, responsible for ensuring that safeguarding is resourced and embedded in all programme components from the design stage.
  • Multi-year funding enables long-term planning: Ensuring funding for multiple years allows implementers to work towards long-term goals and gives them time to take in learning and outcome from MEL and use them for course correction, and to improve programme design.

Case Studies

This report is underpinned by a set of case studies. Semistructured, in-depth interviews were held with staff at all levels of the S4D organizations sampled for this study, as well as their participants (see Annex 2 for a summary of interviews conducted). During these exchanges, recurring themes, strategies and programme components were identified and later organized into a comprehensive framework on S4D programmes.

Click each report image below to read each case study.


The Playing the Game Toolkit serves as a guide for applying the Sport for Development (S4D) framework described in the report. The framework can be used as a starting point for designing a new programme, to guide the expansion of an existing one into new locations, or to improve and re-organize specific programmatic and organizational aspects. The framework follows the different phases of a programme and their respective components, and recommends best practices. For each component of each programming stage, this toolkit offers practitioners guiding questions and practical recommendations.




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