Playing for the future: using sports for community and personal development in Azerbaijan
The teams went head to head in the three-legged race, another race bouncing balls round cones positioned on the playground and a variety of the egg-and-spoon race played with badminton rackets and balls. Each team had nearly equal numbers of both girls and boys, and all the children played together with ease and confidence. One little girl chided her male partner for his slowness in the three-legged race and he responded with a guilty giggle.
Regulating the games was school sports trainer Natik Dadashov, who encouraged the children to do their best and help their peers do the same – not that they needed much encouragement.
‘You see,’ says Dadashov, ‘They are just all so enthusiastic and keen to be involved.’
The children at this school are just some of the beneficiaries of the Development of Children and Young People Through Sport programme, supported by the UK National Committee for UNICEF and implemented by UNICEF Azerbaijan in partnership with the Ministry of Youth and Sport of Azerbaijan, Right To Play International NGO, the National Assembly of Youth Organisations of Azerbaijan and Reliable Future.
Like their counterparts in other Azeri schools, orphanages and youth clubs targeted by the development project, the children at the Guba school now have plenty of new sports and games materials such as balls, hoops, cones, chessboards and goalposts. Purchased by Right To Play with UNICEF funding, these new materials are clearly appreciated by the children at the school, who suggested to their teacher a variety of games to play using the materials and who took noticeably good care of them, packing them away methodically when the games come to a close.
Not only have all the children involved in the development project enjoyed the opportunity of playing with new materials, they have also developed a range of life-skills and addressed a number of issues through taking part in sports and games carried out according to a special methodology.
At Baku’s Khatai Orphanage Number 3, another of the institutions targeted by the project, teacher and psychologist Suniya Hajieva explains this methodology.
‘The Right To Play approach involves four different coloured balls. Each different ball represents a different value or concept, such as peace, or taking care of yourself and others. Each different coloured ball has a series of games associated with it, some which were shown to us by Right To Play trainers, some which we invented, some of which are traditional games. Through these games the children learn about the different ideas or concepts associated with each different coloured ball,’ said Hajieva.
As an integral part of the development project, Right To Play trainers funded by UNICEF dispersed throughout Azerbaijan and led workshops in the methodology described above for teachers and coaches. Hajieva and Faig Mirzayev, a youth club leader in Guba who also took part in Right To Play workshops were unreservedly enthusiastic about this approach to play and sport and what it has done for the children in their care.
‘Being involved in this development project was great because before we never had the means to purchase new materials or organise proper competitions for our youth club members,’ said Mirzayev.
He used some of the games and methodology showed to him by Right To Play in a custodial colony for young boys in conflict with the law and said that the games helped the boys there to trust each other.
‘In this place it is every man for himself, but when we played some of these games with them they learnt instead to support each other and work together,’ he said.
Mirzayev’s breakthrough with these boys is indicative of the success of the development project in working with marginalised children, for whom sport and games are being used to increase their confidence and communication skills and to help them integrate and mix well in groups.
In a conservative country like Azerbaijan, where restrictive attitudes to women have been observed re-emerging in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, sport can be an important tool for building gender equality.
Hadjieva noted that the project and the Right To Play games had been especially beneficial for girls, who had greatly increased their participation in sport and overcome a range of barriers including poor body image and shyness which had previously seen them begging orphanage staff for doctor’s notes in order to avoid sports classes at school.
‘This never happens now – now they take part in sport with great enthusiasm,’ said Hajieva.
The testimony of the children at the orphanage was uplifting proof that using sport and games in a targeted way can help bring about concrete positive changes in the lives of young people born into disadvantage and fill them with optimism for their future.
Seated in a circle, a group of 12-16 year olds, boys and girls, talked brightly and confidently about their involvement in the development project and how they thought it would help them in future.
They said playing sports and games had made them feel closer to their peers and helped them understand the importance of supporting each other. They said it had built their confidence and their ability to deal with problems they faced in life. They were all adamant that their involvement in sport had helped them set and achieve goals. Their teachers added that it had taught them about the importance of taking care of their health and how to do so.
12-year-old Javidan, the youngest of the group, was at ease among his oldest peers and keen to share his ambitions.
‘I want to be a policeman,’ he said and agreed when asked if he thought the skills he had built through sport and games would help him achieve his goal.
For 13-year-old Zahida, the impact of her involvement in sports and games was even more far-reaching.
‘Sometimes when we play,’ she said, ‘Our dreams come true.’