by Adriana Ermter
In Saida, Lebanon, on an enclosed, grassy football field the locals refer to as "Streetball," five girls and seven boys stand in front of a large group of teachers. The children are 12 and 13 years old and most of them have never met these teachers before. They're excited and they're nervous. Typically, they would be the ones sitting, listening to the instructions. But today is different. Today, these children are the teachers and their lesson is about play.
Dividing the teachers into groups of 10 to 15, the children work in pairs, focusing on teaching activities requiring socialization skills, like teamwork and cooperation. The children speak in assertive voices as they explain the rules, take charge and show the teachers how to perform each play-based activity. They're practicing the leadership skills they learned playing acceptance- and inclusion-based games during a three-day workshop run by Right To Play and partners from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its peace-promoting and communications-building HAWER project.
Acting as teachers is the finale to the program. Creating the play-based curriculum for the day for the teachers, planning the games and then, guiding the teachers through each experience is empowering these children to explore their capabilities. It's the stepping stone towards developing a new generation of leaders.
"I feel proud to deliver my skills to teachers," says Samira, a 13-year-old participant. "It's an achievement. The teachers listened to us and we supported them and gave them advice about working as a team to improve their performance during each game. Everyone was taking it seriously, but also having a lot of fun."
A novel approach to gaining life skills like assertiveness and self-esteem, flipping the typical teaching dynamic is arming these children with the confidence to instruct others and to share their knowledge. Taking their training beyond the classroom and onto the football pitch where the children normally play creates a supportive environment where the children feel protected and accepted. It's a crucial element of the program—of all Right To Play programs—as it gives the children a powerful sense of safety and belonging and the opportunity to be at the center of their own development. Using play as a teaching tool is also key. Children understand and love to play, so having them teach something they intrinsically know gives them the courage to test their limits and to grow.
"We planned, organized, and implemented all of the games," says Samira, smiling. "This was the first time children were conducting activities to the teachers and that motivated me to prove myself."
Samira's not alone. Over 2,500 children are participating in these types of Right To Play programs across the country and 80 percent of them say they are learning how to celebrate their diversities while gaining confidence in themselves. With over half a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon's refugee camps, these types of acceptance-, inclusion- and communications-based skills are crucial to developing self-respect within each individual and among the different cultural groups. Many of these children have been forced to leave their homes and rebuild their lives while simultaneously trying to adjust to new rules, new people, and new cultures.
It's why we use play-based activities to engage both the host community and the refugee camp's children and youth to participate in our programs. Sports and games create common ground among the different cultural groups, the activities are fun and provide a safe way for the participants to play with one another while building their collaboration, cooperation and inclusion skills. This socialization training is paramount to the children's development because when they learn to accept, respect and coexist with others, tensions decrease and peace building begins.
For the children and youth living in these camps, especially the girls and women, who often struggle to be heard and assert their needs, this level of inclusion is vital. Being able to lead others through play and games is reinforcing the children's pride in themselves, their teachers and to their community. And these children, are now also proving to be excellent instructors.
"In the beginning, the teachers had a hard time playing the closed ropes game," says Rayan, a 12-year-old participant. "I told them that they have to work harder as a team and coordinate since this game depends on a whole team working together. This game consists of a rope with a hanger and the teachers have to hold onto the rope, together, in order to pick up the items from the floor."
Cooperating as a team shows the children and the teachers the self-esteem-boosting impact of breaking down social barriers through communication and inclusion. Putting the children's evaluation skills into action by providing the teachers with constructive criticism and encouraging feedback, also ensures the teachers can return to their classrooms equipped with fun and innovative teaching tools. And being a seen as a leader by their teachers, their peers and themselves validates the children's self-worth.
"Although I am only 13 years old, I have a voice and there is something inside of me I want to give to other people," affirms Louay. "Training the teachers makes me feel so proud."