Accessing Sport – Reducing Inequities due to Digital Divide

Parminder Gill (2) (1)

By Parminder Gill, Co-Founder and Head – Sportz Village Foundation

The ‘black-swan’ event of COVID 19 has brought about a 180-degree change in the life of all individuals worldwide. Children are affected most by the abrupt change in their lifestyle in terms of school closures, as well as closures of playgrounds and other social spaces.

To play is a natural impulse of all children and their chosen way to interact and bond with their peers. Depriving children of physical activity could not only lead to a lack of physical fitness and health but also their emotional dysfunction. Access to trusted sources of information, adoption of hygiene-related practices, and maintaining higher immunity levels (that result mainly from physical well-being) are key conditions to keep the spread of infection at bay. The complete absence of physical activity and sport, both structured and unstructured, can be catastrophic and leave the children highly vulnerable.

During the outbreak, it is evident that children belonging to the marginalized communities are more severely affected compared to children belonging to affluent homes. Data (from different studies done in the recent past) shows that only 20% to 50% of the households in this socio-economic group have some sort of online access. In fact, internet access aside, many children belonging to the marginalized section of society have been left struggling for even basic needs due to the loss of livelihoods of their parents. Due to the pandemic, the inequities between ‘haves and have-nots’ in recent times have only got starker.

To maintain continuity in overall learning, the government has already shared its guidance on engaging children across the country through a multi-mode (digital/ broadcast/ textbooks), and blended (home/ community/ schools) curriculum delivery during the outbreak. While educators across the country have been creating appropriate content for learning – targeting children at their homes/ communities, the government has also been attempting to provision broadcast channels such as Radio and TV that have a much larger reach than online/ internet-based engagement – especially for the marginalized children.

Even with all these attempts, the opportunities for children to participate in any meaningful physical activity or sport, remains hugely constrained. There is a dire need to ensure the equitable participation of children in physical education and sports programs.

With this backdrop, some recent studies conducted by different sports education organizations, including Sportz Village Foundation, have thrown some useful insights into the possibility of engaging marginalized children (at scale) in physical activity during the outbreak.

One of the studies conducted over a 12-week period, with over 2,000 children from disadvantaged communities in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka wherein children with digital access (mainly through their parents’ phones) were enrolled. A simple web-based interface was used to offer access to pre-recorded video-based content on basic sports skills and fitness to these children. The children won activity points whenever they completed the prescribed activities. Results were surprising, to say the least. On average, over 60% of children accessed the digital content on a weekly basis, and over 90% of these children involved their siblings and family members in the activities. The main reason for children (around 40%) who did not access the content, was due to non-availability of the device or phone to access the content.

Another study recruited over 500 children for 10 weeks across Bangalore and Chennai, who did not have any access to the internet. This study used workbooks that were distributed to these children before the program. The workbooks were gamified to build engagement – in that children won points for completing activities prescribed in the workbook and were competing in teams with each other – to engage them in physical activity. The results showed 100% engagement of children in the prescribed activities on a weekly basis.

The survey conducted with a representative set of parents at the end of both these studies showed that the parents were happy with and highly supportive of these programs and that they had observed a positive change in the emotional and behavioral aspects of their children.

The most interesting insights drawn from some of these studies were:

(i) It is possible to engage children in a structured physical education program at their homes without the limitation of availability of online access.

(ii) Engagement levels of children can be enhanced dramatically by simulating ‘play’ through gamification of tools such as online interface or workbooks.

(iii) These online/ offline tools could be deployed at scale, at dramatically lower costs compared to physical programs.

We hope that some of these insights will be used by educators and administrators to offer baseline access to sport to children both during and after the pandemic. In a country where approximately 600 million individuals are under the age of 21 and close to 150 million children are in the public school system, ensuring access to capacity building tools such as sports education is highly critical.

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