Your Health

Play for all

Increasing access to active recreation

Galata Fira
Galata Fira is now trying out for the Manitoba provincial football team.
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Health for all

Benefits of play

Access in Winnipeg

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2015

Galata Fira looks like many other 16-year-olds in Winnipeg as he walks to football practice with his bag slung over his shoulder.

But upon hearing his story recently, I realize that this young man is not like most teenagers.

Born in Kenya, he arrived in Ontario in 2008 at the age of six and moved to Winnipeg when he was eight. Living with his family in downtown Winnipeg, he attended Victoria Albert School.

Like many youngsters, Fira faced many challenges as he integrated into Canadian society. But his transition was made a bit easier thanks to the efforts of the many people and organizations he came into contact with over the years.

Take, for example, the Spence Neighbourhood Association. It was there in 2008 that Fira met Chino Argueta, who was working as a volunteer summer coach at the time. Argueta, who is now Director of Youth Agencies Alliance, helped Fira become involved in various sports and recreational opportunities by introducing him to a variety of community agencies and subsidy programs, including Canadian Tire JumpStart and KidSport Manitoba.

These programs provide subsidies to help break down the financial barriers that sometimes prevent kids like Fira from participating in recreational activities. Support from these two programs in particular enabled Fira to play basketball and soccer.

One day, his Grade 4 teacher at Victoria Albert, Yvonne Hansen, suggested he consider playing football. Imagine his surprise when he showed up for practice only to find out that he needed shoulder pads and a helmet to play. It didn't take him long to figure out that football in Canada is not the same as football in Kenya, which North Americans call soccer. Fortunately, Fira was able to obtain the necessary equipment to play football, thanks to the help of another support group. He is now trying out for the Manitoba provincial football team.

Fira spoke with passion as he told me about these and other opportunities he was able to take advantage of, and the difference it made in his life. Through these experiences, he has learned many skills that have helped him to thrive, not just on the field, but in everyday life. "The skills that I learn on the field, I take off the field," he says. "I've learned to communicate with friends and my mom, I've learned about teamwork and I've learned respect for others."

Fira says learning a new play on the field is like working on a group project at school. "We're only as strong as our team. If someone in our group doesn't get it, we help each other out."

As you might expect, Fira is only too happy to credit others for his success. Hansen, Argueta, his "football mom," Gayleen Dimond-Bauer, his current trainers, Dave Donaldson and Lamar McGriggs, have all been a part of his successful journey. These people got him to practices, helped him access equipment, coached and supported him. In other words, they got him to where he is today.

Fira knows the opportunities he experienced were important to his future. As he says, "It doesn't just benefit you now, it helps you down the road."

And yet for every kid like Fira, there are many who don't have the opportunity to join organized sports, have fun in safe playgrounds or participate in unorganized play at a local community club or park.

"We have yet to reach this ideal in Winnipeg," explains Hannah Moffatt, Population Health Equity Initiatives Leader with the Winnipeg Health Region.

As she explains, communities in Winnipeg have different levels of social advantage and income levels, with as many as three in 10 kids living in poverty.

The result is that many kids face barriers to playing a sport like organized football, or recreational activities of any kind. That is not good for the child, and it is not good for society as a whole. In addition to missing out on important developmental activities, says Moffatt, families that experience social and economic disadvantage are at higher risk for poor health.

Moffatt and others, including Dr. Lawrence Elliott, Medical Director of Population and Public Health with the Winnipeg Health Region, say these factors underscore the importance of breaking down barriers to play for children.

"Access to recreational opportunities plays a crucial role in early childhood development and ultimately leads to better quality of life," says Elliott. "By increasing confidence, success at school, skills interacting with others and by reducing negative behaviours, physical activity helps children participate more fully in their school and community, and eventually, the workforce."

The good news is that efforts are underway to give more kids like Fira greater access to recreational activities.

In 2012, a number of government and non-government groups - including The General Council of Winnipeg Community Centres, Sport Manitoba, Winnipeg Sport Alliance, Manitoba Physical Education Supervisors Association, City of Winnipeg Community Services and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority - joined together to create the Winnipeg Community Sport Policy. A guiding principle of the policy is that recreation, physical activity and sport opportunities "will be accessible, welcoming and socially inclusive for all citizens of all ages, all abilities and all socio-economic backgrounds."

More recently, the group developed Everyone Can Play: A Guide to Winnipeg Recreation and Sport Subsidies, which lists various recreational subsidy programs for kids and how to access them.

These efforts will not eliminate all the barriers kids face. But they do represent a good start. By working together, the Winnipeg Community Sport Policy partners and community organizations like Spence Neighbourhood Association are helping to ensure children like Fira will have better access to a full range of opportunities for physical activity. Not only will that help kids reach their full potential, it will also create healthier, safer and more equitable communities.   

Sarah Prowse is manager of Physical Activity Promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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