Right to Play (RTP) recently announced the expansion of its PLAY (Promoting Life Skills for Aboriginal Youth) program in Ontario to 39 communities. RTP is a Canadian based non-governmental organization that has been working for over ten years in refugee camps and other ‘disadvantaged’ communites in mostly Africa, South America, and Asia. I find it interesting that it is now operating in Aboriginal communities in Canada.
For the PLAY program, RTP receives funding from the government of Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. It is also in the process of applying for funding through the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Team Up Foundation.
I can say a lot of positive things about the program. It seems to be based on a collaborative process. As noted on the RTP website:
The PLAY programme is a multi-faceted program that is tailored to the specific needs of each community, is designed in partnership with the community and aims to support children and youth to develop and strengthen essential life-skills. Prior to implementation, community members participate in a thorough needs assessment that guides the design of the program
It also seems to have community support. Relating to the expansion of the program, Grand Chief Denise Stonefish noted that:
Any type of youth programs and/or initiatives that promotes life-skills, builds both confidence and leadership skills, and motivates youth to continue with their education has my support
As positive as this program seems to be, I believe there are some important issues that can be discussed. Before continuing I should note that I haven’t conducted any kind of in-depth analysis of the PLAY program. I’m basing this discussion on a fairly superficial look at RTP’s website and the overview for the PLAY program. However, I feel that there are broader concerns that apply to the PLAY program and similar initiatives. The first concern I have has been outlined on the Hockey in Society blog by Courtney Szto’s discussion of the H.E.R.O.S. hockey program. Essentially, programs that target ‘disadvantaged’ youth tend to focus on individual behaviour change and often neglect the context in which individuals live. Individuals are described as having certain problems, programs are put in place to address these problems and ‘fix’ these individuals. This can be seen in RTP’s introduction for the PLAY program overview:
A lack of education means that approximately 70% of First Nations’ students between the ages of 15 and 24 living on-reserve will never complete high school, while unemployment rates are two-times that of the non-aboriginal population. Health challenges which include obesity, diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS mean that First Nations People face a shorter life span than other Canadians, while suicide is now one of the leading causes of death among Aboriginal Peoples between the ages of 10 and 24.
As you can see, there are certain problems that Aboriginal Peoples in Canada face. They own these problems. Problems that are theirs to suffer and theirs to solve – with some assistance of course. The problems are not grounded in historical, political, or cultural contexts, so there is no need to address these aspects. Individuals just need to work hard and learn certain life skills.
As a former physical education teacher I also have concerns about the PLAY program. Sport, play, and physical activity are seen as valuable and possibly contributing to positive youth development. The government of Ontario obviously agrees with this because it is partially funding the PLAY program. If this is the case, then it seems odd that only 43% of elementary schools in Ontario have physical education specialists. In Northern Ontario where RTP operated the first two PLAY programs, only 25% of elementary schools have physical education specialists. It also seems odd that 47% of elementary schools in Ontario need to fundraise for their own playgrounds and 41% of secondary schools need to charge fees for physical education classes1. If RTP is concerned with every child’s right to play then why are they not campaigning for improvements in Canadian schools? Why are they not criticizing government for the state of physical education in schools?
It could be argued that RTP is filling a gap left by government, providing a needed service. This is even noted in the program overview. RTP and the communities they work with initially conduct needs assessments to identify the gaps that need to be filled. There doesn’t seem to be an analysis of what causes the gaps.
If NGOs are willing to fill in the gaps then where does the motivation come from to challenge or question the structural causes of those gaps? What would prevent this ‘gap-filling’ from becoming the future of physical education in Canada? Private schools and schools in high income neighbourhoods will be able to fund their own programs. Communities that are labelled as at-risk, vulnerable, disadvantaged, poor, and deficient will be targeted for improvement through programs like PLAY. And, the government will essentially be off the hook. Everyone wins.