Heather Petri, a member of the 2012 gold-medal winning U.S. women's water polo team and and a four-time Olympic medalist, joined a group of Olympians visiting Rwanda and Uganda with Right to Play. While visiting Right to Play's programs in Africa, Petri hopes to inspire the troubled country's children and teach them the virtues of play. She will blog about her experiences for Fourth-Place Medal. See her first entry here, and read on for how simple games touched both Heather and the children she worked with.
We traveled together in a small bus for the first Right To Play field visit in the capitol city of Kigali. We left the main streets of Rwanda and began winding our way through a densely packed neighborhood, perched on the hillside of the valley we were descending in to. As we bumped along the unpaved road, windows open to let in a warm breeze, my eyes scanned our surroundings taking in as much as I could of the lifestyle of the community as I tried to figure out where we were headed.
Our destination was close and I HEARD it before I saw the play space. Laughter. Clapping. A melodic and rhythmic call of joy, where the only word I understood, sung over and over again, was "welcome".
As we turned the corner we were greeted by the "welcoming committee." A group of children, singing and dancing in unison, lining the road above a large, open grass field where over one hundred children were already breaking into groups to begin the day's play activities. Already my heart felt tight and tears welled in my eyes. It was such a beautifully simple gesture of friendship translating clearly the joy and hope they had at the prospect of today's opportunity to play with us.
A boy no older than 10 broke from the line and greeted me at the door of the bus. He grabbed my hand and said to me: "Will you come play with us?" OF COURSE! My ear to ear smile had not been answer enough!
The boy led me down to a play circle that consisted of children between the ages of 5-to-10 being led by one of the local coaches. Right To Play seeks to create a sustainable community impact with its programs, by partnering with other local organizations. This play space utilizes the CARELIFE Association which works with street children and orphans, giving them a safe place to play and engaging local staff and volunteers as coaches and leaders.
Our leader led us in a series of fun warm up routines that seemed to me to be an extension of this country's love for singing, dancing and feeling the natural beat of life. All of those fun activities were just preparing our bodies and acquainting us a bit better before the main learning game, which for my group of little ones, was based on the idea of teamwork.
For the main event we broke into three groups, forming straight lines, side by side. We were going to pass a soccer ball, first person through their legs, the next taking the ball up and over their head to pass to the next who would go down through their legs. The over/under pattern continued until the ball reached the end of the line, where the final person ran to the front of the line and the process started all over again. Only after every person had brought the ball back to the front of the line was a winning team declared.
Upon completing the first round the coach asked us all for feedback on what went well and what was possibly distracting, leading to the success or failure of the separate teams. This type of discussion afterwards is indicative and signature to Right To Play's methodology of "Reflect - Connect - Apply." I loved seeing so many hands pop up to share their opinion. It was incredible to see the children so engaged and eager to participate. Then we got an opportunity to try again, to apply what we had learned from the feedback. This time, the groups moved much faster at the task and the competition between groups was much closer. Again, we got a chance to discuss the results and learn from what we had done.
From a simple ball passing game the children learned the concepts of being in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, communicating positive and encouraging instructions and listening. As well as the analytical skills of connecting the physical actions they were doing to their reflections of the game and applying them to their lives and future activities.
Same principles at play
It made me smile to think that just a year ago as our water polo team prepared for the Olympics in London, our sports psychologist would run us through VERY similar activities. We were reminding ourselves to be cognizant of the very same principles these children were learning through the Right To Play programs thousands of miles away from where my teammates learned the exact same lessons. Proving that these skills can be helpful at any level in sports and applied to any aspect of life to be successful.
In just an hour of play I was blown away by how powerful the Right To Play session was for me to see. I felt refreshed, invigorated, and happy to have experienced what I had only heard or read about. And as our little group broke up, and we walked across the field to join the group at large, my first thought was, "Was it having this sort of impact on the children?"
That was when a small hand gingerly grasped my right hand. I looked down and one of the boys from my play group was walking beside me. He smiled up at me. I squeezed his hand in return. We were almost to the big group when his other hand traced the tattoo on the inside of my right forearm, near my elbow. "Why do you have a roman numeral here?" he asked. (I was impressed that he even saw it, let alone his word choice!) I explained the number 13 represented my team, the girls I played water polo with. He responded with, "Yes, I understand. You can not do it without them." That is exactly right.
And I knew that the messages we learned together that day were sinking in. And soon, as the trip progressed I would have many more examples of how the power of play reaches these children in need.
To learn more about Right To Play, visit their web site at www.righttoplayusa.org