Instilling greatness on and off the court

June 16, 2017Duncan McCullough

Basketball is an increasingly international sport, and educators around the world are finding it an especially productive tool to reach and teach children. More than 1.5 billion people outside the United States watched the NBA last year, and international stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, and Luol Deng are inspiring children around the world to pursue new heights on and off the court.

To be sure, most of these children will not achieve NBA stardom. But the skills, discipline, and experiences they hone through basketball can still help them become winners. Football (or, soccer) remains the most commonly leveraged sport for youth-development in our database, but several programs in the CEI network are using basketball to help children develop into healthy, educated adults. The impact these sports-focused innovators are making may surprise you.

international education development basketball skills employment reaching marginalized girls KenyaTake for instance the Safe Spaces program in Kenya, which provides girls in three informal settlements opportunities to grow physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Safe Spaces offer a variety of empowerment programs aimed at disseminating knowledge, providing emotional support, building skills, and creating tangible opportunities for girls, but basketball provides the foundation. 

Peninah Nthenya Musyimi, the founder and director of Safe Spaces, won a full basketball scholarship to university after learning to play the game in the same Eastland informal settlements where the program now operates. Now, her organization uses basketball as an entry-point to reach at-risk girls, for example with an unstable home-life or experiencing violence, who are not receiving the support they need.

Basketball allows the Safe Spaces staff to build relationships with these girls, while improving critical traits like teamwork and focus. Then as trust is built, girls join additional programs providing reproductive health services, photojournalism classes, computer literacy courses, personal hygiene support, and more. A girl that started dribbling a basketball in March can be learning computer programming in April, and mentoring new girls herself by May!

In the Ugandan capitol of Kampala, playing fields and basketball courts are often in short supply. In response, the Kampala Kids League was founded in 1998 to complement the traditional school curriculum. The structured sports league creates opportunity for collaboration amongst children from a variety of backgrounds including Kampala’s schools, orphanages, and street children organizations.

international education development basketball skills employment reaching marginalized girls KenyaThe success of the Kampala Kids Leagues highlights the power of sports to create meaningful interactions among groups that normally do not mix. The league welcomes children from various backgrounds, from street children to those in private schools in a bid to foster friendships across traditional divides. Recruitment into the league is done through registration, while slots are also allocated to children from orphanages and those with disabilities. The children are organized into mixed teams, representing different social status, race and gender to encourage the children further to engage with those from different backgrounds.

In Colombia, Tiempo de Juego was born from simple pick-up soccer games in Altos de Cazucá, a community on the outskirts of Bogotá populated primarily by desplazados, "the displaced." Displaced communities like Altos de Cazucá and Cartagena, where Tiempo de Juego operates, are among the most low-income, marginalized, and violent in Colombia. To combat youth’s continued marginalization in these communities, the program provides meaningful recreational activities grounded in the methodology of “Fútbol para la Paz” (Football for Peace), a psychosocial technique for building cooperation, critical thinking, confidence, and other skills necessary to counter negative societal influences.

No one is turned away and the activities are free for everyone. What began as one Escuela de Fútbol in 2006 has now evolved into several after-school and weekend programs, including breakdancing, journalism, art, and basketball. Football is definitely still the most popular, but basketball is on the rise, and recently built courts are helping more children discover the new game.

international education development basketball skills employment reaching marginalized girls Kenya

Just last month, the NBA, in partnership with the Senegal-based nonprofit SEED Project, launched an elite basketball training center in Thies, Senegal.

Amadou Gall Fall, NBA Vice President and Managing Director for Africa, explained to VOA News that the center comes from a desire to “make sure that young players who have a talent and passion for basketball now will have a path to achieve their goal."

Prospects at the Thies center are shooting high with their goals of NBA success, but the examples of Safe Spaces Nairobi, Kampala Kids Leagues, and Tiempo de Juego show that a young athlete need not reach the heights of NBA superstardom in order for basketball to make a meaningful difference in their life.


Duncan McCullough is a Senior Communications Associate at the Center for Education Innovations, proud Masters graduate of George Mason University, and former White House Staffer.

Photo Credits: Tiempo de Juego ; Safe Spaces ; Kampala Kids League ; UN Photo, Marco Dormino.

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