Will Play for ChangeShare
Lessons learned from a visit to Ireland advocating for play
I’m just back from a really extraordinary week in Ireland as a part of Ashoka Ireland’s Change Nation (www.changenation.org). Ashoka brought together 50 social entrepreneurs from around the world and created a framework for us to learn about the Irish context, meet with local leaders, learn from one another, and ultimately to try and figure out if our respective solutions might be of use to Ireland during a period of tremendous change.
I had thought I knew a fair bit about Ireland before I left, but my week there was like an intensive cross-disciplinary course in history, politics, economics, psychology and literature all rolled up into one. For those of you less up on the details of Ireland, it’s a small country – only 4.6 million people live in the Republic of Ireland (the same size population as Boston), with another 1.8 million in Northern Ireland. Like the US, they had a major economic boom starting in the mid-nineties (which they more romantically/ironically titled the ‘Celtic Tiger’), and a subsequent bust in 2007 that makes ours look like a cake walk. It’s also a country with a long and complicated history of religious and political strife. There is significant change happening around the role of the church in Ireland which, in conjunction to the economic situation, contributes to an overall climate that is dominated by a sense of, well, change.
Change Nation afforded me the opportunity to meet with some of the highest level influencers in the country. I met their Prime Minister and the Ministers of Children and Education (yes, they have both). I met with the head of the national teachers union and the head of the national parents association. I visited schools – both a more traditional school (most of the public schools were formerly run by the Catholic church) and an Educate Together (non-denominational) school. Thanks to our partners at Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, representatives from the University of Ulster’s Sports Outreach program came down from Belfast to Dublin to meet with us.
And what I saw was the most inspiring demonstration of leadership that I have seen in a long time. There was a shared acknowledgment that the solutions were out there, and that things will only change through partnership and effectively marshaling collective will. It reminded me of what I see on the playground every day – the awareness kids possess that while we may not have the ideal conditions or the right equipment, if you’re willing to play with me, we’ve got a game.
Change Nation’s format was also quite exceptional – there was a lot of humor around the Irish being “great talkers” and so to ensure real action, there was a tremendous emphasis on making commitments. In exchange for commitments from the Minister of Children to support the project and the head of the teacher’s unions to work with us to figure out the best structure, Playworks has committed to exploring the possibility of sending staff over to do trainings and provide technical support for students in the teachers’ colleges who will experiment with employing our approach at break time. Adding a cross-border aspect, we will also explore working with the staff from Ulster to figure out what a Boston-Belfast exchange might look like, with us sending staff to train their undergraduate sports outreach students as volunteers in the schools, and them sending trainers to the US to work with our staff to understand their Sport for Life approach.
Finally, it bears noting that while I think my organization's approach (www.playworks.org) may have something great to offer kids and schools in Ireland, I also came away with a really profound sense that we have so much to learn from Ireland (and, of course, from the rest of the world). I could not help but notice that teachers in the Irish schools were treated with more respect – both in schools and out in the larger world – than their US counterparts. There is no issue of gun violence in Irish schools, where even the police don’t carry guns. And there was an open discussion going on that the boom had created an emphasis on the individual that had lead them down a wrong path, and that a return to an emphasis on teamwork was going to be essential to making the necessary changes. I am excited to be a part of whatever Change Nation builds and hope that it is just the first of many such gatherings around the world. And I am excited for the opportunity that I believe this represents for Playworks – a chance for our staff to be a part of something bigger, and to bring back lessons and understanding that help the US become the best place in the world for our children.