On Sunday the Green Bay Packers face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas in Super Bowl XLV. Probably unsurprisingly, I'm not a die-hard football fan. But every year, around mid-January, I start paying attention.
Inevitably, I have no idea which teams have made it to the playoffs, but I get sucked into watching because the season's final games are full of passion, heart, exceptional skill and unbelievable teamwork. So I tune in. And usually, I'm rewarded--I still lose my breath at the crazy, game winning set of plays by Eli Manning and the New York Giants in the last 59 seconds of Super Bowl XLII in 2008.
The players in the Super Bowl are at the pinnacle of American athletic achievement. Football is not without its controversy, but these guys are really good at what they do, no matter how you feel about the sport. And clearly, to get where they are when they hit the field on Sunday, they grew up with the opportunity to play--football specifically, games, generally.
I believe passionately that play is an extraordinarily important part of childhood. It may lead to Cowboys Stadium--or it may simply spark creativity and imagination, facilitate socialization and self-confidence and build community. And too many kids--in the United States and across the globe--don't have the access to the same opportunities for day-to-day play that Sunday's athletes had.
There are two terrific organizations that I've watched or supported over the last few years that provide just that, one with outposts and programs around the world, and one focused on New York City. Both are run by exceptional leaders who have channeled their own sense of play to create possibilities for it for others.
Last year Right to Play, a Toronto-based organization, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Run by Norwegian speed skater and Olympic gold medalist Johann Olav Koss, the organization's tag line is "When children play, the world wins." By engaging Athlete Ambassadors and on-the-ground volunteers, coaches and teachers, the organization uses play to teach life skills, peace and conflict resolution abilities, and teamwork--all grounded in the belief that sport and play can be a powerful humanitarian and development tool. Right to Play takes its mission very seriously and does it in more than 20 countries around the world.
Based in New York, Out2Play was founded five years ago by Andrea Wenner when she was a student at Columbia University's business school. Since then she's worked with public and private funders to create over 120 new playgrounds at public schools throughout the city--to the tune of $250,000 per playground. Andrea was named toCrain's 40 under 40 list last year. The video below showcases the organization's accomplishments in its first five years, as well as its unique collaborative approach to each playground's design, in which architects take input from the kids who will be using the space--creative play.
Play is frivolous. Be it in the big leagues at Cowboys Stadium, on a dusty lot in Lebanon or in a public school yard in Queens, there's no immediately obvious reason to play--or to support it. And yet, Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and author of the book Play, has identified the simplest and the most important reason of all: play invigorates the soul.
Photo: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images