Curbing youth violence through the power of games

James Mandigo, shown here with a takraw ball, has boosted physical education in violence-ridden El Salvador.

James Mandigo, shown here with a takraw ball, has boosted physical education in violence-ridden El Salvador.

He’s not often there to see it. It carries on without him on schoolyards and soccer fields. But on an average school day somewhere in El Salvador, the work of James Mandigo is in action.

The co-director of Brock’s Centre for Healthy Development is a key party responsible for a program that has brought structured physical education to the impoverished central American nation. Before Mandigo worked with the country’s Ministry of Education and the University of Pedagogica, there were no graduates of post-secondary physical education programs there.

Mandigo helped develop a new undergraduate program that trains future teachers to use sport and games to teach kids life skills that will veer them away from the country’s extreme youth violence. When they graduate, the new teachers lead kids in games that teach them skills like co-operation, self-esteem, problem solving, and mutual respect.

It’s an invaluable lesson in a country that has one of the highest youth murder rates in the world.

“Kids are naturally competitive there,” said Mandigo, an associate professor of Physical Education and Kinesiology. “They have to compete for every little resource they have. We wanted to teach them how to work together as opposed to always fighting against each other. Through physical education, we teach them healthy life skills.”

‘The game becomes a metaphor’

The road to El Salvador began in 2005, the United Nations International Year of Sport and Physical Education. Mandigo travelled to the Caribbean with a University of Toronto colleague and a group of Brock students.

The students branched out at schools there, teaching children games that foster skills like co-operation, fair play and critical thinking. The trip culminated in a one-day national event called the Unity Games.

Mandigo then travelled to El Salvador, where he helped develop the undergraduate program with the Ministry of Education, University of Pedagogica, the Canadian Embassy and Scotiabank.

In 2007, the first year of the undergraduate program, there was a 50-student cohort. The second year, 75 students were accepted. There are 220 students in this year’s cohort.

Mandigo has a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to track those first 50 graduates, who are now working at schools in El Salvador. He hopes to find out if violence is actually lower in those schools, and if the teacher training has had a real impact on the communities.

The games and exercises in El Salvador are simple and inclusive. One game, for example, sees students holding the edges of a blanket and working together to keep a ball in the air. This teaches them co-operation and teamwork, traits they can use in every aspect of their lives, Mandigo said.

“The game becomes a metaphor to teach the skills kids need to make healthy choices,” he said.

Mandigo’s methods are now being used closer to home. Last year, 18 Brock students held the first Niagara Unity Games, engaging 110 local children. The event was held in partnership with the United Way, RAFT, YMCA and Brock’s Student Life and Community Experience. Mandigo is also consulting with the team writing new health and physical education curriculum in Ontario.

Mandigo’s ultimate goal is to make El Salvador’s schools a safe haven for its children. He’d like them to be safe enough that he can visit them with his own children.

Universities are in a position to help, he said.

“These programs have got to be locally driven and sustainable, and that’s where universities can play a huge role,” he said. “Universities are being used to create social change.”

Mandigo is the president of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association and the 2009 recipient of a Brock University Distinguished Teaching Award.

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One comment on “Curbing youth violence through the power of games”

  1. Silvia Velasquez says:

    This sounds really great. I’m a kin major California state University of Los Angeles in the U.S. I’m taking a history of kin class i’m doing a report of family history where I interviewed my father (who is from El Salvador) and write about his experience with p.e in his child hood. Doing some research I came across this article. Really great what you are doing and have done hope it continues!