Imagine if the children of leaders from Iran, North Korea, the United States and Cuba could meet in a park far away from political posturing and just play outside, where they might invent a version of "tag" or a relay race involving water, balls, racing back and forth and cheering each other on. If their parents watched the kids' interaction that naturally emerged through play, could this in some small way contribute toward peace? Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and more recently, The Nature Principle, thinks so. As the leading advocate of getting kids outside and unplugged, he's been approached by world leaders with ideas like this. It's so simple that it could work -- and there's plenty of research to back this up.
As The Nature Principle explains, tending a garden or playing in the backyard or neighborhood park has the power to spur friendships and creative genius, calm anxieties and repair divisions between people.
With the Olympics taking place this summer, the world has an opportunity to unite around play and realize some of these powerful benefits. As fans we can shift from couch-surfing to active engagement -- where building peace starts in each of our homes and hearts. Start with any of these simple suggestions -- and see where they take you.
1. Throw your own backyard (or playground) Olympics. No need for personal coaches or fancy equipment -- everyone can get creative and active by inventing their own games. Richard Louv told me about CLIF Kid's Backyard Game of the Year, a nationwide contest that reconnects kids with nature and creative, outdoor play. This past spring, kids from across the country submitted their original backyard game ideas for a chance to win a $10,000 scholarship and a trip to San Francisco to participate in the CLIF Kid Backyard Game of the Year Playoffs (see the awesome winner here). As we talked, he wondered "what if schools across the country hosted their own backyard game contests?" Indeed, why not start this at home in honor of the London Olympics, then share it at school?
2. Learn playground games from other countries or try a new sport. Connect with what kids around the world play by learning some of their favorite games, like Crow Sits on Eggs from Thailand or Catch the Tail from Nigeria. Directions can be found here. Learn about one of many off-the-radar Olympic sports like badminton, trampoline and Greco-Roman wrestling.
3. Host an unforgettable block party or birthday party. Play made-up or global playground games, then cap off an unforgettable outdoor party with a projection of the Olympic Games onto the side of a building or house, with a menu (preferably potluck!) that revolves around London and the Olympics (Some food ideas: Olympic onion rings, Jamaican jerk chicken to cheer on Usain Bolt, gazpacho for the Spanish soccer team or my favorites: national flags made out of representative foods from those countries; examples found here). One of the best and easiest birthday parties I ever organized had an Olympic theme, where the kids played simple backyard games, ran around the house with their home-made flag creations for our "opening ceremony" and ate cake decorated with the five Olympic rings.
4. Stretch your knowledge to new frontiers. Of course you'll cheer on your home team, but why not expand your enthusiasm by following a team connected to your ancestry or underdog athletes like the Vietnamese women boxers or Iraqi track stars featured here? You might go for a run in nature like the top Kenyans and Ethiopians do. Learn about the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (which falls during the Olympics this year), where Muslim faithful, including 3,500 Muslims competing in the Games, will abstain from all food and drink (including water) from sunrise to sunset. Make the flags and foods of your new favorite athletes. Learn a greeting in their language to cheer them on. You'll feel like you've made "friends" well before the closing ceremony.
5. Give back and help out. Get involved in promoting play and sports in your local community or across the globe through a wide range of great organizations like Right to Play, Nothing But Nets, Ball for All and GlobalGiving (use search term "sport" to come up with dozens of worthy projects), as well as networks like Family Nature Clubs, all of which contribute meaning and lasting impact through service and engagement. To gain a deeper grounding in the values and vision around the Games, see the excellent Teaching Values: An Olympic Education Toolkit.
These five steps might stretch us just a bit to engage with the 2012 Olympics and with our wider world, wherever we are, and can last well beyond the close of the Games. We can celebrate the possibilities not just for elite athletes, but for each of us to build a more friendly, encouraging, inspired, hopeful and yes, fun world. If peace is built one heart at a time, everyone qualifies for this.
Learn more at www.growingupglobal.net.