05/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Play Is Changing Children's Lives

Johann Koss knows something about play. When I caught up with him, this four-time Olympic gold medalist in speed skating was packing for a trip to Africa.

Before we began talking about how he became a New Radical (that is, someone who has leveraged the skills acquired in his career and put them to work on the world's greatest challenges, for more, please see archived articles [URL]), he wanted me to know how important sport has been in his life. "My life lessons came from my Olympic training," he said. "The importance of teams -- even if you're competing as an individual. The importance of setting goals and finding ways to overcome obstacles. Plus, sport is the source of my emotional well-being -- being active helps keep me happy."

(At this point, an image of President Obama shooting hoops comes into my mind. Clearly, he's another example of someone who understands the power of play.)

Immediately after the Olympics, Johann began to explore ways to do something meaningful with his life. Save the Children Norway sent him to Eritrea, which reinforced his desire to help children in need. When he first encountered children who had, as he put it, "no chance to play", he was stunned, and the seed for his New Radical role was created. "Children need play for their physical, psychological, and social development. I was meeting children who had no chance to play, none at all. But at the same time, their readiness to engage was enormous."

Johann is now CEO of Right to Play. It's an organization that does much more than reintroduce disadvantaged children to the joys of childhood. They focus on four key program areas: basic education, health promotion and disease prevention, conflict resolution and peace education, and community development.

Johann's team quickly discovered that these children needed to learn basic life skills -- such as how to protect themselves from the diseases that are rampant in developing countries, including malaria and HIV -- and that games were an ideal way to help.

The vaccination game is a perfect example. "A group of kids stand in a circle, holding hands. One child stands inside the circle and another tries to break through to tag him, which is pretty easy to do. Then we have them form two circles, one inside the other -- we talk about the one on the outside being the vaccination -- and they immediately discover it's much harder to get through. A second circle can improve your strength, you see. Your immune system."

Right to Play's life-saving role has many dimensions. In the refugee camps where the group often works, life is very different from what it might have been in villages or rural areas. "There is no normal," is how Johann puts it. When his organization sets up a center with games for young children and organized sport for the older kids, a powerful shift happens. Young people respond to both the attention and the routine, and they begin to feel that they matter -- that they belong. It's important for all of them, but particularly valuable for high-risk teenage boys. When soldiers come calling, they can resist. "They don't want to become child soldiers. They want to stay with us."

Johann doesn't tell me this, but I know that he donated the prize money from his 1500 meter victory to this work, and he challenged other athletes around the world to do the same. And hundreds of Olympic and professional athletes from 40 countries have responded. They go into the field as ambassadors, to raise awareness and funds. In doing so, they discover what Johann did: that it's an ideal fit. "They're highly motivated people. They've been positively impacted by sport. Many of them are parents now. They know the difference play can make in a child's life."

When I was at the Skoll World Forum last month, I learned about other organizations that are helping children through sport. And two of them -- Boxgirls International and Moving the Goalposts -- have been selected as a finalists in the Ashoka/Nike Gamechangers competition. You can vote for them here. Simply click on register, enter your name, email, and country. You'll get a "token" sent to your email. Click on the link in the token and you'll be returned to the voting page. We all need to vote for three projects, so choose one you like the sound of in addition to Boxgirls and Moving the Goalposts! Then, submit, and you're done!

Please share your experience of play and how it can help save the world by commenting below, or by emailing me at

Julia Moulden writes speeches for visionary leaders, and helps individuals and organizations become New Radicals.