We’ve all done it: sat at a desk, crumpled up a sheet of paper, taken aim at the nearest trashcan and imagined the crowd waiting breathlessly as we go for the goal. Balls of all types are intuitively appealing to us, because “they’re kinetically fascinating, with their unique capacity to roll, bounce, spin [and] ricochet,” says anthropologist John Fox, whose 8-year-old son’s question about why we play with them inspired him to write The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.
The human impulse to play with a ball has been around since the first cavemen challenged each other to see who could throw the pig bladder farther, and it continues in every human culture throughout our modern world. We’ve made them out of all sorts of low-tech, found objects. In the absence of “real” balls, people have created them from plastic bags tied into tightly bundled spheres, woven reeds and even lumps of clay. After all, it wasn’t until the advent of rubber manufacturing that people were easily able to standardize ball creation for use in organized play.
“Play is essential to our physical and cognitive development,” says Fox. “It’s a crucial part of how young people learn about the physical and social worlds we inhabit and how to navigate them. It’s no surprise that balls are endlessly engaging and stimulating and can keep a group of kids or even a lone kid happily occupied for hours.” In essence, sure, it keeps idle hands busy and away from temptations that could cause sociological harm. But even in areas where crime isn’t present on every corner, football and other organized sports give structure and a sense of pride to all involved.
And that’s just the beginning. In high-crime communities like Del Paso Heights and countless others, games like football can help unite rival gangs, inspire community togetherness, and give at-risk kids something to work for and towards. It helps the most disadvantaged kids learn key life and social skills through the global language of sport. In many such regions, football does more than just impact community. It provides the required discipline of answering to respected authority figures—coaches and assistant coaches—who help keep tabs on the academic life and general well-being of the players.
And, lest we forget: football is a game. It is play, even though it becomes invested with so much more when the players are nearly adults and the stakes become very high. Children—even teens—are benefited by the simple act of play. It has been proven to help in recovery from trauma, in coping with extraordinary challenges, and in developing physiological and even spiritual health. Simply put, play helps the most vulnerable people in our communities—our youth, especially at-risk youth—maximize human potential. It’s a simple, invaluable contribution to the lives of our young folk that enables them to thrive, and nurtures the indomitable human spirit.