Project KHEL finds new uses for slices of neighborhoods, parks, and fields and uses sports to introduce life skills to underserved kids.

On a pleasant spring evening in March, a group of about 20 children from the Husadiya slum in Lucknow, a north Indian city, have congregated in a vacant plot opposite a flyover. Everybody opens their arms, thrusts out their chest, and imitates a crow in flight.

The kids, ages 7 to 14, do this every Wednesday and Saturday. It’s part of their session with Project KHEL (Kids Holistic Education and Lifeskills), an NGO that leverages the power of sports to captivate and empower India’s marginalized youth. Rohit Srivass, their facilitator, whom the kids call bhaiyya (or “elder brother”), begins each session with a song to help kids loosen up.

This one, “Have you seen a crow who drinks tea?” leads into a jingle about personal hygiene and toilet etiquette, which teaches kids to clean themselves and flush the lavatory before leaving. Most of these kids are accustomed to defecating on the nearby railway tracks, and the song reminds them of habits they’ll need to practice if they enroll in school, where some of them would see a toilet for the first time. “This activity addresses self-awareness, an important life-skill, and helps the kids learn to respect their bodies,” says Angana Prasad, the executive director of Project KHEL.

As a consequence of urbanization, Indian cities have battled shrinking play spaces for years. More than 90 percent of India’s youth never use a playground, and less than 1 percent of the country’s population under 35 has any access to organized sports. The worst affected are, of course, children who drop out of school either due to poverty or in order to contribute to the family income. Meanwhile, many kids looking for open spaces are driven to play in risk-prone areas such as roadsides, construction sites, and even railway tracks.

Project KHEL makes use of spaces within slums, parks, agricultural fields, empty plots, and playgrounds in government schools to teach kids about life skills such as self-awareness, empathy, problem solving, and interpersonal relationships. Global organizations like UNICEF consider sports, play, and physical activity to be powerful and cost-effective ways to advance the Millennium Development Goals, and Project KHEL carries on that work. The organization engages high-risk children and adolescents from shelter homes, orphanages, government-run schools, and other disadvantaged backgrounds to keep them in classes, spread awareness about gender equity and substance abuse issues, and veer them away from conflict. “The spaces we provide are safe physically, emotionally, and intellectually,” says Akshai Abraham, who founded Project KHEL in 2012.