Leveling the playing field

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Ayano Ibrahim, 15, loves to play basketball. “I want to make it to the NBA,” says the Edmonton teen. 

Hockey is Alycia Rodriguez’s jam.  “It’s really fun to play on the ice,” says the 10-year-old athlete. 

Katrina Stauffer, 10, hearts soccer and hockey. “I like how you get to meet new people,” she says. 

All three can play their favourite sports for free, thanks to an innovative local program. Free Play For Kids has welcomed more than 15,000 children and teens over the last 15 years—including Alphonso Davies, who now plays fullback for Bayern München.

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“We’re making play inclusive and safe,” says Tim Adams, Free Play’s founder and executive director.

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A bald man with a beard holds a soccer ball in his right hand as he stands on an indoor soccer field.
Tim Adams, founder and executive director of Free Play.

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Free sports

Sports can be pricey—the cost of jerseys, equipment, registration fees, and gas adds up pretty fast. Free Play is geared at helping children whose parents can’t afford to pay for sports. Many of these families are newcomers, refugees or Indigenous.

Issa Abdi, 14, immigrated from Ethiopia to Edmonton in 2018. He didn’t speak much English when he joined Free Play, but the program has helped boost his confidence. “I was a shy person,” he says. “I didn’t like to talk. Now, I take control.” 

About 2,000 students at 24 elementary schools are signed up for Free Play’s daily after-school sessions during the 2022-23 school year. Another 900 junior high and school students are taking part in weekly sessions. There’s also a program for young Afghan refugees. 

“After I come to Canada, I kind of have a feeling of [being] homesick,” says Nargis Attaiee, who arrived in Edmonton with her family in January 2022. “I come [to Free Play], I’m away from all this desperate feeling. I can come here and play.

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A group of children with masks and balls pose in front of three men on an indoor soccer field.
Some of Free Play’s athletes pose with City of Edmonton councillor Aaron Paquette, back left, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, centre, and Tim Adams, right.

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“Something really special” 

Free Play started out as Free Footie, a no-cost soccer league, in 2007. Adams kicked off the program after volunteering as a coach at one of Edmonton’s higher-need schools. “We started with four teams and 80 kids,” he says. 

In 2018, Adams left his job as a CBC journalist to work full-time at Free Footie. Two years later, it became Free Play, adding basketball, hockey and flag football to its roster of sports. More than 100 coaches now take part. 

Free Play’s growth wouldn’t be possible without its growing community of local donors, including Oodle Noodle and the City of Edmonton, and corporate sponsors such as Canadian Tire. Their funding covers everything from jerseys to coaches to rental facilities to school buses to snacks to sporting equipment. The Edmonton Oilers offer free hockey camps (and equipment) for Free Play athletes. Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse also provides a post-secondary scholarship for Free Play students.

Adams is grateful for the support, but not surprised by it. 

“Edmonton has a perpetual image of itself as being an underdog,” he says. “So when we see people and programs who are in the same position of being undervalued, they rally behind them. Together, we’ve made something really special that’s ready to be exported to other cities.”

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A young hockey player skates on the ice with a hockey stick in her hands.
One of Free Play’s athletes skates on the ice during a hockey camp organized by the Edmonton Oilers at the Downtown Community Arena in Rogers Place.

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An important legacy

Edmonton’s sports history is studded with championship-winning teams such as the Oilers, Elks, Stingers, and Grads. Free Play’s contributions are just as important. While it levels the playing field for aspiring athletes and offers physical and social benefits, the program also offers so much more.

Elementary students get snacks and take a weekly food class to learn the importance of good nutrition. “They teach you about your health, your wellbeing, that you need to have good grades,” says Jaelyn Lega 12, who likes to play basketball. 

Free Play teaches leadership skills, too. Junior and high school athletes not only attend weekly practices and play bi-weekly league games, they can learn to become referees, and then, assistant coaches. Many also work as youth leaders during Free Play’s daily summer camps, helping to supervise children’s activities.

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Five boys with their backs to the camera sit on a bench and watch a basketball game on the court in front of them.
A team of Free Play basketball players watch the action on the court at the St. Francis Xavier Sports Centre.

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Learning to help others

Mohamed Haroun joined Free Play’s program for elementary students in 2018. Soccer is his favourite sport. “It helps me deal with stress,” he says. “It makes me happy, which is very important. It’s also good for your health.”

Now 16, Haroun is part of Free Play’s leadership program for junior and high school students.

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“It doesn’t teach you to just become a leader,” he says. “It teaches you how to improve yourself and how to help other people around you.”

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Adams hopes Free Play will eventually become a self-perpetuating program. “We’re building a leadership pipeline,” he says, “so that the program is run by the kids who came through it.”

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