Equal Play: Girls Leadership World Cup Project

Our Mission: Creating positive changes for girls on and off the field.

What is the project?

Over the past six years, (not including the pandemic) Equal Play has provided a free two-month Lunchtime World Cup Girls Leadership Soccer Program to students in Grades 3-7 at 25 elementary schools in East Vancouver per year. Over 6,000 girls have participated, playing soccer to fun, inspirational music. Most of the girls leave with a free soccer ball, so they can keep playing on their own afterwards.

The project is run with a GIRLS FIRST philosophy:


Team Building

What are our goals?

Soccer is a very active and physical sport that inspires players to exert themselves in a fun, socially engaging and healthy environment. Some girls, however, are too intimidated to play on their school fields. They don’t always enjoy competing with boys, who can be overly aggressive and dominate play. Equal Play gives girls the opportunity to play with their female peers in a positive and encouraging environment. The program is designed to:

  1. improve girls’ physical activity and fitness levels and their sense of well-being;
  2. increase girls’ physical literacy and set them up to make healthy lifestyle choices;
  3. empower girls, increasing their self-confidence through the playing of a physically engaging sport;
  4. provide girls with an opportunity to be part of a sports league — particularly girls who otherwise would be unable to play a sport outside of school, due to financial, cultural or other constraints;
  5. mentor girls, giving them an opportunity to gain leadership, teamwork and social inclusion skills, as well as the confidence to become sports leaders. While girls and women account for about 47% of registered soccer players in Canada, less than 1% of paid leadership positions are held by women.

Our hope is that girls who take part in the program will be able to apply the skills they’ve learned to other aspects of their lives.

Why is this project important to your community?

Equal Play’s innovative approach of inclusion and peer support is specifically designed to address low physical literacy and activity rates among girls, as well as the socio-psychological differences between genders when it comes to sports participation.

Girls are 40% less likely than boys to engage in sports, according to the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and CanPlay, and just 8% of girls meet the recommendations of the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. Many young girls don’t enjoy participating in co-ed sports on school fields because of real or perceived skill level differences, and behavioural differences, between boys and girls.

Equal Play also reaches a demographic particularly vulnerable to lack of physical activity and literacy skills: lower-income, disadvantaged, and/or immigrant families, who can face financial constraints or socio-cultural biases against girls playing sports. Children of families who have lived in Canada for less than 10 years are less likely to participate in sports (32%) than children of Canadian-born parents (55%), according to Statistics Canada. In Vancouver, specifically, more than two-thirds of newcomers migrated from countries where girls’ participation in sport may not be encouraged.

The project has the capacity to be scaled from local to regional to national levels, transforming the way sports and physical activities for girls are planned and delivered. Equal Play’s focus on the social and cooperative aspects of sport, along with team-building activities in a safe and respectful environment, makes participation in sport fun, engaging and accessible for girls.

EVALUATION: How has the success of the project been measured?

The positive impact the program has had on the community can be seen in the overwhelming support we’ve received from school leaders throughout Vancouver — and in the growing recognition that girls deserve and need more opportunities to play and to take on leadership opportunities in sport.

Patti Plottel, principal, Walter Moberly Elementary School, writes:

“On a typical day at Moberly, there are many children playing on our sports fields but when one takes a closer look, it is apparent that the large majority of these active students are male. It is a challenge for us as a community to support an active life style and opportunities for sport to the girls. We are very grateful for the support that Carrie has provided to our students and believe that by shining a light on the importance of participating in sport that these girls will be more confident and motivated to seek out other opportunities to be active.”

Outcome 1: Growth

We had over 700 girls participate during our first school year of operation and 1,100 during our second. By year six, we’ve had more than 6,000 participants.  The project also started in Toronto prior to the pandemic.

Liz Kloepper, principal, Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary School, writes:

“This program was very well received by the girls at our school — in fact, we had hoped to have 30-40 participants and we actually had 60 girls participate. I endorse this program because of the positive effect the project had on girls in our school. They gained skills, strength and above all confidence. We were very impressed with how eager the girls were to play and to learn — racing out to the field and helping to set up the equipment and quickly getting into their teams so the games could begin. It was great to see them engaged in the play and to become aware and inspired about women’s soccer.”

Outcome 2: Social inclusion

This is more difficult to measure than participation rates, but it’s just as important. Being part of a sport program or team is a very powerful thing. It gives boys and girls hope in a positive way. It gives them something to which they can look forward, a sense of belonging. We ask players to be mindful and positive, encouraging and including each other. We ask them to step up as leaders and to take on roles with equipment or the organization of teams. We ask them to treat each other with respect and to shake hands at the end of each session, wishing each other well and taking this spirit back into the school.

Principal Liz Kloepper writes:

“We were so pleased to see our shy, meek and sometimes passive girls have the courage to come out and enjoy learning new skills, make new friends and to gain a greater appreciation of the benefits of exercise. We also have hundreds of photos with girls actively playing and celebrating their participation in the program.”

Outcome 3: Future leaders

Our goal is not only to have students play soccer, but for them to continue to organize games after the program concludes. Almost every player received a free soccer ball for taking part in the program. We’ve heard from numerous schools that girls are now setting up games at lunch hour and recess on their own. Many of the principals have carved out special times for the girls or created designated spaces for them to play. School leaders are now more aware that there is a desire and need for girls to have greater support.

Lani Morden, principal, Beaconsfield Elementary School, writes:

“Thank you for providing this free program to our school and for sharing your talented soccer coaching skills with our students. Please thank Jump Start and Telus on our behalf. The students loved receiving the soccer balls part way through the program so that they could practice their skills at home and in their community.”

What is the larger vision?

Many girls play soccer, but if you take a look at any elementary school playground you will see that male students still noticeably dominate the playing field. Equal Play shifts the mindset for girls and gives them the chance to take centre stage. Instead of sitting or walking on the sidelines, they are actively chasing balls and positively engaging with their peers. It changes how the girls see themselves and how the boys see them: they are athletes. It also changes the attitudes of school administrators, who start to see and respect the notion that girls will want to play a game such as soccer at lunchtime and recess if given the space and the chance.

The good news is this project can be expanded across Canada and elsewhere.

We emphasize that this is not just — or even primarily — a soccer program. This is an activity that will help girls develop more self-confidence, and a better sense of community with each other, to help them make positive choices about their bodies, careers, family and business lives in the future. We set them up with the tools they need to become leaders, in sport and beyond, starting as soon as the program ends when they organize their own activities without adult intervention.