Fostering inclusion and belonging for multicultural communities through informal sport

By Professor Ruth Jeanes – School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education, Monash University

Participation statistics continue to reinforce the popularity of participation in sport that occurs outside of traditional club-based opportunities. While club-based sport remains an important part of the fabric of sport and wider society, our research illustrates the value of embracing informal forms of sport participation as an integral and significant facet of sport in Australian society. Over the previous three years we have been undertaking research across Victoria and Western Australia examining informal sport participation, what benefits it provides participants and communities and identifying the challenges informal groups face in participating in activities in their communities.

Within Victoria, around 75% of participants we observed participating in informal sport were from multicultural communities. Informal sport opportunities negate many of the barriers multicultural communities have often faced accessing traditional club-based opportunities. Generally, participation is low cost, there’s registration fees, requires specialist equipment or uniforms. Participation is flexible and those involved are often highly committed, playing 2-3 times a week, but can pick and choose how often they participate without any consequence for their ongoing involvement with the group.

Informal sport participants further explained they felt welcomed and included within informal groups. Most groups were culturally specific and provided spaces for participants to come together and connect with people in their communities with similar experiences to themselves. Participants frequently discussed informal groups as a providing a ‘safe space’ where they felt they belonged. Participant experiences in informal settings were frequently contrasted to involvement in club-based sport, where they had experienced racism and feelings of exclusion. Informal sport provided a valuable platform for enhancing social connection and contributing to positive mental health for participants. A survey conducted with participants indicated that informal sport participants had similar levels of social connection compared to participants in club-based sport. Particularly for participants who had experienced forced-migration, informal sport groups provided a valuable resource for them in their resettlement journey. Informal groups provided a setting that fostered belonging and was responsive to their culture and beliefs. The feelings of safety experienced within informal settings was a critical aspect of how informal sport created other benefits for the participants.

Whilst the majority of participants we observed in our study were men, we did connect with a number of women’s groups. Women similarly were committed informal sport participants and found the flexibility and inclusive nature of informal sport highly appealing. They tended however, not to participate in public open spaces, reluctant to ‘claim’ space to play in the ways in which men’s groups were prepared to do. Instead, women’s informal sport groups were often reliant on a community organisation or a key facilitator who booked facilities for them to use.

Whilst informal sport is popular amongst multicultural communities, the research has persistently identified that participants’ continue to experience (albeit different) barriers to participation. The most common barrier was gaining access to facilities and spaces to participate. Due to complex booking systems, requirements for public liability insurance and priority given to club-based sports, most groups struggled to regularly access space to play. Many groups that turned up and used spaces without bookings found that they were moved on making it challenging to play regularly.

Informal sport challenges us to think about different models and systems to support a breadth of sporting participation, particularly if we are seeking to meaningfully support multicultural communities to participate in sport. It does not require the administration, funding and resources needed within club-based sport, but is heavily reliant on groups having access to spaces to play and bottom up development of opportunities by individuals within communities. Beyond spaces and facilities, informal participation requires limited resourcing and participation is often (self-)sustained over many years. It is potentially a low investment for a substantial return with our research evidencing the important economic and social benefits that participants gain from involvement in informal groups.

Professor Ruth Jeanes – School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education, Monash University

The Informal Sport as a Health and Social Resource for Diverse Young People is funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Scheme 2019-2022 in partnership with VicHealth, the Department for Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, WA, Centre for Multicultural Youth and Cricket Victoria and is a collaboration between researchers Associate Professor Justen O’Connor, Professor Dawn Penney and Professor Ramon Spaaij at Monash University, Edith Cowan University and Victoria University.