Program Profile: America SCORES Chicago 21st CCLC Fosters Learning through Activity

America SCORES Chicago 21st CCLC program embodies its name by incorporating soccer and other types of physical activity into all aspects of programming. Literacy in Action, the community-based organization’s flagship program, combines soccer, poetry, and service-learning. For the soccer component, students attend practice twice a week and then engage in healthy competition with other schools at Friday game days. Opportunities for physical activity are not limited to soccer, however. Students explore movement by performing in poetry slams, games, and even brief exercise breaks during enrichment activities. Through these activities SCORES aims to create poet-athletes who are inspired to lead healthy lives and develop the skills they need to succeed in school and life. 

Developing students’ social, physical, emotional, and academic skill requires that they are in positive, supportive environments. Amy Mummery, who serves as America SCORES executive director and project director for some of the organization’s 21st CCLC grants, confirms that “Everything starts with the caring adult relationships across any program, [in] anything that we do.” As students develop trusting relationships with adults and classmates, they feel comfortable taking risks, learning from mistakes, and working with a team. Mummery and Jessica Lopez, who is also a project director, note that their teams structure soccer and other activities to foster teamwork, goal setting, and leadership. “Soccer and sports incorporate [physical] activity, but they [also] give kids a chance to practice working together toward a common goal. They get to make decisions. They need to stick things out even when they’re hard,” says Mummery.

Two girls stretching before a soccer game  

Two students stretch before a soccer game

These activities also foster resilience and self-regulation as students learn to manage their emotions when facing challenges or making mistakes. “So often, a young person will act out, and coaches or instructors or teachers will separate them from the group or make them stop playing,” says Mummery. “But what we know about the brain and self-regulation is that we actually need to create more opportunities in those moments for kids to keep moving and engage in patterned, repetitive, rhythmic activities. It helps them self-regulate and that can get their body and their brain reconnected to where they’re able to learn and engage. . . . They’re able to connect; they’re able to reason. We’re able to create an optimal environment for learning and skill building.” 

The America SCORES team is very intentional in planning physical activities. Sports provide students with ample opportunities to develop skills and master new challenges, but these situations can also be overwhelming for students if staff do not manage the situation. “We make sure that whatever [sports] challenge the young person is engaging with is controlled, moderate, and predictable,” says Mummery. Staff are also careful to communicate changes in the activity, for example, a different staff person leading the activity, a schedule change, or changes to the activity itself. Mummery and Lopez say that activities include enough predictability and structure for students to feel secure and supported but not bored.  

A student performs at a poetry slam  

A student performs at a poetry slam

The program also intentionally provides students with choices. Students have choices in the activities they join, and staff also offer options to modify some activities so that students of all abilities can participate. “Creating choice and options is super important,” says Mummery. “It’s like when you’re doing one of those high-intensity workouts for the first time, and the instructor tells you how to modify the activity. As sports-based youth development professionals, we have to think of how we are helping young people modify [activities] so they’re still able to engage where they feel in control but are also getting the benefit of the activity,” she says. At an age and a time when students may feel they don’t have much control in their lives, the America SCORES teams create these opportunities. The choices offered are often simple situations like choosing a warm up or leading an activity, but they can help students develop a sense of agency. In addition to structure and predictability, the America SCORES team also ensures that students have variety and challenge in their activities. These include opportunities to be recognized for mastering new skills or moving to a new ability level. These challenges help students stay engaged and motivated as they set and achieve goals and become more confident in their abilities. Finally, Mummery encourages 21st CCLC programs to use music to make physical activities more fun. 

When 21st CCLC programming went virtual in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the America SCORES team found that Literacy in Action easily translated to an online program. Staff sent students soccer balls and cones so that they could practice at home. The team structured activities so that all students could participate regardless of their living situation, realizing that some students might not have the indoor space for activities and might not be able to exercise outside safely. While in-person soccer games were not an option, Fridays were still dedicated to games and competitions, this time virtually.

Virtual comments posted on a computer screen  

Student reflections after a virtual poetry workshop

Engagement and retention in virtual programming have remained high. The America SCORES team had wondered if “screen fatigue” after a full day of online school would lower students’ enthusiasm, but they found that students were enthusiastic about the chance to have fun moving, competing in games, and seeing their friends online. Still supporting the whole child, America SCORES has also offered morning activities for some programs, leading students in physical activity and a social and emotional learning exercise so that students feel prepared for a day of virtual learning during a stressful time. 

Mummery and Lopez say that students’ skills and confidence developed by participating in America SCORES 21st CCLC program can benefit them in school and other areas of life. Teacher and student surveys reflect this. “Students do a better job of getting along with others. They’re more engaged academically. They get better at setting goals. They get better at turning assignments in on time,” says Mummery. “All of these outcomes are connected back to skill building that happens through the program.”