Ball game shows kids how HIV attacks

Immune system tries to fight with no hands

The Grassroot Project program was adapted from curriculum implemented across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where it was more commonly known as Grassroot Soccer.

In its first manifestation in the United States, the Washington, DC-based program uses ball games to teach children how the HIV/AIDS epidemic spreads.

The intervention is based around sports, and it's taught by college athlete volunteers, says Tyler Spencer, founder and director of Grassroot Project.

"These are interactive, participatory games," Spencer says. "The students learn different key messages about HIV, and one of the games is HIV Attack."

Here's how HIV Attack works:

  • One student stands still in the middle of a circle of children. This person represents a healthy human body.

  • Another student stands with the student in the middle, and this student's role is to pretend to be the human body's immune system and protect the other student against viral attack.

  • The students are told to think of viruses and diseases they sometimes get, including the flu and measles. Then they're told that the students with a soccer ball will represent one of these viruses. So students standing around the circle throw a soccer ball at the static student in the middle, and the defender student blocks the throws, just as the human body's immune system might defend against influenza or measles viruses.

    "This gives the students the message that the immune system can do a good job of protecting the body," Spencer says.

  • Coaches then say the next virus will be HIV. In this example, the student who is the body's defender has his or her hands held behind the back by another student. The student might be able to block one or two balls, but typically cannot block all of them, and so the human body is hit a few times with the virus.

  • At each level of the game, we discuss what this means," Spencer says. "At this level, we talk about how the immune system cannot block all of the balls representing HIV."

  • Then, coaches show students how antiretroviral therapy (ART) works by having additional students hold the virus students' hands behind their backs, so they have to make attacks on the human body without their hands.

"The human body gets hit less because the ART prevents the virus from doing its job," Spencer says.

The game quickly moves from a simple demonstration and fun game to a complex game with complex messages, he says.

"You challenge kids to understand that this is what happens when you get HIV," he says. "We show them that this is why people with HIV have to take their drugs every day."

At the end of the participatory game session, coaches help students personalize the message by leading discussions about people they might know who have HIV and sharing their stories about these relationships.

The program has another game that demonstrates how people cannot tell who has the virus and who doesn't.

This game has students lined up in two lines facing each other. Each child is shoulder to shoulder and has their hands behind their backs. The coach puts a ball in the hands of one member of each team and asks the students to pass the ball from one to another without saying who has it. Meanwhile, they need to guess who has the ball on the other team. The ball represents HIV infection, so whoever holds the ball is HIV positive.

Students will guess incorrectly who has the ball, and the coach then explains that they also would not be able to guess who has HIV infection just by looking at them. The game leads to a discussion about HIV testing and myths involving the disease and transmission.

As the program's curriculum continues, students eventually talk about social issues affecting HIV transmission and the stigma of having HIV, Spencer says.