Classroom & Curricula
Banana leaf ballThe Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World

Written by Katie Smith Milway and Illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Published by Kids Can Press in 2017

Grades 2 – 6

Book Review

Fleeing from violence that separates him from his family, Deo arrives at Lukole, a refugee camp in Tanzania, emaciated, scared, and alone. Seeking comfort in a familiar play item, Deo uses banana leaves and twine to make a ball, as he has done many times before. Remy, the local boy gang leader, steals his twine and consequently, Deo hides the next ball that he makes. The arrival of a stranger in the camp changes everything – the stranger is a coach and he cajoles the boys into a game. Readers of this fictional picture book, which is loosely based on the life story of  Banjamin Nzobonankira, will be fully immersed in the soccer game that transforms Deo’s relationship with his antagonist. Shane W. Evans’ collage illustrations heighten the emotional impact of the text and allow young readers to identify with this African setting. Back matter offers photos and information about the Barundi refugee who became a “Right to Play” coach, as well as a collection of websites for organizations that foster play initiatives globally. Part of the Citizen Kids series, this title will foster important conversations about the universal roles of play across global contexts.

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Grades 2 – 6

Enacting the Story: Drama for Comprehension. Offer your students the opportunity to express their understanding of The Banana-Leaf Ball through drama. Following a read aloud of the book, ask students to identify key moments in the story – moments that reveal setting, character, conflict and resolution. For example, students might choose the moment when Remy steals the banana-leaf ball, the moment the coach arrives at camp, or the assist and goal of Remy and Deo. After naming critical points in the story, create working groups of students who will reenact these moments. If you can, use multiple copies of the books, so that students can reread the text as they plan and rehearse their depictions of these key moments. When students are ready, they can perform for their classmates. Discussion can focus on how the group brought the story to life and how the performance heightens the emotional experiences of the story.

Sharing Play Experiences.  Following a read aloud of The Banana-Leaf Ball, ask students to share favorite play experiences with each other. Ask students to draw and write about either the sports that they like to play or other activities such as art, music, dance or clubs. Encourage students to explore the social and emotional dimensions of these experiences. How do they feel when participating? How do they connect with other people? Consider having students revise their writing to publication and provide paints and collage materials so that students draw inspiration from illustrator Shane W. Evans. You might bind their finished writings into a class book or display the work on a bulletin board.

Citizen Kid Series. The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World is part of the Citizen Kid series published by Kids Can Press. Divide your class up into small groups and ask each group to read one of the titles in the series. Compare and contrast the experiences represented in each title. Students can prepare for the discussion by completing a graphic organizer on which they record: challenge, setting, roles, and solution/activism. As an extension of this activity, invite your students to consider how they are “citizen kids” and what kinds of activism they might be interested in.

Writing About Sport/Game Play. Invite your students to consider the task of the sports writer. How can an author convey the quick motion and emotional experiences of a game in process? Reread the game action scenes in The Banana Leaf Ball, encouraging students to notice how the author uses words to create imagery and physical sensation. Expand your study by sharing additional excerpts of sports stories that feature games in process (draw excerpts from novels by Matt de la Pena, Kwame Alexander, Matt Christopher and Mike Lupica). Keep a list of writing techniques that you and your students notice. Then try it out yourselves! Students can imagine a scene or play a game together and then write about the experience.

Refugee Stories. Introduce a study of global refugee experiences with a duet model reading of the fictional (based on a true life story) picture book The Banana-Leaf Ball and the Boston Globe article that describes the high school soccer team in Lewiston, ME “Soccer Team Helps Unite Maine City.”  Then draw on the resources suggested in The Classroom Bookshelf entry Love in Action: Children’s Books to Promote Hope and Counter Fear to create a text set on refugees. Ask students to read across these books to look for commonalities and differences across the experiences represented in the stories. Guide students to consider how humans are connected in their intimate desires for home, family, and social connections.  

Character Study/Resolving Differences. Create a text set that features stories with characters who find way to resolve their differences, as Deo and Remy did in Banana-Leaf ball. As you read these books as a whole class or in small groups, ask students to chart out: Who are the characters? What are their character traits? What is the conflict? What is the source of the conflict? How is the conflict resolved? As students read across these texts, they will grapple with the larger question of how we bridge differences to reach common understandings.

Making Materials for Play. Deo uses available materials (banana leaves) to create a ball to play with. Invite your students to be makers – gather a variety of recycled manmade and natural materials and challenge your students to create a game or play material of some type. Students could work individually or in small groups. In addition to creating materials, students should develop a set of processes or rules for play with the materials that they have created. Have a play session in which you try out the creations and games made by the students.  

Critical Literacy

Access to Organized Sport. Conduct an inquiry to investigate the opportunities your students have available to them for organized sport. Which sports can they participate in? Who can participate (for example, consider gender and age)? How much does it cost to participate? Is financial support available? Is travel required? Is transportation provided? Discuss whether the opportunity to play is truly available to all children in your area. If you find gaps, what might be done?

Grades 4 – 6

Time for Play/Benefits of Play. In the refugee camp that is the setting for The Banana-Leaf Ball, playing soccer provides emotional relief/support and opportunities for social connection. As students to discuss the benefits that they experience from playing sports or participating in other organized activities, such as clubs, dance, and music. Then ask students for their definitions of the word “play.” What activities do they like to engage in as “play”? Organizations such as the National Institute for Play have raised concerns that American children in certain settings do not have enough unstructured time. Consider having students reading excerpts of Marantz Henig’s article “Taking Play Seriously” or Esther Entin’s article “All Work and No Play.” Be sure to discuss the socioeconomic factors at play across these different perspectives on the role of organized sport/play. Ask your students what they think? Do they have the kinds of play experiences that they want and need? If not, how could they advocate for them?


Further Explorations

Online Resources

About Kate Smith Milway


Citizen Kid Series


Right to Play


National Institute for Play


Banana Leaf Project


The Atlantic: “All Work and No Play”


Boston Globe: “Soccer Team Helps Unity Maine City”



Books on the Refugee Experience:

Love in Action: Children’s Books to Promote Hope and Counter Fear

Kids Can Press: Citizen Kids Series


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