28 Oct 2003

Play is every child’s right. Those five words are devastatingly simple, but have huge repercussions for government, the education system, local government, voluntary and community agencies and indeed individual families.

Exploring how to fulfil that right to play, especially in difficult circumstances such as have existed in Northern Ireland for the last 30 years, is what this conference is all about.

I am delighted that Belfast City Council, along with Playeducation, have taken the initiative in promoting this conference, just as they have taken the initiative in promoting many fantastic play initiatives in this city. I am also thrilled that so many play professionals have gathered together from all round Northern Ireland, and many from elsewhere in the UK. Welcome to Belfast, and I hope you have an enjoyable and challenging two days.

I have now been in office for almost four weeks as the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People – we shorten it to NICCY because it is easier to remember – and it has been a very exciting four weeks. I have met with children and young people, and those working with them, throughout Northern Ireland in schools, hospitals, youth groups and community groups. It is an immense privilege to have that kind of overview and to meet so many committed people who do have the best interests of children at heart.

My role as Commissioner is to be an independent voice for children and young people and to challenge everyone in government and beyond to take account of children’s rights and best interests. I can deal with individual complaints, taking legal action where necessary. I can undertake inquiries into services for children – identifying gaps, problems and mistakes – and propose remedies that need to be acted upon. And I have a very important promotional role – helping ensure that children understand their rights and that they can effectively participate in decisions that affect them.

The legislation that set up my office set out two guiding standards or principles for my work, that I am sure will be very familiar to you – first that I must “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children”, and second that in interpreting that statement I need to be guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or CRC as it is often known.

That brings us back to where we came in – the right of every child to play. That right is enshrined in the CRC in Article 31, and it is worth just looking at the full wording of that short article.

Article 31

  • 1. States Parties – that simply means the nations who have signed the CRC - recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  • 2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

I think this provides a wonderful mandate for your work and recognises the importance of what you all do. But it also gives a basis for campaigning for sufficient resources for what you do.

But I think the CRC can inform play work in a number of other important ways. It is not simply a question of providing any old kind of play and feeling that we have done our bit. The CRC does raise some other challenging issues – let me just highlight three of the most important:

  • Making play accessible to those with disabilities - Article 23 talks about disabled children having “a full and decent life”, and “active participation in the community”. I know that Belfast City Council are doing some ground breaking work in this area in partnership with others like Barnardos.
  • Working with children from different religious and ethnic backgrounds - Article 2 talks about governments acting “ without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status”. – and Article 15 talks about recognizing “the rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly”. This is a very challenging area in a city like Belfast, but is equally challenging in many parts of the UK where different ethnic communities live close to each other.
  • Ensuring that children fully express their views on the play services you offer - Article 12 talks of giving individual children “the right to express … views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” Consulting with children is more than asking what games they want to play. The CRC calls for a fully inclusive, participatory approach that has children at its centre.

So there are many challenges for those of us involved in offering play, to really reflect what it means to take account of the rights and best interests of the child.

But I believe that there are a number of external factors that can make it much more difficult for play projects to succeed in serving children’s needs. These are the kinds of issues that as Commissioner I hope I can have role in helping address.

Before taking up my present position I was involved in my spare time in helping establish two different youth clubs on housing estates in Peckham in inner London near to my home so I have first hand experience of the challenges involved.

The issues I would like to highlight are:

  • Uncertainty in funding – too many play projects rely on short term funding, living from year to year not knowing if they will be able to pay the wages of staff in a few months time. I don’t think that is an effective way of guaranteeing children’s rights to play.
  • Competing Government initiatives – government in its efforts to deal with a number of policy priorities at the same time, and to set rigorous targets for them, can end up having inadvertent negative consequences. Let me illustrate my point – there are many initiatives at present focussed on supporting helping parents into work through supporting childcare – a laudable objective. But such initiatives may not have a well developed play focus, and may end up being little more than the name suggests – child care. If we are not careful that can take away resources from good play projects.
  • Overemphasis on one kind of play or one area – for a variety of reasons local authorities and other play providers can end up providing very good services in one kind of play e.g. pre school play groups; or youth clubs; or adventure play areas. These may only be suitable for one age group and sometimes are underprovided in particular areas. A local example is illustrated by the young boy who e-mailed my website last week and asked me where he could safely skateboard. Answer…, I haven’t yet found a safe permanent skateboard park in Northern Ireland – if any one knows of one please tell me! We have a responsibility to ensure services are provided for all ages and in all areas.

But there are always challenges in life. I don’t want to end on a negative note. Play is vital for the healthy development of all our children. I salute all those who work in this important area. I urge you to continue to develop your play strategies and, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires, make them even more attuned to the diverse needs of children.

Nigel Williams
Commissioner for Children and Young People