19 Oct 2005

Speech by Nigel Williams, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, at the PlayBoard conference on Wednesday 19th October 2005 at Belfast Castle.

I am delighted to be here, and would like to congratulate PlayBoard on achieving the milestone of their 20th birthday. Given the many challenges that voluntary organizations face - like maintaining a strategic direction, ensuring you have quality trained staff and a supportive board of trustees, and last but not least securing adequate funding – it is no mean achievement to be 20 years old.

I say that as someone who knows the challenges at first hand. Before becoming Commissioner I spent 15 years in the voluntary sector – the last eight setting up and running a new organization.

But just think – you have now left the trials and traumas of being a teenager behind you. Aged 20 the world is at your feet, and I hope you go from strength to strength.

I want to address the question the title of my talk poses in a very direct manner. I am going to give you five reasons why a play strategy is so important, and why I am so keen to see progress on this matter.

First and foremost, we need a play strategy because the children and young people of Northern Ireland have told us that play is a top priority for them. When I was appointed I commissioned a major piece of research by Queen’s University looking at issues affecting children in all aspects of their lives. The researchers talked to 1200 children and young people from all kinds of backgrounds and all across the country. It was clear from this research that children and young people feel passionately about play.

Let me just give you a few examples of the things that were said –

  • “The parks are horrible, dirty and vandalized, with broken bottles and needles on the ground and broken equipment”
  • “Being in a wheelchair shouldn’t stop me from going to the leisure centre with my friends”
  • “It annoys me when you can’t do things because you are too young”
  • “In school there aren’t enough sports and games. The clubs aren’t very good either. We need a proper football club”
  • “There’s not much to do where I live”

You can find all these quotes, and many others on this subject in the QUB report. Last week we published a children’s version and a young person’s version of the report. These are all available on our web site.

Because this was clearly such an issue of concern that covered children from those not yet at school right up to teenagers, my staff team and I knew we would have to propose it as a priority. This choice was confirmed when we published our draft priorities in October last year, and launched our SHOUT! consultation campaign. The overwhelming response to the consultation gave further evidence from children and young people themselves just how much they were concerned about play, and having fun things to do.

I would also stress that it is vital as work on developing a play strategy starts that children and young people’s input to it is acknowledged and guaranteed. We must not have adults planning for young people’s needs without listening to their views and concerns.

My second reason for needing a play strategy, is that play is a fundamental right for children. You know the old saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” or for that matter “Jill a dull girl”. We need play because it helps us rest and relax. We need play because it teaches us new skills and helps us learn. We need play because it makes us healthier.

Play is fundamental to a rounded and enjoyable life. Whatever our age from the youngest baby to the most senior of citizens we need play.

I said play was a right. Strong language – but it is backed up the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which my legislation says should guide me in my decisions as Commissioner. 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

  • 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.
  • 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.

So my second reason for needing a play strategy is that play is a fundamental right that all children should enjoy. That right will not be delivered automatically – it needs a well thought out plan to ensure that all the different needs of different age groups are being met.

And now the third reason – we need a play strategy because the current provision across Northern Ireland is so patchy. It is patchy in geographical terms, it is patchy for different age groups, and it is patchy in the kind of play that is available. I use the word patchy because I would be the first to acknowledge that there are good examples of provision.

At the week-end we had friends from England staying with us who had a 2 year old son. Suddenly I became much more aware of the play facilities available where I live. I must commend both Larne and Moyle councils because along the Antrim coast road, every village and town has excellent and relatively new play parks meeting the needs of a range of ages. So I have crawled through the wooden trains, pushed the swings and roundabouts, and monitored the climbing frames.

But I know that this wonderful provision is not repeated everywhere. For example, if you were to visit the large housing estates in North and West Belfast, as I have done, you would be wandering through a play desert. There is the very occasional oasis but relative to the numbers of children living there the provision is appalling. And over recent years the main landowners in the area – the Housing Executive – have abandoned play provision, leaving it to the district councils. The result is inadequate provision.

But if we were to think of the older age group, then I know that teenagers living in Carnlough, Cushendall and Ballycastle would immediately complain of lack of things to do. I say that with confidence because I have met them face to face, and they have told me so. In Belfast, the teenage age group is better catered for but only if young people travel out of their own areas, and that can bring challenges especially at night.

Whatever comes out of the Review of Public Administration we need to ensure that local councils have a statutory responsibility to develop play within their areas. Only with that kind of legislative requirement can we be sure that play will be given the priority it needs.

We have piecemeal provision and in fact none of us have an overview. Despite my examples above I have no data on the per head provision of play facilities, or where the gaps in provision are. I don’t know how many schools open their doors for use outside normal school hours. I don’t know conclusively where young people in Northern Ireland have good or poor access to arts and drama facilities. This information needs to be brought together as the first building block of a strategy.

My fourth reason for a strategy is that a number of different departments in Northern Ireland have an interest in the play issue, and thus historically there has been a lack of ownership of the issues and a lack of leadership.

You will be hearing from Aideen McGinley from DCAL this afternoon and clearly her Department has a huge interest in this area – in terms of both the sports side and the arts side. But what about Education – schools are vitally important in relation to play and leisure, both within the school curriculum and in terms of the facilities being available for use in the community. And then there is Health, with their concerns about family support, early years provision and crucial projects like Sure Start. DSD have an interest because of promoting safer neighbourhoods. And of course local government, the Housing Executive and other agencies are vital as deliverers of services or as landowners.

Until recently it looked like this departmental soup would continue with too many cooks spoiling the broth. I wrote to Ministers about this earlier in the year, and I am glad to say that the new Minister for Children and Young People, Lord Rooker, has responded by establishing an inter departmental group to look at the issues related to play and the need for a strategy. I can assure you that my office will be watching the work of this group closely to ensure that the pressure for an effective strategy is maintained.

I must also take this opportunity to commend Ministers for the recent decisions they have taken to ensure that funding was found to keep after schools clubs going, and also the announcement that additional monies would be found for children’s services more generally. I applaud Ministers for these decisions, which have my full support and are a step in the right direction. In the field of play we need to build on this extra resource by developing a clear strategy and then ensuring that this is properly funded.

We not only need urgent action but we also need sustained action, so that we don’t end up with today’s toddlers becoming teenagers before we really see a coherent well resourced play strategy in place.

My final reason for why a play strategy is such a priority is that we have good practice we can follow.

While we need a strategy that is tailor made for Northern Ireland’s needs, we do not have to completely reinvent the wheel. Important work has been done in England and Wales with the Dobson Review, and in the Republic of Ireland as part of the National Children’s Plan. Voluntary organizations like Playboard, NIPPA and Barnardos to name but three have already done extensive work on play issues and are ready to advise. The Derry Children’s Commission have shown what can be done at a local level in highlighting the range of provision available and the gaps that exist.

My own office is planning a further conference for the New Year where we hope to explore further what can be learnt from the GB experience, and also hear directly from children and young people their views about play.

So let me summarise my five reasons for a play strategy

  • Because this is so important to children and young people, and they want to help shape any strategy.
  • Play is a fundamental right as we are reminded by the UNCRC which has such great benefits.
  • Current provision is patchy and inadequate – we need a coherent overall plan
  • There has been a lack of departmental leadership and clarity about how different departments will contribute to an overall strategy
  • We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we can build on existing good practice within Northern Ireland and learn from the strategic plans developed elsewhere.

Thank you for listening. My hope is that Northern Ireland will have a play strategy by the time of Playboard’s 21st birthday. What a great way to celebrate that milestone that would be!