The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley-Mooney, today spoke at the Playboard Conference. 

I am delighted to be here today to support driving the play agenda but also to celebrate and promote the General Comment no 17

This is a day when we recognise that the United Nations – and we hope the Government - acknowledges that play is not just a word.

 In saying that, I am delighted to hear the announcement from the Junior Ministers today about investing in play. I hope that this is a financial pump primer that will see further investments across Executive department. The benefits of play – as everyone in the room knows – are enormous for mental health, reduction in anti-social behaviour, education performance and aspirations for the future. I hope that the Ministers will see this as the start, rather than an end in itself.

Also – I hope that this investment represents new money, and not a way to replace or fund existing projects. As we look forward to the reduction in the number of councils we must look forward to how services can be enhanced and grown, not replaced.

To move on...Because of General Comment no 17 play is established, once more as a right and not just as a word describing something that children can do, after all the important things in their daily life are completed.  But who would ever be accused of thinking like that, I hear you say!!

Before continuing I’d like all the adults in the room to pause and consider when was the last time you played; when was the last time you had fun; and when was the last time you really enjoyed yourself?

When the Assembly and Parliament created the job of Commissioner for Children and Young People, they were very clear on what that job was:

 “To safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people.”

Part of that job is to listen to children and young people.  Shortly after I became Commissioner almost 7yrs ago I asked them what was among the most important things in their lives. Their answer was resounding: play and leisure!

So – the United Nations says play is important, children and young people say play is important.  The United Kingdom Government, when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also agreed that play is important.

So where do we go from here in making this a reality?

If we look at another key part of my role as Commissioner, it is to advise Government on how their laws, practices and services measure up to what is needed to meet children’s rights.

 Part of that is reminding all parts of Government that under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child they are: “Duty Bearers”.

That means that it is their duty to make sure that all of a child’s rights – including the right to play are fulfilled.  No exceptions, no get out clause, and no attempts to escape their duty:  The state, in the shape of the Government, must make sure children enjoy their right to play.

Play is an essential component of early childhood development. It not only entertains your little ones, but it also helps build their skills for the rest of their lives.  Playing is key to the development of their intellectual, social and interpersonal skills as well supporting emotional development by providing a way to express and cope with feelings.  It also helps keep kids healthy. For many older children it deals with obesity mental health and even anti social behaviour.

To be fair, in Northern Ireland Government at local and national level have play on their agenda. Where we have asked they have delivered policies and some strategies across the regions. Everyone from councils to voluntary organisations seems to have some form of play strategy and policy.

So why are we still here asking the questions about play?

The first reason I believe is the disconnect between the top of government to practices “on the ground.”

The administrative distance from a policy maker in a government department – whether it be in Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast or London to the delivery of services on the ground is massive.

It is the same with all services, but when we reflect on it, that administrative distance is huge when it comes to play.

The policy maker, after workshops, seminars and conferences, is developing policy from the safe confines of an office environment – not somewhere we generally associate with play!

The youth worker on the ground is too often too busy managing the very reality of play to relate to the policy maker, except at the occasional seminar.

The voluntary worker delivering an after-school club just wants to know will there be funding to keep the club running…?

The next reason I believe relates to children’s rights.

Rights are easy to talk about in an abstract way. But when you hear the consequences when rights are not fulfilled then it is no laughing matter.

On Universal Children’s Day, I hosted my inaugural annual conference in Belfast. At that conference we heard directly from children and young people.

What would you think about a child getting a police record for ‘playing’?

A 16-year-olod boy told the conference, that he, like other teenagers wanted to ‘hang out’ with his friends. But, because of the fact that he was “in care”; if he was late back to the care home the police were called.

He said that even if he was late waiting for the bus, the police were called.

His attempts to live a normal teenager’s life, despite being in care, directly led to him having a police record when he should be starting out on his adult years and to his future.

The third reason why we are still asking questions about play is because as adults we don’t really understand what children and young people enjoy as play at the end of 2013.

We can raise concerns all we want about technology, children cooped up texting, updating their Facebook status on their mobile, playing console games and in front their computers and so on, but

the one thing that we should be telling ourselves is that we should just deal with it.

We cannot dictate how children exercise that right to play, but we can support them in fulfilling that right.

And that is the final reason I believe that we are still asking questions – it is because we never adequately ask the people living in communities what they need to play, and we never ask the children and young people what they need to play more, laugh more, enjoy more, to hang out more, and to have more fun!

That is why play is a rights issue.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states that children and young people have a right to have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

Article 31 of the Convention clearly says that children and young people have and I will quote the exact words - a right 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.”

1.  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’d like you all to consider two words from the second part of the article.  Those words are ‘respect’ and ‘promote’.

Too often you will have read about the trivialisation of play; reduced to the latest must have toy for Christmas, or a newspaper commentator calling for children to get out into the fresh air.

I’d also like to draw one phrase from the General Comment on Play to your attention.  It says that play will:

“…contribute to all aspects of learning”

We must also remember that it is not about adults dictating what play means.

Are we directing play policy at the communities and young people, or is it a two-way conversation whereby the young people and their local community are asked what they need to make play better?

How many times has Government really asked children and young people to have a say in what sort of play and leisure they want?

How many times have councils really asked children and young people to have a say in what sort of play and leisure they want?

And, I’m not talking about consultation – I’m talking about participation.

Just recently I met with young people from the Belong project in Newry and Mourne. When those young people met council representatives they made suggestions about everything from the physical environment through to the state of beaches and graffiti daubed shop fronts.

Children and young people know the issues; it is up to us to listen.

So, we are still asking questions about play, but there has been progress, not least the work in Wales and Scotland to more closely align the government’s work to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But, one of the final issues that always comes-up in relation to play is funding. Everyone wants a slice of the Treasury cake, and when the word play is mentioned everyone scurries away and looks at the serious topics of health and education.

Which is why I believe today’s announcement from the Junior Ministers is so important.

In school playing at lunchtime, PE and school sports may be the only physical exercise and fun that a child enjoys out of doors.

However, while we need appropriate ‘funding’ for ‘play’, we also need to think more creatively.

It can be integrated into planning policy through urban green spaces. Let’s tear down all those ‘No Ball Games’ signs!

It can be integrated into rural planning through more flexible transport. In one conversation with young people for a rights report they told my researchers that they didn’t go to the cinema because the last bus left before the films would have finished…

It can be integrated into existing sports organisations. Those clubs are at the heart of communities; just as GAA, football, rugby and hockey are at the heart of many communities in Northern Ireland.

That’s a lot of green space and a lot of club houses that can be made available for ‘play’ as well as sport.

Our schools also are a great community resource and should be used should be used as such.

Someone might challenge me and say that what about the children who are not sporty? That doesn’t mean they should be excluded. Has anyone ever asked the young person who crouches over his computer could he or she design a website or an app for a club? Do that and suddenly that young person is ‘playing’ at what he enjoys, helping the club in his community communicate, he has a say and the young people who play have a resource that tells them what is going on.

In summary – there are several challenges that need to be met to ensure a child’s rights to play: the administrative distance between policy makers and the work on the ground; the lack of understanding of what play is in the 21st Century; poor funding choices; and, the need for play to be understood as a rights issue.

Not one of these challenges is insurmountable.

You may remember that at the start I asked you when was the last time you made time to play?

I wonder how many of us really make time to just play? Whether it is a hobby, whether it is a sport, whether it is just a long walk listening to music – you are setting an example for your children and others that we all must make time to play.

Fun is way too serious to presume that pronouncements, policy and speeches will make play real for children and young people. Set an example that it is okay to play and have fun.

The American basketball legend Michael Jordon summed it up very well:

“Just play. Have Fun. Enjoy the game.”

Now we hope that every one of us adults adopt that attitude and allow our children and young people to just play and have fun.

Thank you