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.
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:
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:
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.
Commissioner for Children and Young People