If Play is more than just a word, what is it?
We should all know what play is because we have all played, and hopefully still do! Think back to when you were a child. Think back to the games you played; who you played with and where you played these games.
If you’re like me you’ll think about summer days – sometimes they were even hot summer days. You’ll have positive memories; fulfilled happy memories.
So what is play? Play is lots of things.
It can be loud and quiet, calm and chaotic, sociable and isolated, and imaginative and real.
Sometimes play can be risky, other times it will be boisterous and a lot of the time it will just seem plain silly.
And that’s ok – because what we do know – is that Play is critical to each and every child’s physical and emotional well-being and is central to a healthy child’s life.
We also know that Play supports children to develop in a holistic way, by improving their physical, cognitive and creative skills. It also supports a connection with nature and the environment and allows children time to relax and to be in control of what they do. And vitally, it provides opportunities for children and young people to assess and manage risk for themselves.
Play is the most natural thing we do, because it is at the core of our being and at the core of our development.
In 2007, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expressed concern that:
“children’s right to play is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten right’, perhaps because it appears to the adult world as a luxury rather than a necessity of life.”
Northern Ireland has the youngest population of any region in the United Kingdom – and one of the youngest populations in Europe –with 27% of the population being under 18 years of age. To facilitate this, it is vital that we have a play workforce and advocates for play, to meet the needs of children and young people.
When the Assembly and Parliament created the Office of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, they were very clear on the purpose of that post which was and is:
“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 I asked them what was among the most important things in their lives. Their answer was a resounding: play and leisure!
Interesting to know that they are not alone! In fact we know that The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – states that children and young people have the right to play!
So, the United Nations says play is important; children and young people say play is important; and the United Kingdom Government, when they signed up to the Convention, also agreed that play is important.
So how do we make it 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 in meeting their obligations in terms of 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 and Government, must make sure that children enjoy their right to play.
Before I go any further, I’d like to take a moment to remind us of what the UN Convention, Article 31 says about play:
“States Parties 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.”
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 UN Committee’s General Comment 17 on Play to your attention. It says that play will:
“…contribute to all aspects of learning”
And finally another key article of the Convention is Article 12 – the right to have a say in decisions that affect their lives which in my work we call Participation.
Therefore we can see how we must remember that it is not about adults dictating what play means and what play is, children and young people have a specific right to Participate.
PAUSE – as we ask ourselves these questions
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?
So, what is the role of our Government, our Executive and our Assembly in terms of rest, play and leisure?
The General Comment on Play is quite specific about this. It is clear that Government must adopt legislation to make sure there is sufficient provision; that there must be a dedicated policy on play and a plan to make sure that this policy is implemented.
In my role as Commissioner – and in all our roles as advocates for children – we must challenge our leaders to make these aspirations a reality.
Play is everyone’s responsibility and everyone has the ability to be a play advocate. Advocates raise awareness about issues and propose specific solutions amongst different publics including policy-makers, society, the media, and affected communities. Simply put, advocacy means actively supporting a cause and trying to get others to support it also.
It is especially vital that those who work directly with children and young people in the area of play – or those that are training in this area as a career path – can act as play advocates for children and young people.
We need play workers in our community to act as advocates for children and young people. We need people to listen to children to help create safe and stimulating play spaces and to support their physical, emotional and social development through play.
Play workers with their direct contact with children and young people, coupled with their learning and knowledge, really can, and do, make a difference to the lives of children and young people.
As I mentioned at the start of my speech – play is at the heart of childhood, and our challenge as advocates is to demonstrate, articulate and evidence how, and why, play is essential for our children’s holistic health, development, happiness, and well-being.
The issue that I’ve been asked to concentrate on today covers the importance of ‘building a play workforce, to meet the needs of children and young people’.
It’s therefore fitting that I leave you with the words of a young person who participated in NICCY’s Make it Right Campaign on Play and Leisure:
“Children should have access to safe play areas…(and)… Children should be included in the planning of play areas”