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Children’s play: the forgotten right?Playtime Latest

12/01/2016 – Children’s play: the forgotten right?

Children out on the street happily at play; not something we see so often these days as sadly their right to play seems to have become a “forgotten right”. So says Adrian Voce in his new book Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right.

The emphasis in the children’s rights movement has been on poverty, abuse, education and health with a particular focus on participation rights in minority world countries, says Voce. This has been at the expense of children’s play which, he argues, “is essential and integral to each of the four principles of the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child]”.

In essence this book is a celebration of the joy of play. It is underpinned by an indisputable argument for giving play a much needed shift onto the political agenda.  At the beginning of this century there was reason to be hopeful as all the indications were that children’s play was at last being taken seriously.

Voce presents a detailed account of the lengthy process which led to a ground breaking strategy on play in England.  Unfortunately the life of the strategy was a short one. However, he begins the journey in the early 20th Century with what he describes as the “embryonic movement that would lead all the way to the CRC”.  The 1913 campaign for the rights of child workers in the US identified the right to play as among children’s “inalienable rights”.

As the century progressed, campaigners in the UK such as Lady Allen of Hurtwood worked hard to ensure children had better play facilities.  In 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN and under Article 31 children have a right to play. However by the end of the 20th century one of the difficulties facing the right to play was a dramatic decline in outdoor freedom. Meanwhile, politically, and thus financially, the attention was on children’s education and providing childcare for women at work.

But play is a distinguishing feature of childhood which should be given equal attention. Yet the benefits are not that easy to evaluate and “the richest play experiences happen out of the reach of adult eyes and ears”, says Voce adding that there is a need resist efforts to measure outcomes and recognise that children play because they need to play. The primary purpose of play, he says, “is simply to enjoy and become better at playing. Children play because it is in their nature”.
With this in mind Voce and his colleagues in England campaigned long and hard to have play recognised within national policy. Voce recounts this effort in considerable detail; the highs and lows, the difficulties faced and overcome. Play did finally make its mark through the first elected Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. In 2003 Livingstone published a Strategy for Children and Young People under which he regarded children’s play as a human right and therefore something which demanded government support, says Voce. 

A few years later, again with much long and hard lobbying, in 2008 a national Play Strategy for England was published. The strategy placed a much needed emphasis on local authority planning for play and the importance of children’s play in public realm design. 
But the life of the strategy was cut short within a very short space of time. In 2010 the election of a Conservative Government in the UK and its austerity campaign led to massive cuts in budgets for play facilities and staff. Without adequate resources implementing the strategy was no longer possible.

The aim of the strategy was to “raise the profile of play”, according to Voce, and to “elevate the status of play within local planning and spending”. Interestingly, parents have begun to take matters into their own hands and through the burgeoning street play movement some neighbourhoods are becoming more child friendly. These parents tends to be voters and there is perhaps some hope that pressure from the electorate will bring the right to play to the fore.

The same can be said of Ireland. The provisions of the Irish National Play Policy published in 2004 also fell by the way-side with the economic crash.  But with the 2016 election looming, and as Ireland faces a UN review of its record on children’s rights, we have an opportunity to stress just how crucial the right to play is. Policy for Play is a rollercoaster story of the battle to get children’s play onto the political agenda. Anyone with any interest in children will want to read it.