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Realising Article 31 … a shared responsibility

By Robyn Monro Miller, President of the International Play Association

2018 marks the 5th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations General Comment 17 on the right of the child to play. Today is World Play Day: it’s time to reflect on just how far we have gone in those five years.

"Adults in many communities are hearing the message about how important play is and embracing it"- Robyn Monro

The measures that governments were urged to take to ensure implementation of the rights for all children in Article 31 are still a work in progress. We must not however rely only on government to effect the change we desire when it comes to implementation of Article 31 or indeed any of the rights of children. It is important that we recognise each one of us can contribute towards the successful implementation of these measures.

So just how successful have we been in delivering the message about implementing children’s rights to play?

Has the message been successfully translated into action at a local level in our own communities?

And Is the concept of a playful childhood now just an oxymoron for many children?

The General Comment 17 recognises the challenges impacting on children’s right to enjoy their Article 31 rights and that the provision of structures and organised activities support that right. Equally the General Comment notes that the need to create time and space for children to engage in spontaneous play, creativity and activity are equally important including the need to promote societal attitudes that support and encourage this spontaneous play. It is opportunities for spontaneous child directed play that perhaps has become endangered in the five years since the General Comment was released.

In our attempt to highlight play as important, we have neglected to sell what play actually is and as a result it has been high jacked by the consumerism of our modern world and left play exposed to a greater risk – misappropriation.

Adults in many communities are hearing the message about how important play is and embracing it. Jumping in to colonise it at extraordinary rates and with levels of enthusiasm and fervour general reserved for sporting finals.

The lack of understanding about the adults role in play has resulted in an all too common scenario of children’s play falling victim to the adult colonisation.

This colonisation has resulted in a contamination of childhood experiences by political agendas and consumerism, where the marketing of educational products and services to families denigrates the power and importance of children’s freely chosen and self-directed play for their optimal development. Adults are being “sold “play – “nature” play, “risky “play, “Loose parts “play, play based learning… the list of marketing concepts that promote play is endless. Yet play does not need to be marketed to children, it is intrinsic and it has no adult agenda when undertaken.

Increasingly the adult colonisation is removing from children the elements of play that make it so important - surprise, discovery, risk, adventure, reflection, unpredictable, messy and dynamic.

The domestication of play by well-meaning adults is sanitising exploration and discovery to the point that we are smothering children’s innate curiosity and research skills.

We are facing a generation of children experiencing play deprivation, not due to lack of understanding of its importance, but due to lack of understanding about what play actually is.

Social media sites devoted to play are setting up in ever increasing numbers and we read enthusiastic postings by inspired adults that detail how they have manipulated and reconfigured children’s play experiences.

This domestication and sanitisation is not isolated and found across the diversity of children’s services, schools and homes across many countries often identified as sympathetic to children’s rights. No child is spared in the ruthless world where “Play is good for you”.

If we are to successfully promote the measures that ensure implementation of the rights in Article 31 for all children, we must start educating adults on what their role is and that is safe to step back.

Adults must learn the art of being passive and allow children time, space and the privacy to actively engage in the three-dimensional world of play where adults are not participants nor observers but advocates and gatekeepers. Adults who respect, protect and empower children to practice their human right to play on a daily basis.

Robyn is a former child with 48 years of experience in the world of play; the highlight of her play career being the building of unsafe structures in trees and spying on her neighbours. In her adult life, she has resorted to working in the field of school-age care to reclaim some of the magic of those early years. Robyn has been an advocate for children’s issues at the state, national and international level for the past 25 years. She is now the President of the International Play