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Children and the Right to Play

posted in: 2008 Hong Kong | 1

Professor Jaap Doek

Around 60 years ago I grew up in a small rural village in the remote eastern part of my country, the Netherlands. I went to kindergarten and primary school. The rest of my time I played and slept. I played with friends (boys and girls) games like hide and seek, marbles and a lot of explorative games, all outdoors and no lack of space.

In the middle of the village next to the building of the fire department there was a space with three rows chestnut trees. That was our soccer field and we played diagonally: the goal of one team was between two trees in row 1 and 2 opposite of each other and the other goal was about 8 trees down. We played soccer almost every afternoon after school and one of the difficulties next to avoiding the trees was to be back home at precisely 6 p.m. because that was dinner time. I often came too late and was punished.

Today that very informal soccer field that did not meet any of the regular standard is not there any more. All chestnut trees are gone and the space is now filled with a supermarket. I very much hope that many among you can tell similar stories, not because we like to romanticize the past, but because our own experiences can remind us of a couple of important aspects of play.

First, play is as “normal” as education; it is an inherent deeply rooted element of the life of human beings and of animals for that matter.

Secondly, play was then and still is today a free activity; if the activity is enforced it is not “play” anymore. Play is also an activity different from the common or real life. It is an activity with its own purpose.

Thirdly, play has its limitations in terms of being carried out within a certain location and time. There is a beginning and an end (I had to be home by 6 p.m. for dinner). Every game has its rules which can be general and/or amended to fit with a specific setting or circumstances of the game. The rules have to be observed by every player and are not open for discussion. A player who violates the rule is a spoil-sport; fair play is an almost sacrosanct principle of every game.

Fourthly, sport is one of the forms of play and it is not easy to make a clear cut distinction between play and sport. Even the professional sports do have many of the characteristics of play. It means that play takes many forms, such as sport activities, music, painting etc. and therefore it is very difficult to define play as an activity distinct from other activities in a real clear-cut manner (2).

Fifthly, I played without any kind of awareness of the fact that I was exercising my right. It is my assumption that also today – and despite the fact the right to engage in play has been codified in the CRC ratified by almost every country in the world – millions of children play without being aware of the fact that they are exercising one of their rights. Most children are not even aware of the existence of the CRC.

Finally, children growing up in my village today don’t have the self-designated playing field I and my friends used to play soccer. Their playgrounds are in fixed locations decided by adults. A lot of play is organized, structured and planned in time. The free, creative and explorative forms of play are disappearing.

This brings me to the core question: if play is such an inherent and deeply rooted element of the life of human beings why do we need to codify it as a right? Children play anywhere and everywhere in organized or unorganised settings, pre-schools or at home. Before answering this question first some information about article 31 CRC, the key provision with regard to play.

Article 31 and the Child’s Right to Play
Professor Doek recounted the history of the inclusion of article 31 in the CRC in some detail. The full text can be found on the IPA website www.ipaworld.org He particularly noted that article 31 is the only article in which the right of the child to participate is explicitly mentioned.

The Right to Play
It seems rather redundant to elaborate in detail on the importance of play for children at a conference organized by the International Play Association. The fact that the CRC contains the right to engage in play is in and of itself a strong proof of the importance of play. It confirms what can be found in an impressive body of research: play in the many forms it may take at different ages of the child and in different cultures, contributes in a significant way to the child’s physical and psychological development and health.

Despite this international consensus on the importance of the right to engage in play and the other rights mentioned in article 31, the attention given to the implementation of these rights in the reports States Parties submitted to the CRC Committee is very limited and often completely lacking. The same often applies for the (complementary) reports submitted by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and UN agencies.

The most likely explanation is that the rights under Article 31 – rest play, leisure and culture – are often perceived as a luxury in comparison to other rights whose violations bear more cruel, visible and spectacular consequences. So the important question is: how can we generate more attention in the reporting on and monitoring of the CRC for the child’s right to engage in play.

2c. Actions to improve the implementation of the child’s right to engage in play
From the previous observations it is clear that we have to undertake targeted actions to ensure that States Parties pay more and specific attention to the rights enshrined in article 31 in the reports they submit to the CRC Committee.

This is important because it will require that States Parties present the measures they have taken in accordance with section 2 of article 31, that is: measures to promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and to provide appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity. One may wonder why in section 2 the right to engage in play is missing and what it means. The drafting history does not reveal any specific reason for this omission. I think it is reasonable to assume that the drafters did not feel a need to mention the right to play separately because they consider it as being included in recreational and leisure activity. This means that the actions mentioned in section 2, particularly the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities, must also be taken with regard to the right to engage in play.

In addition, the State Party should inform the committee about the remaining challenges or difficulties in implementing article 31 and measures planned in this regard (see art. 44 CRC). This will allow the CRC Committee to make specific recommendations to the State Party for further actions. These recommendations should be followed-up with adequate actions and in that regard national parliaments and NGO’s should play an active role.

Who can undertake actions for improvement of the reporting on article 31 and how?

1st The CRC Committee can do at least two things

  • after having read the report and after a so-called pre-sessional meeting with NGO’s, UN agencies and others e.g. children, the Committee sends a request for additional information to the State Party under consideration (the so-called List of Issues). When the report contains no or insufficient information regarding article 31 the Committee should include in the List of Issues requests for information on the measures taken for the implementation of the rights enshrined in article 31 (8). If this (additional) information is provided it will allow the Committee to make specific recommendations for further actions.
  • The CRC Committee should consider the adoption of a General Comment on article 31. Such a General Comment will not only draw the attention of States Parties to the importance of the rights in this article, but can also provide the States Parties with specific recommendations on the implementation of these rights.

The General Comment can become an important tool for actions at the national level. In that regard not only the government, but also parliament and NGO’s should make maximum use of this General Comment.

2nd Non-governmental Organizations As stated before: reports submitted by national NGO’s to the CRC Committee usually contain very little or no information on the implementation of article 31. Experiences so far have shown that international NGO’s can effectively raise with the Committee specific issues (9).

I therefore urge the International Play Association to undertake all possible measures to encourage national member NGO’s to push for information on art. 31 in the States Report and where appropriate with special attention for the rights to play. In addition they should provide the CRC Committee with supplementary information.

For countries without member NGO’s IPA should consider to contact existing (coalitions of) NGO’s and encourage them to include in their reports information on the (lack of) implementation of article 31. Another possibility is that IPA carefully studies the States Parties reports are as soon as they are available and send an analysis of the part on article 31 to the CRC Committee with suggestions for possible recommendations.
Given the internationally acknowledged importance of the rights enshrined in article 31 we must take targeted efforts to improve the reporting on and the monitoring of their implementation by the actions suggested or other appropriate measures.

2d. Action to implement article 31
It is of course impossible to present a set of actions for the implementation of article 31 CRC applicable in all States Parties.

But article 4 CRC provides guidance: “States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention”. In addition: when it is a social and/or cultural right, like in this case, these measures shall be undertaken to the maximum extent of their available resources”,

What does all this mean? I suggest at least the following:

  • The obligation to take various measures calls for a comprehensive plan for the implementation of article 31, a plan that must include adequate coordination of the activities of different ministries or directorates; the rights in article 31 may in many States Parties fall under the responsibility of different ministries (e.g. right to rest under labour; cultural and artistic activities under Education, play and recreational activities under Sports and/or Welfare). Such a plan is also important because an integrated approach may take into account the various links between or overlaps of the rights in article 31 and avoid an isolated, stand-alone attention for one of the rights.

    The phrase “to the maximum extent of available resources” reflects the reality that the lack of resources (financial or others) can hamper the full implementation of the rights in article 31. But States are obliged to demonstrate that they have taken measures using the available resources to the maximum extent possible. Even where the available resources are demonstrably inadequate, the obligation remains for a State party to strive to ensure the widest possible enjoyment of the relevant rights under the prevailing circumstances and to pay special attention to the most disadvantaged children.

    In this regard it is important that the implementation of economic, social and cultural right should where needed – that is in particular when available resources are inadequate – take place in the framework of international cooperation. It goes beyond this presentation to elaborate on the many aspects of this cooperation (10). For now it means that developing countries should make the implementation of article 31 (next to many other specific CRC articles on e.g. health care, education, protection from abuse and exploitation) an integral part of their negotiations with donor countries and international financial institutions. And if they don’t the donor countries should remind them that article 31 contains a number of important rights of children.

  • Involve all relevant actors, in particular children (in line with art. 12 CRC), parents, other caretakers, NGO’s and where appropriate schools and local authorities in the drafting and implementation of the comprehensive plan.

    Make sure that the plan is non-discriminating (art. 2 CRC) or as article 31(2) states that it provides equal opportunities for all children and if necessary in the light of limited resources, priority should be given to the most disadvantaged children such as children with disabilities, children in armed conflict, children in refugee camps, children in institutional care, migrant children, children belonging to ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples etc. etc. There are many disadvantaged children in this world.

  • Finally: it is necessary to regularly evaluate (e.g. every year) the impact of the plan to see whether the various measures taken are effective in terms of achieving the goals set and to adjust the plan if necessary. This sounds obvious but unfortunately the reality is that too many good plans/programmes are not or very limited evaluated which often negatively affect their sustainability.

As said before, there is no fixed set of measures applicable to every country. But we do know what kind of problems exist in many countries. In its Declaration on the Child’s Right to Play IPA lists a number of alarming trends States should take into account when drafting a comprehensive plan as suggested. The CRC also did present some of its concerns related to the right to rest, leisure and play in General Comment No 7 on Implementing child rights in early childhood. Although it focuses on young children most of the concerns apply to all other children. After underscoring the importance of the right to rest, leisure and play the Committee observes: “Yet realizing the right to rest, leisure and play is often hindered by a shortage of opportunities for young children to meet, play and interact in child-centred, secure, supportive, stimulating and stress-free environments. Children’s right-to-play space is especially at risk in many urban environments, where the design and density of housing, commercial centres and transport systems combine with noise, pollution and all manner of dangers to create a hazardous environment for young children. Children’s right to play can also be frustrated by excessive domestic chores (especially affecting girls) or by competitive schooling. Accordingly, the Committee appeals to States Parties, non-governmental organizations and private actors to identify and remove potential obstacles to the enjoyment of these rights by the youngest children, including as part of poverty reduction strategies. Planning for towns, and leisure and play facilities should take account of children’s right to express their views (art. 12), through appropriate consultations. In all these respects, States Parties are encouraged to pay greater attention and allocate resources (human and financial) to the implementation of the right to rest, leisure and play” (11)

Concluding remarks

Let me conclude very briefly:

  • the right to engage in play and other rights enshrined in article 31 CRC needs significant more attention in both the reporting on and the monitoring of the CRC;
  • actions in this regard are needed and possible by the CRC Committee and national and international NGO’s with involvement of children, parents, schools and other relevant actors;
  • that the implementation of article 31 CRC is best achieved via a comprehensive plan implemented in a coordinated manner with the involvement in all stages of drafting and implementation of children, parents and NGO’s;
  • acknowledging that measures in this plan may differ from country to country, there are trends and concerns which should be addressed in most countries.

Finally: if you want to contribute to the implementation of the right of the child to play – and that is why you are here – take all these observations into account but above all be playful, be creative, don’t hide but seek and put all your marbles on the CRC. Make it your most important toy for all the children in this world and in particular for the most disadvantaged among them.

As the say at the start of a very popular game in the USA: Let’s play ball !!!!

* NB. In its recently adopted Strategic Plan, IPA has already undertaken a number of actions recommended by Professor Doek, but the detailed advice is most welcome! An additional action step in relation to the development of a General Comment was approved at the IPA Council meeting on January 11th.

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