by Keith Towler, Children’s Commissioner for Wales
Little did I know seven years ago that play would form such an important part of my life as Commissioner. My journey on play began in my first few months in post. In fact, the first report I published as Commissioner was all about children with disabilities’ access to play. It was the culmination of a project which my predecessor had begun, analysing the content of local authorities’ play strategies and gathering the views of children and young people with disabilities.
Seven years on, I am still acutely aware of how important play is to children and young people. During my final year in post, I was lucky to be appointed to a working group assisting on the drafting of a general comment for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which wanted State Parties across the world to give greater attention to children’s rights to play and leisure activities in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Here in Wales and across the world, the publication of the General Comment on Article 31 provides an opportunity for every child in every school, in every community, to exercise the right to play. Whilst the rights embodied in Article 31 may not necessarily be at the forefront of policy makers’ minds, they are central to childhood itself. They contribute to the joy, fun and sheer pleasure of growing up. Furthermore, their implementation will contribute to children’s development, not only as individuals, but also as competent members of society aware of the perspectives of others, and capable of cooperation and conflict resolution.
Wales and the Welsh Government have taken great strides in promoting and implementing play as the right of every child and young person and are viewed very highly on the international stage. But I can’t help but think that whilst we have ground-breaking legislation here in Wales, it’s having little or no immediate impact on the ground for children and young people. By way of an example I’m going full circle, back to children and young people with disabilities’ access to play. The Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010 saw Wales become the first country in the world to establish a duty in relation to play. This Measure introduced a Play Sufficiency Duty, which comes in two parts: the first involves local authorities in carrying out Play Sufficiency Assessments. I reviewed them all, focussing in particular on children and young people from disadvantaged communities and households and on children and young people with disabilities. The provision of play and recreation opportunities for children and young people with disabilities, as reported in these Play Sufficiency Assessments, is diverse, with a number of local authorities even having difficulties identifying how many children and young people with disabilities resided within their authority. There is some wonderful work ongoing, with some authorities evidencing a framework of policy and practice firmly directed at delivering on Article 31 for children with disabilities. But, the picture remains inconsistent.
Austerity is also hitting us hard in Wales and is having a direct impact on the implementation of Article 31. One devastating example of the impact was shared with me via film by a group of young people in rural west Wales. It told the story, a true story, of how a new housing development destroyed a play space. The play area was a muddy bank. A piece of land used by children and young people extensively. At no point during the planning process for this new housing development did anybody consult with children and young people. The new housing has no play provision as part of the development and the one area that children used has been flattened by bulldozers and built over. The film is powerful and demonstrates that these children and young people should have had a say in the planning process and they should have been heard.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is embedded in Welsh law. This ‘ground-breaking’ legislation, was meant to ‘make a positive change to the way in which all support and services for children and young people in Wales will be designed and delivered in the future’. This legislative measure provides me with the framework to hold adults to account if children report a limiting of play opportunities. Wales has made a bold and positive commitment. Let’s make sure legislation made in Wales and across Europe makes a practical, positive difference to each and every child, whatever their circumstance.
Keith Towler, the current Children’s Commissioner for Wales, is a respected children’s rights expert with over 25 years’ experience in social work, youth work and youth justice roles. Keith is also a member of the International Play Association (IPA) and was asked by the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child to take a lead role in helping to draft the General Comment on Article 31 (the right to play). Keith’s term as Wales’ Children’s Commissioner concludes at the end of February 2015. Professor Sally Holland from Cardiff University will take up the role on 20 April 2015.