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A timely reminder from the UN that play policy is not an option, but a duty.

8 Mar

The National Playwork Conference in Eastbourne this week heard from Gerison Lansdown, the person commissioned to draft the General Comment on Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Adrian Voce was all ears.


The General Comment on Article 31 (about the child’s right to play) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was expected to be published this week by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It will probably not cause many ripples in Whitehall. Nor is it likely to fire up a headline debate, even in child policy circles. Referred to by the UN itself as children’s “forgotten right”, playing is such a natural, commonplace thing, and so out of the sight and mind of the adult world, that society at large scarcely notices when it is being denied or abused. A slightly obscure, quasi-legal analysis of an international convention with no binding measures or means of accountability will not change that.

And yet, if the inclusion of the right to play within the UNCRC itself was a game-changer for the children’s play movement, leading eventually – as it surely did – to serious policy commitments by the governments of England, Wales and many more, then this General Comment must be seized upon by play advocates as a vital new basis for applying pressure on our elected representatives to take this responsibility seriously and to look again at where play provision sits within their plans for children.

Earlier this week, Gerison Lansdown, the children’s rights advocate who drafted the General Comment with the support of the International Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA), gave the national Playwork Conference in Eastbourne a sneak preview.

Gerison began by emphasizing that the purpose of General Comments (there have been 13 to date), is to set out what governments are required to do to implement the different parts of the convention they have signed, or, in her words, “to provide guidance on the measures necessary to ensure its implementation for all children without discrimination and on the basis of equality of opportunity”.

Government action on play

Assuming Gerrison’s text makes it through the committee structure of the UN, the General Comment will therefore set out a policy template – the international equivalent of statutory guidance if you like – for concerted and strategic government action on play.

The first thing it will say is that policy makers have seriously under-estimated the importance of play in children’s lives and its role in their future life-chances. It will acknowledge the potential tensions between planned, organised play provision, and the need for children’s freedom to play without structure, throughout their environment.

Bravely (and possibly controversially for a treatise on a human right), it will also tackle the perennial debate about striking the balance between pragmatism and principle. Gerison spoke of the need to make policy that recognises and responds to play’s intrinsic value at the same time as positioning such policy to address society’s abiding concern’s for children’s health, safety, development and education. Or, in her words “to enhance understanding of the importance of Article 31 for children’s development and well-being, and for the realisation of other rights in the Convention” – as well as play’s importance within its own right.

Necessarily, the General Comment will seek to define what the UN means by play: an “essential component of child development” embodying “fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility”. Importantly it will reiterate that play is “behaviour, activity, or processes initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves …”, “non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation … undertaken for its own sake”.

Crucially for the playwork sector the General Comment will talk about “the necessary level of adult oversight and engagement”, the need for “opportunities for risk-taking and challenge” as well as the obligation on states to make “access to reasonable opportunities to inhabit public spaces without harassment”.

Some will be disappointed that the General Comment, will not, it seems, more fully embrace the proposition put forward in IPA’s working paper on Children’s Right to Play – part of the international play community’s attempt to stimulate a re-examination, not just of how states parties should implement the article, but where the article and therefore play itself should sit within the concept of universal rights for children. This concluded that the right to play should be seen as “an integral component, under­pinning the four principles of the CRC (non-discrimination, survival and development, the best interests of the child, and participation)”, rather than, as is too commonly the case now, a lesser adjunct to the right to be educated.

Supporting the conditions where play can take place

Children’s play, this argument goes, tends to be viewed through the policy prism of what services or interventions children should be entitled to, equating it with adult culture or leisure, or something that is only worthwhile to the extent that it enhances children’s education. Many play advocates rail against this. Lester and Russell’s paper posits that a proper appreciation of play’s central role in children’s lives “does not necessarily mean providing specific services; it means avoiding the temptation to dismiss play as frivolous, restrict it through fear for and of children, or control and appropriate it for more instrumental purposes. The principle is to uphold article 31 … through support­ing the conditions where play can take place”.

It was perhaps hoping for too much to expect something that might imply a redrafting of the Charter itself, but it does seem that the General Comment will at least draw clear links between the right to play and the right to participate. Some play campaigners have long proposed that the right to play is much more akin to the wider human right to freedom of movement, association and expression than to any specific type of service, education or otherwise, and the General Comment may well further that argument.

Most usefully, it will set out some unambiguous types of action for national governments, grouped under three broad obligations: to respect the right to play; to fulfill the right to play; and to protect the right to play.

Governments, according to the UN, are bound by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to educate parents and more generally raise awareness and promote respect for children’s freedom to play.

Legislation and funding

But perhaps the most important part of the document will say that Governments should enact appropriate legislation, undertake the necessary planning and allocate adequate budgets to provide for play for all children. In this latter regard it will highlight the disproportionate use of public funding for adult culture, sport and leisure compared to children’s play and call for this to change. Legislation and funding should be underpinned, the General Comment will say, with relevant data collection and research to inform the planning process that should be driven by cross-departmental collaboration and partnerships, populated by a properly skilled workforce.


Under the duty to protect the right to play, some advocates will feel that the General Comment strays too far into safeguarding territory, arguing that protecting the right to play should be about securing land, defending services and protecting children’s freedoms more than children’s safety per se; not because this isn’t important but because safeguarding has its own champions and because children’s safety has already been a major theme of at least three previous General Comments.

Achieving a wider consensus on the need to not overprotect children at the expense of their need to take risks and have adventures has been one of the successes of the UK play movement in recent years, but in a world where children are still commonly prey to abuse (however much moral panics may distort the reality), it is inevitable that any major treatise will draw attention to children’s vulnerability and society’s first duty to keep them free from harm. This should not detract from what, in the round, should be seen as a reprimand to governments everywhere that have treated play provision and playable space as a dispensable luxury, if they have thought much about it at all.

The United Nations, we can now feel sure, will make no bones about its position that this is simply not good enough: that children’s right to play is as important as any other; that governments have a legal duty to provide for it; and that this provision should be universal, substantial and long-term.

Tsunami of cuts

The tsunami of cuts to public services that followed the political earthquake of 2010 and is still gathering force has perhaps made us a little bit compliant with the new realities. Some of us have been browbeaten into accepting that the austere economic climate we are in means it is only reasonable that play policy and play provision is sacrificed. But it is one thing to do what we need to survive; and quite another to supplicate ourselves to the wrong-headed, ill-informed assumption that play cannot be a priority when times are hard.

Elsewhere at the Playwork conference this week, Wendy Russell spoke about an ethical framework for playwork. This is a fascinating topic, touching as it does on philosophy and human values and how these inform practice. It is impossible to engage in this area without considering morality: ethics is about finding or identifying a moral framework for decisions and actions. Yet morals are largely relative. People of different faiths, for example, may hold very different moral perspectives on the same issue because of the different values of their traditions.

Humans Rights are not subject to this relativism. They are universally declared and universally agreed. Children’s Rights are human rights – perhaps the most important category of human rights in the sense that all children are dependent on adult society; our duty to them is absolute.

Respecting, fulfilling and protecting the right of all children to play are profound responsibilities, willingly taken on by the community of nations. This General Comment of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child demands that we, and our governments in particular, take a serious look at how well we are discharging them; and calls for us to do better.

Adrian Voce

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