True freedom in this world begins with the opportunity to play. Play is both an essential and basic element of any child’s development. It is important to ensure that children enjoy life and have the chance to grow-up as physically and mentally healthy individuals because they need to be able to subsequently participate appropriately in their own culture and society as well-balanced adults. And yet, all too many children are not given the opportunity to play in the fashion they would themselves prefer. There is insufficient awareness with regards to value of giving children the freedom to undertake autonomous play. Many adults see ‘play’ as merely a trivial aspect in the lives of their children or even as an unnecessary distraction from more ‘important’ activities. Parents consider play to be something that can be safely ignored – unlike the structured educational processes that their children are subjected to in school. However, studies have shown that play actually improves the learning performance of children over the long term and also enhances their social skills so that they tend to be more successful in their later professional careers. The International Play Association (IPA) subscribe to this view and believe that every child has the fundamental and universal right to play. It is their view that children should in future be allowed to determine freely how they want to play. The 2014 IPA Conference provided the ideal platform for participants to exchange ideas on innovative approaches to dealing with this aspect, to learn from each other and develop new strategies.
It was 25 years ago that the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 of the Convention specifically outlines children’s rights to relax, play and be involved in cultural activities and this was the focus of the discussions at the IPA Conference. The basis was the summary of General Comment No. 17 on Article 31 published by the IPA in September 2013. The delegates saw this as a welcome opportunity to emphasize the rights of children to rest, leisure, play, participate in recreational activities and in the cultural and artistic life. The IPA places particular stress on the ‘right to play’ and first issued an official declaration on this subject in November 1977. Anyone involved in children’s play activities – be it manufacturers, designers, educators, public authorities and parents – needs to read and take to heart this declaration. “Children’s play is any behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves; it takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise. Caregivers may contribute to the creation of environments in which play takes place, but play itself is non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. Play involves the exercise of autonomy, physical, mental or emotional activity, and has the potential to take infinite forms, either in groups or alone. These forms will change and be adapted throughout the course of childhood. The key characteristics of play are fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity. Together, these factors contribute to the enjoyment it produces and the consequent incentive to continue to play.“ This declaration is derived from more than 20 years of international collective experience and is based on the results of studies that have demonstrated the serious and lifelong effects that a lack of opportunity and space to play can have on the physical and psychological wellbeing of children. It was apparent from the IPA Conference that there are different ways in which the value of play is perceived throughout the world. The delegates from some countries claimed that play was an essential and fundamental need while others saw it as subordinate to structured education, as a diversion from preparing children to participate in the labour market.
The science of play
Play is an autonomous activity that is full of pleasure and delight. Because there is too little conscious enjoyment in our contemporary world, this automatically results in more of the same. Therefore it is not surprising that many people now find it difficult to come to terms with our environment and surroundings. Play promotes health and well-being. It is not only fun, but also enables children to develop a long term positive outlook more easily and this is something that children are frequently denied. There are lasting negative effects not only for children, but also for communities and whole societies if there are insufficient opportunities for play and physical exercise. Children who are unable to play fail to develop important capabilities, physical, social and psychological skills and could thus be said to have a form of disability. Children who are not permitted to play become more readily aggressive and unstable; they are no longer able to integrate themselves socially. While it is true that insufficient long term studies of the effects of play deficit have been conducted, the initial results that have been reported to date are very concerning. Children confined in enclosed spaces who do not play can exhibit various negative traits such as aggression, emotional suppression, lack of social skills, physical inactivity and are at increased risk of becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes. The brains of children who are unable to play may also fail to develop normally. Persistent sensory deprivation in the form of insufficient contact with others and the lack of other sensory types of interaction can result in depression and even cerebral dysfunction in extreme cases. Play stimulates the body’s nervous system, which reacts by creating neural networks that promote brain development and flexibility. In other words, play actually helps inculcate in children a system that boosts their learning capacity. But it is not only the children that we need to consider. Adults who deny children the freedom to play often tend themselves to have unhealthy lifestyles, do not take enough exercise and suffer from obesity or cardiovascular diseases. Experts now fear that current changes and trends will produce negative repercussions with regard to future societies and the environment although this fallout may first become apparent several generations later. These predictions are based on the results of a study in which epigenetic material was investigated. The study demonstrated that if effects might skip an entire generation, an ‘echo’ is created that could become manifest in the following generation. Play is a process through which simple movements aid the growth of efficient and effective muscles and that improves the physical and psychological status. Children become more flexible, agile, coordinated and well-balanced. Play is not just enjoyable, but helps children learn to deal with primary emotions such as anger, fear, rage, shock, sadness and happiness and to translate these into more nuanced sentiments like sorrow, pleasure, affection, gratification, frustration and disappointment.
What can we do?
Free Play represents the solution to many of the problems we encounter in urban environments. All cities need enchanting refuges, places where the imagination can be set free – gateways to another world where it is possible to forget the drudgery of the daily routine. Cities are increasingly growing into an assemblage of dead, sterile, boring and undifferentiated spaces that offer no outlet for fantasy, humor and human interaction. People need distraction. Attempts to provide this to date have been only been provided by commercially-orientated organisations and the concepts have been temporary and have not been made available to all. Urban environments must furnish appealing spaces for everyone on every day. Spaces in which we can celebrate the community, historic associations, love of nature and anthropocentric chemistry. Children in Germany must be permitted more frequent and increased access to better, autonomous, free play. The creative activities of children should be encouraged to take place in interconnected spaces and not just in localised islands. The design of creative spaces may start at the level of small details but must take a holistic approach. Freedom of creativity can be a dangerous factor in play as in life because it is not always possible to predict the consequences. For this reason, a responsible attitude to the surroundings and environment must always be adopted, although, at the same time, the right of children to play must be defended, protected and sponsored. There are two simple precepts that we all need to follow if we wish to give our children and youngsters more time, freedom and space to play:
● We can and should advocate the view that play is both a universal and natural necessity that has a positive effect on children and young people. The right to play can bring people together across borders, generate tolerance and help impart cultural values.
● We can all seek to share our experience, to disseminate new ideas, inform ourselves while retaining a critical stance and provide valuable input in research, politics and our own fields of activity.
Children will play almost anywhere but to provide the ideal conditions for this, the following requirements need to be met:
● The surroundings must be full of natural and creative elements that promote autonomous play.
● There must be equipment that provides for physical challenges to enable children to develop the ability to assess risk.
● The environments should be such that children can freely express their emotions and experience sensory stimulation.
● There must be opportunities for social interaction.
● There should be a variety of different environments in both urban and rural situations that are safely interlinked and that provide an extensive proportion of free space that invites children to indulge in play.
If we really want to achieve this, we need proactive solutions such as the idependent “Werkstatt für Spiel” initiative. In the form of interactive workshops, we will be offering participants the opportunity to explore in depth the topic of “Play and human right” and the associated requirements for space for free play . With our distinguished patrons we are looking forward to an exciting and informative event from 13.- 16. June at a heritage Watermill estate in the State of Brandenburg, Germany. For more information, please ask us. Friedrich Schiller once said that “there is often deeper meaning in the play of children”. Once we have all recognised this to be the case, we can make the world a more free, healthy and compassionate place.