Remembering play

Do you remember your favourite game as a child?
It likely involved running, jumping or hiding.
Perhaps you enjoyed building things and imagining new worlds.

Your childhood would have been that much poorer without the freedom to play.
This is the reality for millions of children.

What is play?

“Play is any children’s behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves. Play is non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. It may take infinite forms but the key characteristics of play are fun, uncertainty, flexibility and nonproductivity.” The United Nations General Comment 17 (2013) 

Simply stated, play is what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons. Play has also frequently been described as ‘what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults’.

Play is a right!

Research around the world proves that play is essential to a child’s development and well-being. It’s for this reason that the United Nations includes play as a basic human right. This right is outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, Article 31)) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC, Article 12)) which both recognise play as every child’s right:

1. State Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activities.

The aim of “UN General Comment 17 (2013)” is to raise the importance of Article 31 and increase accountability among countries that have signed up to the Convention. 

South Africa is a signatory of both the UNCRC and the ACRWC, making our country obligated to fulfil these rights. The right to play also supports the fulfilment of other rights, including education, health, protection, participation, equality and best interests. It also plays a role in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015) of Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Reduced Inequalities and Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The benefits of play

  • When children are allowed to play freely, they have the opportunity to act independently and to make their own free choices (agency).
  • Natural, instinctive play helps children address their developmental and emotional needs
  • Playing with friends develops the child’s ability to communicate, to share, to negotiate, to cooperate and to be assertive.
  • Active outdoor play strengthens muscles and bones, contributes to overall health and counteracts obesity.
  • Challenging play, risk and overcoming fear contribute to the child’s sense of self-worth and help to build resilience

Some of the specific benefits linked to various types of play:

  • Physical play develops large and small muscle coordination, hand/foot/eye coordination and body concept
  • Cognitive (mental) play encourages concentration, perseverance, perceptual and problem-solving skills such as strategic thinking
  • In creative play, children use their imagination,
    create something original and “think out of the box”