Why is Children’s Play Important?

Mill children did not play

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

This saying first appeared in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish (1659). And it is so universally held to be true that it is enshrined (in a rather more wordy form) in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It has not always been so. Indeed, it is little more than 150 years since an Act of Parliament was finally approved by the House of Lords, outlawing the use of children for climbing chimneys.

Sweeps’ boys did not play

Do children have a right to play?

They certainly do. The world’s very first declaration on child rights was written by Save the Children founder, Eglantyne Jebb, in 1923. Jebb’s ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ was adopted by The League of Nations, a forerunner to the UN, and it inspired today’s UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UNICEF was set up originally as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, since renamed as the United Nations Children’s Fund. It was created in 1946 in the aftermath of the Second World War to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide.

Under the auspices of UNICEF, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and came into force in the UK in 1992.

Children’s rights in international law

Article 31 of the UNCRC says this:

  1. States Parties [i.e. the signatory countries] 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 activity.

So the right of the child to engage in play and recreational activities is enshrined in international law.

Why is play so important for children?

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has a General Comment No. 17 (running to 22 pages!) on Article 31. In Section III, Significance of Article 31 in children’s lives, paragraph 9, it states this:

General Comment No. 17 – extract

  • 9. Play and recreation are essential to the health and well-being of children and promote the development of creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy, as well as physical, social, cognitive and emotional strength and skills. They contribute to all aspects of learning;  they are a form of participation in everyday life and are of intrinsic value to the child, purely in terms of the enjoyment and pleasure they afford. Research evidence highlights that playing is also central to children’s spontaneous drive for development, and that it performs a significant role in the development of the brain, particularly in the early years. Play and recreation facilitate children’s capacities to negotiate, regain emotional balance, resolve conflicts and make decisions. Through their involvement in play and recreation, children learn by doing; they explore and experience the world around them; experiment with new ideas, roles and experiences and in so doing, learn to understand and construct their social position within the world.

What is the definition of children’s play?

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has this definition:

Play: 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….

Is play essential for a child’s development?

This is what the UN committee says about fundamental necessity of play:

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. While play is often considered non-essential, the Committee reaffirms that it is a fundamental and vital dimension of the pleasure of childhood, as well as an essential component of physical, social, cognitive, emotional and spiritual development.

All children should be encouraged to play

We (and our children!) can be grateful for the progress that has been made in understanding the importance of play, but let’s not forget that in many areas of the world today, these rights are not enjoyed, and children are living in fear and horror instead of enjoying the freedom of play that is their right.