The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted and ratified by The United Nations General Assembly on 2 September 1990. This declaration extended other previsions protections, including the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959.
The article that most directly addresses the child’s right to play reads:
- States 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.
- 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.
Unfortunately, the language of this declaration is overly broad and less than actionable. It would help to see the relationship between human rights and needs. Des Gasper* writes:
The ideas of human rights and basic human needs are closely connected. Human rights – rights that apply for every person because they are a human right – can be seen as rights to the fulfillment of or ability to fulfill basic human needs.
He goes on to say:
The concept of human rights forms, in turn, an essential partner to the discourse of basic needs. It provides an insistence on the value of each person and a strong language of prioritization. These focus our attention and energies: ‘in adverse environments, the primary meaning of human rights is to make people aware of what is basically wrong’ (Goldewijk & Fortman 1999: 117). And when widely acknowledged as norms or legally recognized as instruments, rights form a major set of tools, legitimate claims, in the political struggles for the fulfillment of needs.
In the 60 years since the UN Declaration of the child’s right to play, great strides have been made in understanding at a very granular level, the biological basis of play. It can now be stated without equivocation that at a biologically level, that play arises when the child takes voluntary action. Without the freedom to move, to explore, to change their environment, and to find challenge, there is no play.
While this statement would seem to be so true as to be without rebuttal, from the standpoint of actualizing this biologically driven requirement of child initiation of play, in reality, it is far from ideal. When we look at what society does by way of provisioning for play, it is clear that the child’s right to what Ms. Cheng Xueqin at AnjiPlay has rightly designated as “True Play.”
Consider these trends:
- Automobiles and concomitant city planning, and irrational fears of kidnapping have restricted the freedom of movement of children from miles to just a few feet away from home.
- Today’s playgrounds are designed to reduce challenge to the lowest denominator and eliminate the possibility of children making any changes in the play space.
- Schools emphasize desktop learning even though the current science of brain development shows that children learn best when they are allowed to move.
- Touching other children, let alone rough and tumble play, is disapproved if not explicitly outlawed.
Need we go on?
The bottom line is simply this. We give lip service to the notion that children have a right to play when, in fact, the majority of our norms, institutions, environments, and lifestyles actively suppress True Play.
* The Essentials of Human Rights eds. R. Smith & C. van den Anker, 2005, London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 269-272.