Most everyone knows that play is an essential part of a healthy childhood. But Wales, one of the four nations of the United Kingdom, is the only country in the world to guarantee children playtime as a basic right.
Since 2010, local authorities in the country have been required by law to assess and secure “sufficient play opportunities” for children in their area.
Children have an innate urge to play. But various barriers can stand in their way: a lack of appropriate safe spaces, for example, or heavy street traffic making access difficult. The law is an attempt to reduce barriers while finding ways to expand opportunities.
Opportunities to play
Support for the idea of a pro-play law gained steam in 2009 after a Committee of MPs in Wales’s parliament carried out a survey of 2,700 children. The survey found that “safe places to play and hang out” was their top concern.
The issue quickly became part of the government’s poverty agenda, said Emma Curtis, policy advisor at the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. “Play was seen as an important part of equal access to [childhood] experiences,” she said. The Welsh government’s 2011 Child Poverty Strategy noted that the right to play contributes to children’s development and resilience.
But what distinguishes Wales’s 2010 measure is not only its idealism — it seeks to enforce Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: “every child has the right to rest and leisure, [and] to engage in play” — but also the mechanisms it establishes to ensure compliance.
The law requires each of Wales’ 22 local authorities to carry out and publish detailed evaluations, based on 111 criteria, on their record in providing and promoting the means for children to play.
After assessing the situation, the law says, each local authority “must secure sufficient play opportunities in its area for children, so far as reasonably practicable”.
The law leaves vague the meaning of “sufficient play opportunities”. But it requires local authorities to consult regularly with children, professionals, and interested organisations.
“The right to play may not compensate for broader cuts to other services”
“The strength of the legislation is that each of the local authorities has been able to do something quite creative based on its situation and its resources,” said Marianne Mannello, assistant director of Play Wales, an independent charity funded by the Welsh government that has been active in supporting the law’s implementation.
The Welsh government has provided some grant funding — about £6.5million ($8.4 million) since 2012 — to help, though officials stress that a number of measures can be adopted at little or no cost.
Steps taken by various local authorities include allowing streets to close temporarily so children can play, opening school grounds after hours and purchasing better play equipment for disabled children.
Conwy council developed new play guidance for managing risk, based on a view — increasingly widely held across the child development sector — that a degree of risk belongs in children’s play, despite efforts in recent decades to eliminate it entirely.
“We have worked to adopt a more balanced, common sense approach,” Gareth Stacey, the authority’s Principal Play Officer, told Apolitical.
“For example, if we looked at a child climbing a tree, yes there are plenty of hazards. However we need to balance this with the benefits children get.”
Conwy Council also developed a policy to remove many of the area’s “no ball games” signs. The move came after officials determined that “a large quantity of these signs were in the only green spaces where children could play in their community,” said Stacey.
Too few safe places?
Officials say that by encouraging a broad approach, the law has persuaded a wide range of local authority departments, from planning to disability services, to help grow the opportunities for play.
But even as the law is winning praise, supporters say more must be done to reach marginalised groups of children, like the disabled, those living in poverty, refugees, and ethnic minorities. These groups of children “don’t always have their voices heard,” said Curtis of the Children’s Commissioner. “There is more work to be done.”
In particular, the right to play may not compensate for broader cuts to other services. A 2015 consultation of over 7,000 children and young people found that many felt their local area offered few places to spend their free time in a safe and enjoyable way.
One young person commented: “We are unable to stay in places and are often moved from parks and skateparks.” Another pointed to the consequences of austerity measures: “Youth Clubs are another safe place. They were good, but lots of youth clubs have gone now.”
As they strive to overcome today’s myriad obstacles to play, officials in Wales say they are taking a comprehensive approach. “There is slow recognition that children’s play is not simply parks, play areas and play schemes,” said Conwy Council’s Stacey. “It is about how we can provide the time, space and permission for children to play in their own community with the ever-increasing barriers they face in today’s society.” — Burton Bollag
(Picture credit: Seth Stoll)