The right to play is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This an internationally binding human rights agreement with 54 articles, 42 of which set out the rights of children and young people.
Article 31 of the convention states: ‘Every child has the right 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.’
In 2013, the UNCRC published General Comment 17 on Article 31. The purpose of this comment was to clarify the responsibilities of all countries within the United Nations for a child’s right to play and emphasised the lack of protective legislation and investment in play opportunities and seeming invisibility of children in national and local level planning.
There is a range of health, well-being, and educational benefits from outdoor play and whilst managed, fixed play spaces are also essential in meeting the needs of children to play outdoors, whether alone or as part of a group, valuable informal play opportunities exist in many open spaces, including natural spaces, open parkland, woodlands, and in some public realm areas.
By providing quality opportunities for children of all ages to play will benefit their physical and cognitive development and uphold their right to engage in play and recreational activities. Using, accessing, and learning in the natural world can help foster a better understanding of nature and the need to protect and care for the environment. It is therefore vital that we support and enable children to play more readily outdoors, and this should not be restricted to playing in play areas or spaces specifically designed and managed for play. The need to create space for spontaneous play, recreation and creativity along the routes to all of these spaces is equally as important.
Wales is first country in the world to protect in law children’s right to play. They want to create an environment where children have excellent opportunities to play and enjoy their free time. It is a legal requirement for every local authority in Wales to both assess and ensure that their area secures enough opportunities for children to play. This legal requirement is called the Play Sufficiency Duty.
Although it is not a legal requirement in England, our Landscape Architects at Groundwork Yorkshire have developed several projects that exercise the principles of Play Sufficiency and have come away from the idea that outdoor play is limited to playgrounds. In some of our projects, we have focused on maximising a child’s opportunity to play using a space that is essential in their day-to-day life. Kettlewell Snicket and Folkstone Street in Bradford are two sites that demonstrate this well as they have been transformed into play spaces.
Before Groundwork were asked to get involved, Kettlewell Snicket was unattractive and unsafe. But it’s a necessary walking route for children and their parents to get to nursery and the Centre for Children and Families. Although it’s a short walk, it was unpleasant, surrounded by overgrown vegetation and lacking any stimulating features, making it a dull and uninspiring walk.
The proposal opened the site up by removing the overgrown shrubs and climbers and replacing them with playful features. We used a small mound and low stone sculptures, shaped like insects, and beautifully patterned stepping stones. These intrigued toddlers and encourages them to keep them active, playing in a space not usually associated with play. These features were low to the ground at the right scale for younger children to play on.
Folkestone Street had existing natural elements including grass and mature trees but nothing playful; It lacked colour and opportunities for children to be imaginative and creative. In addition, parents were not always available to take them to the park, so we felt it was important for them to have access to stimulating features outside of their homes.
A series of playful pieces were installed along the street encouraging outdoor activities, helping to boost community pride and a sense of ownership. Through a series of community engagement workshops, we were able to initiate interest before a design was proposed. A community artist was brought in to design a series of playful sculptures to be installed to encourage children to play where they live, developing a successful play street
These are a few examples of how ordinary spaces can be transformed into exciting and colourful spaces for children and how the likelihood of children playing is increased.