The first generation to have the right to play

This week marks the first-ever International Day of Play, which recognises the crucial role play has in the healthy development of children and even into adulthood. If you are a reader of this newsletter, you know this is a topic close to my heart. I truly believe that it is one of features of childhood that we adults can learn the most from.

Play is also one of the least understood children’s rights — even if it was adopted 35 years ago as part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the time, play was recognised as a fundamental right, with the same status to other rights, such as the right to live with a family, healthcare, nutrition, education, and freedom of religion. It was a groundbreaking achievement.

Since the 1989 adoption of the convention, advocates have fought to make sure that play is treated as a right, not as a frivolous and superfluous activity. Even so, society still needs to catch up.

Access to play is not equal

Over 70% of children polled by toy manufacturer LEGO for its annual Play Well Study 2024 said they believed that adults in their lives did not take play seriously enough.

This is not hard to imagine. Whether children’s play is allowed or not depends on gender, age, family income, and disability. For example, global data shows that girls often are put in charge of household chores, with limited time for play and creative activities, which in turn affects their self-confidence and aspirations for the future, according to Save the Children’s 2023 “Girls, Play and Power” report. In countries such as Afghanistan (since the Taliban takeover in 2021) or Saudi Arabia, girls are not allowed to play sports, while in others they are stigmatised or punished for doing so.

Children living in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters are significantly less likely to have safe places to play: 40% of children and young people living in countries affected by war and 38% in those impacted by natural disasters reported they have no safe space to play, compared to the global average of 22% of children and young people overall, according to International Day of Play’s Child and Youth Advisory Group’s consultations with more than 10,000 children and young people across the world. The same report also points out that play is perceived very differently on a regional basis. For example, children in Latin America are highly concerned about the absence of safe play spaces — much more compared to their peers in Asia, Europe or North America.

Even in contexts of privilege, we parents may be aware of the importance of play, but we still struggle to leave our children alone to play and explore independently — prioritising school excellence, adult-only spaces without ball games or noise, as well as private mobility in cars. It is, as British journalist Harriet Grant explains in The Guardian, “a war on play”.

Play is crucial, wherever you live

This is why Save the Children, the LEGO Foundation and other partners carried out a campaign to have the International Day of Play added to the list of global annual observances recognised by the United Nations — and I am extremely happy they did.

After all, “we are the first generation with the knowledge to finally ensure every child has the right to play fulfilled,” as UNICEF rightly says. And thus we have a responsibility to be talking more about play, and to do all we can to make it possible.

This means that we all — parents and caregivers, local and national governments, businesses and International bodies — put children, and their need to play, at the top of our agendas. That we push to have fewer cars in the streets, and more spaces where children can play safely. And that we stop thinking that play is a trivial thing when there are “bigger problems” — such as wars or malnutrition. Play helps children process their trauma and connect to themselves, their peers and their caregivers. Children play, always — even in Gaza, in Sudan, and in Ukraine.

Read more about play

If you would like a crash course on play, below is some of my previous writing on the topic.

Here you can read about why play matters from a developmental perspective, and what the main characteristics of true play are.

Here you can read about how we adults can reconnect to the joy of play by accessing our memories of childhood.

Here and here you can read about some of the pioneers helping make cities more child- and play-friendly.

And here you can read how I rediscovered the benefits of play as an adult.

What I’ve been reading

This reportage on New Lines magazine looks at a controversial law in Denmark that makes daycare attendance compulsory by the age of one for those growing up in “non-Western” families in “ghettos” — an official label for low-income minority neighbourhoods. If the families fail to send the children, they risk losing public benefits. The “ghetto laws”, which were rolled out as Denmark passed several restrictive laws on immigration, have been contested — but the kindergarten element often goes unnoticed, as reporter Gabriela Galvin points out. While kindergarten attendance can help bilingual children in vulnerable contexts fare better, human rights activists say compulsory attendance is racist.

What I’ve been listening to

In this episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the New York Times columnist has a conversation with NPR’s Rhaina Cohen about the content of her book The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center. It is a great conversation that questions which relationships we place at the centre of our world and why we lack the terms to talk about friendships more deeply. It also looks at experiments of polyamory and how difficult it is to raise children in a nuclear family — and how much stress it puts on monogamous relationships. It also asks a great provocative question: what kinds of relationships would you want in your life, if you felt you could ask for them?

What I’ve been watching

This TED Talk by Rebecca Saxe, a researcher at MIT, is very touching. It explains how she started studying baby brains — and how difficult it was to catch clear images of their brain activity from an MRI scan. Just imagine trying to keep a newborn baby awake and still inside an MRI machine. Well, she jumped into one together with her newborn son to see whether she could help keep him still and awake. One of the images that came out of the experiment is a very poetic take on mother-child love — as seen from an MRI scan.

What’s been inspiring me

The Poetry Foundation in the United States has an amazing website featuring work by U.S. poets, including thematic collections. The motherhood collection is one I go back to often for inspiration.

This week, I came across Song for Baby-O, Unborn, by feminist poet Diane di Prima, who was considered one of the “minor characters” of the (very macho) Beat generation (that’s for another newsletter).

when you break thru
you’ll find
a poet here
not quite what one would choose.

I won’t promis
you’ll never go hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

📸 Glen Carrie on Unsplash, A close-up image of a single orange Lego brick placed on a blue Lego baseplate. The orange brick stands out among the uniformly spaced blue studs of the baseplate, creating a contrast in color and texture.

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