The right to play

The right to spend time playing, article 31


The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 states that children have the right to education (art. 28), and they have the right to rest and leisure, to spend time playing and engaging in recreational activities appropriate to their age (art. 31): two rights of equal weight and equal importance. That is why, although for nine months a year the working days are dedicated to school, leisure time is fundamental for children’s development too. However, the youngest know that this is not the case. The right to education and the right to play are not equally important to adults because children have to go to school every day and there is homework to do during afternoons and holidays. Often there is no time left to play, said Silvia, a child at the Children's Council of Rome: “To teachers studying is important because it prepares us for the future, while playing is something you do only when you're little and so it counts for nothing”.


The opinion of science


Science does not agree with the opinion of most adults. According to studies on cognitive development, it is during the very early days, early months and early years that development is quicker and more important. Before a child enters a classroom for the first time, the foundations upon which all subsequent knowledge will be built have already been laid. And it is thanks to play that this fundamental cognitive and social process occurs.

Through play children experience something rare in the life of human beings: facing the complexity of the world by themselves. Playing means carving out a little piece of this world:  a piece that includes a friend, certain rules, some objects, a space to fill,  time to spend, risks to take. With total freedom, because what you cannot do, you can invent. And the driving force of this experience is the most powerful known by mankind: pleasure.


What playing means


For children to fully enjoy the experience of playing some conditions must be met. The youngest must be independent enough, must have some free time to organize, have the possibility to choose a suitable place to play and share these conditions with other children. It is necessary to be able to go out without being accompanied, look for friends and spend free time playing in a suitable place. Playing means experiencing adventure, discovery, obstacles, risks and the pleasure of being able to do what yesterday you were unable to do, or the frustration of not succeeding.

When asked “what is play to a child?” pediatrician and child psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto answered: “I would say it is enjoying wish fulfillment through risks”. Risk, an essential component of play, would not be possible if there was an adult accompanying and monitoring.

Certainly, this necessarily free and independent experience is experienced within temporal, spacial and social rules as defined by the family. That is why sharing is important too: when they return home, tired and perhaps dirty, children will have so many things to tell.


Play and school


Schools too should take an interest in their students’ play experience. Only when children can spend afternoons, weekends and holidays playing can they have a new wealth of experience to bring back to school as working material: their observations, discoveries, surprises and amazement. Schools, therefore, should not fill children’s free time with homework but leave room for the fundamental element of growth that is play.

A city to play in


A city ready to develop child-friendly policies, choosing children as a parameter, must ensure that the right to play is one of its priority commitments. A commitment that is realized at different levels:

  • Firstly at the regulatory and legal level: cities should offer children the possibility to play, not limit or prohibit play, ensuring that there are no limitations or prohibitions in condominium regulations. An example is a sign found in Miraflores de Lima in Peru, that reads: “Prohibido jugar pelota excepto niños y niñas”, that is: “It is forbidden to play ball, except for children”
  • Secondly at the level of mobility: there should be a bold move to favor pedestrians over vehicles and redesign roads and sidewalks so that going out and moving around alone in urban spaces is easier and safer for everyone, especially for children.
  • Thirdly at the level of urban planning: enclosed stereotyped playing areas for children only should give way to beautiful and interesting public spaces that all citizens, young and old, can use according to their different needs. In such cities families will worry less and children will be able to leave their house to go to school in the morning together with their friends and then to play in the afternoon. In turn, with their presence, children will encourage adults to pay more attention and participate more, making the city a better and safer place.

Sign in Miraflores, Lima district, Perù

In Practice

A way to encourage children’s play in cities can be the establishment of “Play Day”,  an idea conceived on 29 December 1997 by the Council of Children of Rosario in Argentina, which, through play, found out that the city needed a day when children and adult played and lived side by side.  Since its approval by City Council, El Día del Juego y de la Convivencia (Play and Share Day) is celebrated every first Wednesday of October.

Rome and San Giorgio a Cremano (Naples) have promoted similar initiatives as well. “Play Day” in Rome was established by City Council on 17 November 2004, at the request of the Council of Children. By Municipal Council decree n. 295 of 22/09/2006, City Council of San Giorgio a Cremano (Naples) declared “Play Day” a regular annual appointment, set for every second Wednesday of May, entirely dedicated to recreational activities.

Learn more

Rosario's Play Day 

Rome's Play Day

San Giorgio a Cremano’s Play Day

Video on the importance of play for children: from Imaginelephant, a video on the importance of free play for children, containing interviews with more than 30 experts on educational themes, psychologists and researchers.

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