Skip to main content


Play is more than just having fun: enriching childhoods

Children's Children's Rights

Network of Community Activities
International College of Management, Manly NSW

1. Acknowledgments

Slide 1

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we meet on, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I would like to thank Robyn Monro-Miller, CEO of the Network of Community Activities, and the Chair of the Network of Community Activities, Marley Woods, for inviting me to speak today.

I also acknowledge the conference organiser, Patricia Gooley, the fantastic line up of speakers, including Professor David Bennett, Claire Warden and Jim Craddock, and I especially acknowledge all the conference delegates here today!


2. Introduction

Slide 2

If you asked me what a Tweet was when I was a kid growing up I would have said it had something to do with a chirping bird. Nowadays though, children operate seamlessly between the physical world and online technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, just to name a few.

So to all the digitally connected children and adults in the audience and elsewhere, you can follow me on Twitter @MeganM4Kids and like me on Facebook at


3. Action Aunt Game

Slide 3

When I say ‘play’, what comes to mind?

What do you remember when you think about your own childhood play?

I want to get us in the spirit of the conference by playing a game!

The game is called Action Aunt.

Player 1 says, “My aunt went to town waving all the way” – and everyone waves.

Player 2 says, “My aunt went to town waving and nodding her head all the way” – and everyone waves and nods their head.

The game continues until it is impossible to have the Aunt doing anything else.

So, I need 10 volunteers from the front row to help think of actions for our Aunt and to give instructions...

Game is played

How was that for you?

What emotions did you experience?

How did we engage with each other?

What did you learn?


4. The right to play

Slide 4

It was Plato who observed the significance of play more than two thousand years ago.

Plato, who lived from 427 to 347 BC said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”.

The point of this statement is that play is more than simply having fun.

Play allows children to reveal themselves, as well as learn by doing – and these early lessons are formative.

Moving to ancient Rome, the poet Ovid also said, “In our play we reveal what kind of people we are”.

When children play with other kids, as well as adults, they begin to construct their social position in the world.

Slide 5

David Lloyd George in 1926 said, “The right to play is a child’s first claim on the community. Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens.”[1]

Children’s right to play was formally affirmed by The Declaration on the Rights of the Child in 1959.[2]

It was again acknowledged as a basic right of children in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, which by the end of 2008 was signed by 192 nations.[3]

Slide 6

Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child expresses the right to play in the following terms:

  1. States Parties recognise 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.
  2. 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.

In April 2013 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recognised the importance of play by issuing what they call a General Comment on children’s Article 31 rights.[4]

This international document, known as General Comment Number 17, outlines the many challenges children face in realising their right to play and gives guidance to countries about what action must be taken to overcome these challenges.

Today communities throughout the world accept that children have a fundamental right to play.


5. Importance of play

Slide 7

Intrinsically we know that play is very important, and research tells us that play is essential for the development of children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing.

It is through play that children learn to cooperate, overcome challenges, test and defy perceived limitations as well as negotiate with others.

Play also helps develop resilience. It facilitates creativity. It provides time for parents and caregivers to be fully engaged with their children, to bond with them, and to see the world from their perspective.[5]

We know from neuroscience that both structured and unstructured play is essential for optimal brain growth and child development, especially in early childhood.[6]

Significant research has been and is being conducted on play,[7] which gives us an evidence base to guide the way forward in terms of identifying best practice.

Importantly, the research is warning us that adults must be careful not to ‘instrumentalise’ play.

In other words, by perceiving play merely as an instrument to achieve other benefits, such as the physical and mental development of children, adults run the risk of limiting children’s capacity to play.[8]

So that play does not become an instrument of adults, children must be allowed unstructured time to play freely. Our children should be able to play in their own time, according to their own rules, in their own way and for their own reasons.[9]

Researchers such as Lester and Russell argue that:

We must exercise caution and not make it too much an object of adult gaze. Children’s play belongs to children; adults should tread lightly when considering their responsibilities in this regard, being careful not to colonise or destroy children’s own places for play through insensitive planning or the pursuit of other adult agendas, or through creating places and programmes that segregate children and their play.[10]

When left to their own devices, children’s play generates a culture of childhood. A culture enriched by a child’s imagination and emancipated from the limitations of adults.

Children must be free to participate in play activities but they must also be safe. So adults have to balance both supporting and protecting children at play.


6. Adults must protect play

Slide 8

The decisions adults make about legislation, policies, how to spend money and the environment can all impact on the right of children to play.

Children’s right to flexible, unpredictable and secure play may be impeded for a range of reasons, including where children experience violence, harassment or bullying.

I am very proud of the Commission’s work over the last year to tackle cyber bullying in particular, so that children and young people can play online and offline without fear or discrimination.

Our BackMeUp campaign ran throughout 2012 and focused on the role of bystanders in addressing bullying and harassment within the online community. Bullying not only affects the physical and psychological health of children, but it also violates their right to feel safe, respected and included.

If a child does not feel safe using the Internet, or they are treated unfairly by their peers, or experience alienation in the playground, it can also undermine the ability of kids to participate freely in all sorts of play activities and community life more generally.

Our BackMeUp campaign asked kids to be part of the solution, not the problem, by backing up victims of cyber bullying and taking precautions to protect their own safety.

We engaged thousands of kids in tackling bullying through the campaign.

Over 100 kids aged 13-17 from each State and Territory in Australia entered our video competition to submit their own film about backing someone up who has been cyber bullied.

The issues which kids raised in their videos show that bullying is just as big a challenge for younger children as it is older kids. And the impact bullying has on a young child can, in some circumstances, continue throughout their childhood and into their teenage years.

I would now like to play you one of our winning video entries by a girl named Grace depicting her own experience with bullying.

Grace’s film is called, “Your ears and eyes aren’t painted on”.

Click here to play video

Slide 9

General Comment Number 17, which I referred to earlier, warned that different types of recreational activities, such as social drama and imaginative play, may lack legitimacy in the eyes of some adults.[11]

This may have particular resonance in Australian culture where we often value competitive games and physical activity more than other types of play.

My eyes were once again opened, however, to the transformative potential of imaginative play and drama only last month in Victoria.

Students, counsellors and teachers at the High Water Theatre and school in Wodonga, Victoria, use story-telling and play to empower disengaged kids so they regain control of their lives.

Here's a picture of me with the kids and adults at High Water having a discussion after the performance. I can only say that these kids, from very difficult backgrounds, and who had disengaged from mainstream education, absolutely shone through their performances and their regained aspiration to make a positive contribution and pursue broader educational goals.

The success of High Water Theatre over more than 10 years exemplifies the therapeutic potential of diverse play and recreational activities for children, and especially those children who face special vulnerabilities.

Slide 10

As well as the need to legitimise diverse play activities, General Comment Number 17 also explains the dangers of commercialisation and poorly designed built environments.

We know that when public areas are commercialised without considering the best interests of children then the ways and places children can play is limited.

But there are many agencies and individuals who are doing something about this issue. For example, Healthy Cities Illawarra shows great leadership in involving children in planning and design, including through their Child Friendly by Design Toolkit which helps planners and builders to think about the impact of the built environment on children. And they continue to roll this out to local councils throughout the state.

Two groups of kids in particular come to mind as facing special challenges when I think about the built environment and children’s right to play. They are children living in public housing and children with a disability.

Children and families living in public housing are already at risk of discrimination based on their socio-economic status.

A 2010 report by The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute shows that opportunities for children’s play are significantly reduced because of the negative relationship between low cost housing and disadvantaged neighbourhoods.[12]

For example, families living in a high-rise building are likely to have less socially supportive relationships with their neighbours, which may reduce play opportunities between children of different families. Parents living in high-rise buildings may also place greater restrictions on outdoor play.[13]

But today even living in a busy neighbourhood can restrict opportunities for play. As one 10-year-old boy described in the NSW Commission for Children and Young People 2007 well-being study, even living on a busy road with heavy traffic can impede the right to play:

I used to be allowed to ride by myself just around the block and everything with my friend, like when I was really little. My friends used to live next to me and we just rode around but now I can’t because it’s busy and anything could happen.[14]

To combat this and to protect the right of children to play, adequate playgrounds and recreational spaces must be a feature of residential developments. It is critical that these developments should be planned with the children and communities that will live there.

I am also particularly concerned about the measures we take to ensure that children living with disabilities can exercise their right to play.

Children with a physical disability can face access issues because not all built environments are designed for universal use.

Children with a hearing impairment may be excluded from some recreational activities and children with a vision impairment may have restricted access to play equipment.

This is where resources like the Child Friendly by Design Toolkit and the NSW Commission’s Built4Kids guide, along with the expertise and input of specialist disability experts, advocates and the kids themselves, will help to ensure children with disabilities are not excluded from play opportunities.[15]

When asked about whether children and adults should make rules and decisions together, one 9-year-old boy said:

I think that both sides should co-operate together and should have meetings together and make up the rules because it is more fair that way.[16]

Alienation, bullying, the built environment and accessibility can all impact on a child’s right to play, but so can overprotective parents and decision makers concerned about injury and stranger danger.

Though adults have a role to play in managing unacceptable hazards to children’s play, such as by improving street lighting, reducing traffic in play environments and expanding the boundaries for school playgrounds, threats to children’s safety must also be managed by empowering kids rather than by constraining them.

This is about balancing the tension between risk and safety in a way that protects children’s right to play. Legislators, local councils, schools and parents must vigilantly resist becoming the victims of fear, resulting in limits being placed on children’s freedom to play, and in doing so, taking away the normal risks that children need to take so they can develop and grow.

Part of our responsibility then is to equip kids with enough knowledge and skills so that children themselves can take the precautions needed to protect their own safety.

Slide 11

For children in immigration detention centres, there may be very few meaningful activities and safe places to play. This is particularly true for pre-school aged children who are not of age to attend school.

In November 2010 the Commission visited the immigration detention facility in Leonora, Western Australia, and – reporting on the conditions at the time – found that the children’s playground and turf soccer pitch was located outside the facility’s fence line. Also, because there was no shade cloth over the children’s playground, the extreme heat and lack of shade made the play equipment unusable during most of the day.[17]

The lack of recreational spaces and opportunities for unstructured activities for kids in immigration detention facilities is also very concerning given the increasing number of children in some form of detention, now estimated at just under 1900.

The Child Rights Taskforce also stressed this point in their June 2012 report and called on government to provide adequate play areas and resources, toys and trained staff to ensure these children can enjoy their right to play, recreation and leisure.[18]


7. Conclusion

Slide 12

Play is what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests in their own way and for their own reasons.[19]

It enriches the lives of children by giving them opportunities to engage in a shared experience, explore their own creativity and achieve a sense of belonging.

We know that children have an almost endless appetite for experimentation, imagination and trying new things.

With this in mind, while we need to protect children from the more serious inherent risks they will face in life, we can’t adopt a zero-risk approach to children’s play because this prevents children from having important developmental experiences.

The complexity of this debate was recently featured in the media when I was asked to comment on the risk averse approach taken by a member of the community when they called the police to intervene in a scenario where a grandfather had the supervision of his six year old granddaughter who was frolicking on a Sydney beach unclothed.

Slide 13

Yes, we need to ensure that children can grow up in a safe world, but not one entirely without risk or adversity or the natural challenges that play provides. This necessarily involves trusting children, equipping them with information and skills, and in doing so, empowering them.

The words of a 13-year-old boy demonstrate the importance of being trusted. He said:

Yeah it is important. It makes you feel good and it makes you feel you can do stuff and it gives you the ability, if that is the right word, to be able to do it. Helps you on your way to greatness.[20]


8. The Big Banter

Slide 14

Before I finish today, I would also like to let you all know about The Big Banter.

The Big Banter is the name I have given to my first important priority as National Children’s Commissioner – listening to the views of children about their rights and what is important to them.

The right to have your say about decisions which affect you, and to have those views taken seriously, is a guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In The Big Banter, I will be talking with, or rather bantering with, children and young people about what is important to them and how we can better protect their rights.

During June, July and August I will visit each state and territory, speaking with groups of children and young people from all sorts of backgrounds and ages, as well as children’s organisations and advocates. We will be inviting children to fill out The Big Banter Survey and go in the draw for a prize! We will also be inviting children to upload their own stories – whether written stories, letters, poems, videos or drawings – to our website.

If you follow my Facebook page or Twitter, or look out on the Australian Human Rights Commission website in a couple of weeks, you will find out more about how to get involved. So I hope you will spread the word.

And as you can see from the words of some of the children I quoted in my talk today, it is really enlightening to hear what children themselves say about play, and I am hoping that I will hear more about its importance when I travel around on The Big Banter tour over the next few months.

Thank you for listening to me and playing with me a little today.

[1] R Powell & N Seaton, A Treasure Chest of Service: The Role of Toy Libraries within Play Policy in Wales, National Foundation for Educational Research (2007). At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[2] Declaration on the Rights of the Child, 1959, art 7. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[3] Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 31. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[4] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No 17 – The right to the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts, CRC/C/GC/17 (2013), para 33. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[5] D Mulligan, R Milteer, K Ginsburg, ‘The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty’ (2012) 129(1) American Academy of Pediatrics 204. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[6] S Rushton, A Rushton, & E Larkin, ‘Neuroscience, Play and Early Childhood Education: Connections, Implications and Assessment’ 37 Early Childhood Education Journal 351. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[7] J Gleave & I Cole-Hamilton, A literature review on the effects of a lack of play on children’s lives, Play England (2012). At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[8] S Lester & W Russell, Play for a Change: Play, Policy and Practice – A review of contemporary perspectives, Play England (2008). At,-policy-… (viewed 10 May 2013).
[9] I Cole-Hamilton, NCB Highlight: Play and Well-being, Children’s Play Information Services (2012).
[10] S Lester & W Russell, note 7.
[11] Committee on the Rights of the Child, note 4.
[12] Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Housing and children’s development and wellbeing: a scoping study, Report No 149 (2010), p 13. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[13] Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, note 11.
[14] NSW Commission for Children and Young People, Ask the Children: Overview of Children’s Understandings of Well-being, (2007, p 5. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[15] G Woolcock & W Steele, ‘Child-friendly Community Indicators – A Literature Review’, (2008) Griffith University. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[16] NSW Commission for Children and Young People, note 13, page 4.
[17] Australian Human Rights Commission, Summary of observations from visit to immigration detention facility in Leonora (2011), p 8. At… (viewed 10 May 2013).
[18] Child Rights Taskforce, Listen to Children: Child Rights NGO Report Australia (2011), p 28. At (viewed 10 May 2013).
[19] Re-play, The value of Pay, (viewed at 10 May 2013).
[20] NSW Commission for Children and Young People, note 13, page 6

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner

See Also