For children growing up in poverty, opportunities for play are often even more restricted. Today, there are 25 million children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU. In fact, there are 9 million children in the EU, who do not have access to leisure activities at all (Eurostat).
- "The opportunity to play is an investment for children, for their present and future" - Katerina Nanou
I still remember the excitement when playtime was about to begin, meeting my friends, riding our bikes, plotting the scenario of the next game, living the role of the game that we were playing, feeling the exhaustion and the disappointment when my mum called me back home. Play was part of our everyday life. Unstructured, spontaneous play with my friends or just by myself using my imagination to create a game was an everyday thing.
Play is essential for brain development, particularly in a child’s early years. It is crucial for the social, physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing of children. It stimulates their creativity, imagination, innovation self-confidence and self-efficacy. It prevents obesity, anxiety, depression, attention deficits and creates healthy, active children. Play is a natural tool that children can and should use to build their resilience.
In recent years, there has been a reduction in the quantity as well as in the quality of children’s play time. Alternative activities, such as television and electronic media have significantly increased, and there has been a shift from unstructured play led by children towards more planned, adult-directed play. Children tend to spend more time indoors, and formal educational activities, like increasing homework, eats into time for play in their daily lives.
Children growing up in poverty face a number of barriers to play. They often have extra caring responsibilities, such as looking after siblings or other family members, that do not leave them time to play. In disadvantaged areas, there are often fewer opportunities to participate in unstructured outdoor play activities organised at community level, and less access to structured after-school events, such as team sports.
Schools often do not provide extra time for children to play or recreational activities during or after the school day. Space is another obstacle, with a lack of secure and safe areas for playing in high poverty areas. When playgrounds do exist, they are often in bad condition. Last but not least, the burden and stress of poverty on families can have a negative impact on the time and space parents have to think about their child’s need to play and how they engage with their children in play.
The importance of play is codified in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes
’the right of children to rest, leisure, play and to take part in recreation activities’
At EU level, the Commission’s Recommendation on Investing in Children: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage states that
’EU countries should make sure that all children have access to play, recreation, sport and cultural activities outside school’
Children should enjoy safe spaces for playing and all EU countries should support disadvantaged communities by means of specific incentives. The Recommendation encourages schools, community actors and local authorities to create better after-school activities and facilities for all children; it also encourages EU countries to provide opportunities for playing where parents and the community will be involved to foster solidarity between generations.
The Secret Garden project, in Malta, is a great example of a safe welcoming space created with and for children. It was established in 2015 within the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society. Its programme of structured and unstructured activities is driven by the children on the Children’s Council and the Young Persons Council. Since its debut, it has been a space for children to play and build a community spirit, and has brought out the potential of thousands of children who have spent time in the garden.
Offering spaces and the opportunity to play is an investment for children, for their present and future. Governments at local and national levels should make sure that the international and EU instruments are being respected and implemented.
Children’s play is never optional. Children growing up in more disadvantaged circumstances should have the same access to both structured after school activities as their peers, and also have access to safe places in their neighbourhoods and local communities where they can engage in spontaneous play, develop their imagination and creativity, socialise, learn their limits and become resilient.
Katerina Nanou works as Policy and Advocacy Officer at Eurochild, a network of organisations and individuals advocating for children’s rights and wellbeing to be at the heart of policymaking across Europe. Katerina coordinates the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign which aims to strengthen families and end institutional care. Katerina’s past work experience includes supporting organisations to promote the benefits of play in Greece.