Let’s play!

Lesotho games. Credit: David Lazar

By Heike Kuhn
BONN, Germany, Jun 10 2024 – For the first time ever, we will commemorate the joy of playing with an International Day of Play“ on June 11, 2024. On their website, the UN state that this „marks a significant milestone in efforts to preserve, promote, and prioritize playing so that all people, especially children, can reap the rewards and thrive to their full potential“. But why ist playing so important?

Here is a closer look, starting with children: We all have witnessed globally that children do learn best through play, everywhere, in each region and in each culture. Through play children can be creative, learn to express themselves and to cooperate. By playing with peers, they connect with others, learn to put themselves in the position of others, follow and respect rules and develop resilience when winning or losing, understanding that both come along with playing.

The right to play is protected: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Children declares that „states parties recognize 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“ (Article 31). Remembering that this Convention is one of the most ratified UN conventions, one could suppose that engaging in play would be easy for children everywhere as this right is implemented.

However, we face big differences between countries: In so called developed countries,playing does take place at home and in public spaces: At home children play with animals, dolls, games and electronic devices. At kindergartens and schools children can furthermore play during sports lessons. And even in small cities you will find public playgrounds with swings, climbing frames and whipping tops.

Coming to developing countries where the majority of global youth is living, we see a quite different situation: Many children simply have no time to play, but instead have chores (especially girls), are working on fields in rural areas to support their families living in poverty, are working in factories or are refugees on the move, threatened by wars, conflicts or climate change. Yet – whenever, wherever there is a chance for it, you see children playing with their peers – be it kicking in the streets, playing hide and seek or local games. By playing children’s well-being is secured – everywhere. Playing gives a sense of normalcy even in the most difficult circumstances.

Turning now to adults: Why do we still like to play? Let us start with sports: football, tennis, cricket, kabbadi, just to name some. Mental exercises comprise bridge, backgammon, chess or multiple forms of quizzes. Many adults find a great satisfaction in playing, getting a distance from their daily routine, coming together with peers, exchange and have fun, sink into the game, immerse in playing, having all the attention in this very moment, just as children do.

So what is the magic in playing? In her introduction in the guide to the outdoor exhibition „Radical Playgrounds – from Competion to Collaboration“, taking place in Berlin, the Curator Joanna Warsza, states: „The core idea of ludology, the study of play, tells us that play is necessary for a human being to thrive and needs to be based on voluntary participation involving a set of fictive rules and the possibility to quit at any time …“

From my point of view, the participation on a voluntary basis is key for playing as much as the factor of having fun: The activity is optional, there is no enforcement. You are either interested because your mind is attracted and you concentrate as you experiment new ideas or materials (free play) or you like the task, the team or the competition, e.g. in sports during a match (competitive play). Playing creates communities, playing let you thrive as you can be anyone, play is fun, be it alone or with others. At the same time you are learning, as „Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning“, to quote American writer Diane Ackermann.

Digging a little deeper in competitive play and transferring lessons to our daily lives: Whenever we play with others, first we have to agree on the rules, jointly. Afterwards, we all have to respect them. Of course, temper and emotions come in and have to be handled. Still, without respecting the rules once agreed upon, you cannot play as some of us will get frustrated and stop it. How important rules are you can also witness in the position of a referee, who secures their respect during the tournament, e.g. in football matches: You will get yellow- or red-carded if you do not obey the rules in place.

So what are the lessons? Playing means enjoying and learning. Playing is a most powerful tool for all societies, bringing together persons from all social classes and enjoying themselves. Here in Europe, my continent, three big sports events will attract many people this summer: The European Athletics Championships in Rome, the European Championship tournament in football in Germany and the Summer Olympics in Paris. We will witness how athletes will show maximum performance, will respect rules and therefore have to play fair. They will be role models for many of us an will inspire millions, especially the youth. And we will have fun. That’s another reason why I embrace the first ever International Day of Play!

Dr. Heike Kuhn is Head of Division, Education, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Bonn, Germany

IPS UN Bureau


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