What if every child had the right to play?
As a child, I loved to skate. Growing up, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so. Through my personal experience, I came to appreciate the benefits of sport for my health, growth and development. Unfortunately, not all children around the world are afforded the same opportunity.
1989 was an exciting year. For me personally, it was a promising time – I was training for the World Speed Skating Championships, full of youthful hope and aspiration. For children internationally, it was a time of even greater promise and significance, with the international community uniting to support children’s rights by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the United Nations General Assembly.
The Convention recognizes the need to protect and nurture children during the vulnerable and exciting years of childhood – regardless of their identity, origin or status. By ratifying the treaty, governments promised to advance and support the holistic development of children by upholding their rights to education, health, personal growth, protection and their right to play.
The power of sport
Experts on child well-being have long known that sport and play are an integral part of healthy childhood development, allowing children to gain the information, personal and social skills, and support they need to successfully navigate key life transitions. During a child’s early years sport and play are essential to physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Under the supervision of caring and supporting role models, these activities can help to reduce children’s anxiety and aggression and build their self-esteem and self-reliance. They also provide important ways to help children and youth recover from trauma, enhance their ability to cope with situations of conflict and disaster and to reintegrate excluded groups into communities. In the developing world, where children often face multiple challenges to their rights, sport and play can add tremendous value simply by stimulating joyful experiences and providing children with positive social interactions.
Sport and play can also strengthen education through experiential learning. When children are taught through play-based experiences, they are more likely to retain what they have learned and apply those lessons to other aspects of their lives. When offered as part of a school curriculum, sport can increase enrolment, raise attendance, enhance readiness to learn and elevate academic performance.
Right to Play
My accomplishments as an Olympic athlete opened many doors for me, and one of the greatest opportunities I received was the privilege of visiting children around the world. It seemed that everywhere I went, children wanted to play. For children facing difficult situations, play is an especially important part of life. In 2000, I founded Right To Play, a non-profit organization where the goal is to use sport and play to improve health, develop life skills and foster peace for children and communities around the world. Today, after nine rewarding years of growth and discovery, we are reaching more than 650,000 children in 23 of the world’s most disadvantaged countries.
When Right To Play began, the Convention had been in force for 10 years, and its principles have always been an important inspiration to our work. Among the many rights afforded to children under the Convention, article 31 – outlining a child’s right to play and leisure – is perhaps the most clearly related to our work. But our efforts to improve the lives of children are complemented by many other articles, reflecting the Convention’s inclusive protection of children’s rights and their well-being, and our own comprehensive empowerment programmes.
The Convention is one of the great accomplishments of the international community. But it is just the beginning. I have seen that if every child fully enjoyed the right to play and had access to constructive sport and play opportunities, children would be happier and in better health. They would acquire transferable skills to serve them well later in life – enhancing their prospects for employment and education and strengthening their self-reliance and problem-solving expertise. Sport, leisure and play would enable them to become confident team players who trust in their abilities, and they would be less likely to engage in violence and criminal activity, more likely to enrol in school and, once there, more inclined to attend and achieve scholastic success.
Physical education: a strategic investment for governments
Under the Convention, the right to play has now existed for 20 years. But it would be naive to think that all children in the world are able to exercise this right. Empowering children with the right to play does not mean they, or their communities, are equipped to realize that right. Upholding a child’s right to play as the Convention intends demands greater efforts to provide positive opportunities for sport and leisure, led by well-trained, caring role models who have the best interests of children at heart.
Children and youth now make up the single largest cohort in history. In many developing countries, young people under age 24 account for the majority of the population, and their share of the global population is expected to peak in the next 10 years. Today, sport and play are rightfully garnering recognition within the international development community as powerful agents of social change with the potential to contribute to social and community development on a much larger scale. UN Member States are now presented with an unprecedented chance to steer global development. They must act swiftly to actively invest in the healthy and holistic development of children. Governments can help to create safe spaces for children to engage in sport and play activities by allocating resources to infrastructure; they can help to build community capacity to deliver sport and play programmes by investing in training and development for leaders and coaches; and they can promote children’s participation in sport by ensuring sport and physical education is included in educational curricula.
Providing the necessary resources to ensure all children have access to positive sport and play opportunities is, in my mind, one of the most strategic investments that governments, international organizations and communities can make. As the global community searches for creative solutions to today’s complex global problems, we must not forget the unique needs and pleasures of childhood or the power of sport and play in transforming lives. When children play, the world wins.
Johann Koss is a four-time Olympic gold medalist in speed skating. The recipient of numerous athletic awards from his home country of Norway and the international community, Johann is considered one of the greatest speed skaters in the sport’s history. Following the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic games, Johann dedicated himself to developing Right To Play into an internationally-recognized non-profit organization and a leader in sport for development.
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