Monday 21 October 2013

The right for kids to play sounds like a trivial pursuit, but the United Nations see it as far more than just fun and games. So much so, that the UN has just release a tool-kit of sorts to help governments around the world implement play initiatives. One of Australia’s leading advocates for children’s play, Robyn Monro Miller, has just returned from Geneva and spoke with us about the significance of the UN document and the importance of playtime.


Graeme Innes: Hello and welcome to Pod Rights, a series of podcasts from the Australian Human Rights Commission.  I'm Graeme Innes, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner.  There are a few things in the world more uplifting than seeing happy children at play but who would have thought that it was a human right.  Well today we're talking about children's rights to play and participate in the arts.  It's actually one of the articles in the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child.  Last week at the United Nations in Geneva, a document known in human rights language as a General Comment was launched and distributed to governments around the world.

It's basically a guide, tool kit of sorts, coming from the expert committee on the convention on the rights of the child that gives authorities practical ways to implement children's playtime and engagement with the arts.  Robyn Monro Miller is one of Australia's leading advocates for children's right to play and she was the only Australian in Geneva at the launch of this General Comment and Robyn's the CEO of Network of Community Activities and the Vice President of the International Play Association and she joins us today on Pod Rights, welcome Robyn.

Robyn Monro Miller: Thank you Graeme, it's a pleasure to be here.

Graeme Innes: What a great opportunity to be Vice President of the International Play Association, I'm sure there's a lot of people who'd be keen to have that job.

Robyn Monro Miller: I suppose so.  Well it comes with a fair bit of work but certainly it's a wonderful time to be in the role particularly as we've been launching this General Comment.

Graeme Innes: I'm sure it comes with plenty of work.  It's the kids who get to play and that's the bottom line isn't it?  Robyn this should be an obvious question, but why is playtime so important for kids and for young people?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well Graeme I think it's important that we recognise that play is actually the way that children engage with and learn about their world.  So it is essential for a child's healthy physical and emotional development that they have time for unstructured spontaneous play wherever they are living in the world.

Graeme Innes: Sometimes that's not as easy to achieve is it and we'll come to that as we talk about the General Comment.  I mean would it be fair to say that most kids in Australia would have those opportunities but perhaps not all?

Robyn Monro Miller: I actually think you could say, and many people assume that in Australia our children are able to play freely, but increasingly we're seeing a number of obstacles to children's play.  Sometimes it's just our understanding of play is so flawed as to what is good for kids that it really does stop children from playing rather than actually help them to play.

Graeme Innes: So that's probably part of the answer to my next question then Robyn which is, why do governments need to know how to implement playtime?  It's pretty obvious isn't it?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well I suppose we need to make sure that all of our governments know just how important play is.  That it isn't just something that happens and that often we have to ensure that our communities are built around opportunities for children to play.  Governments that care about their people should be committed to ensuring that every child in their community has access to wonderful play opportunities.  That an investment in children's play is really an investment in the society where creativity and innovation is valued, because ensuring our children have play means we're contributing to the growth of our healthy citizens. 
That actually puts us all in a better position to ensure that the children in our world are making meaningful contributions.

Graeme Innes: It's interesting isn't it because you would think that children playing would be a fairly simple concept, but when you drill down and explain it in that way it's actually something that we do need to put a bit of thought into isn't it?

Robyn Monro Miller: It certainly is and particularly whilst we have challenges in Australia.  Across the world we've identified a range of challenges to children's play and that's something that this General Comment actually does.  In giving guidance to governments it actually helps them to understand what are the challenges that children are facing in trying to access play?  Certainly the General Comment doesn't just cover play, it also covers children's rest and their leisure and their access to the recreational opportunities and culture in the Arts.  All of those things are areas that we often take for granted, that children should just access but it isn't something we should be doing.

Graeme Innes: Yeah so Robyn can you give me some examples of the barriers to children's play, perhaps one in Australia and one from somewhere else in the world?

Robyn Monro Miller: I suppose what we've identified are barriers to children's play in Australia.  Sometimes it's actually there's no spaces to play, no safe places where children can go to play.  Or where people feel that play isn't valuable so they want to place their children in over structured time, making sure every afternoon they've got something to do, some class to go to, rather than seeing that there needs to be time in every child's life to play and to just seize opportunities to stop and roll down a hill or balance on a tree, climb a tree.  Those sorts of free play activities.

Whereas overseas we've got challenges, we've identified in consultation with children where girls in some countries aren't able to play because they're responsible for actually helping out in the house.  So their access to play can sometimes be quite limited.  We also see children in poverty, situations of poverty and in areas where they actually have to go to work and that work actually takes precedent.  So child labour comes into it.  So there are challenges faced in different ways in every country across the world when it comes to children's access to play and leisure.

Graeme Innes: What about computers and the internet Robyn?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well computers and the internet are interesting because it is one of the things that has been discussed and was discussed in the development of the General Comment.  This is actually another way children play, children's use of the media.  Technology is one way of children playing but we just need to balance that out with - one of the important parts about play, is that engagement with the outdoor environment and to actually go and access other - and engage with people because this is where they're developing the wonderful skills and knowledge that actually helps them to understand the world they live in.
So it's about balance and so we can't just say all technology is bad because really play evolves.  Different forms of play are evolving and we do acknowledge that technology is one way children do play.

Graeme Innes: So it's balance and a mix of activities, is that a fair…

Robyn Monro Miller: It certainly is and definitely never underestimate the value of outdoor engagement in children's play where they're able to actually explore their outdoor environment.

Graeme Innes: Now let's go back to the process a bit if we can Robyn.  What is a General Comment and why did we need one for Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well a General Comment actually explains in details the measures that a government is expected to take to ensure that the implementation of a particular article in the Convention.  Now in this instance the General Comment relates to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  In particular it relates to Article 31 and so this General Comment is 10,700 words, that's what they limit you to.  It is actually to summarise and to give some examples and some advice to government about how to actually implement that particular Article.

Now Article 31 is about the right of the child to rest, to leisure, play, recreational activities, and cultural life in the arts.  So it's quite a large area to cover in a child's life but we know it often as the forgotten article because many people see this particular Article 31 as less important than other articles in the Convention.  So there's other Articles in the Convention around wellbeing, around access to education, around family life.  However we see Article 31 as actually linked to many of those other outcomes that are recognised in the Convention and so it's equally as important in ensuring you're able to meet the other articles in the Convention.

Graeme Innes: What was the process of putting the General Comment together, of developing the General Comment Robyn and how did you get to include the voice of children in that process, because that's pretty important isn't it?

Robyn Monro Miller: Yeah we recognised straight from the beginning that the children's voices had to be reflected in the document, particularly if we're looking at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Article 12 is all about.  Listening to children and including children's voices, so we would be actually breaking another article in the Convention if we didn't include their voices.  So in the development of the process for the General Comment, a range of organisations internationally got together.

Such as UNICEF and International Play Associations and the Children's Human Rights Network got together and put in - are all signatories including OMEP to a letter that they sent to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child requesting a General Comment they'd developed.  From there the International Play Association did actually receive funding from the Bernard van Leer Foundation to assist with the costs of getting that General Comment drafted.

So as part of that process we included children's voices with special consultation for the children and people in selected locations right across the world.  These locations were chosen for some quite marginalised communities where we felt that in many ways their voices couldn't be reflected.  So such as in Brazil we actually targeted children growing up in the favelas and actually had discussions growing up there about what their vision of play was.  In Italy we actually looked at and spoke to Roma children, so children who were actually in quite a transient lifestyle.

We also tried to explore the areas of conflict, so children in post-conflict situations in Lebanon and children affected by conflict in Sierra Leone.  Then we moved to children refugee camps and displaced communities on the Thai/Burmese border.  So we did try and cover a whole range of children who had been marginalised.  Then we were also able to actually speak with adolescent girls in Kenya who did some focus groups with us providing regular feedback on what they felt should be in the General Comment and what were the issues that were coming up.

So this ensured that we got the voices of children who might not normally have a voice reflected in this document.  So we're very proud of the fact that those children's voices are coming through in this.

Graeme Innes: It would have been important to get the voices of girls as well as boys.

Robyn Monro Miller: Certainly that was identified and we saw that there were issues for both boys and girls in accessing different play opportunities and they've had different challenges coming up depending on the country they were in.  The International Play Association's representatives and the expert panel actually met to actually finalise that document and to work through it.  We had a consultant who was writing the document for us and feeding back.  So there was actually, in the final stages an Article 31 working group which consisted of 15 people from 12 countries who met with the United Nations Committee's Focus Group and finalised that draft document which then went to the Committee on the Rights of the Child for adoption.  It was formally adopted at the January 2013 meeting of the committee.

Graeme Innes: Now Robyn these UN processes aren't quick are they, how long did this, the development of this General Comment take?

Robyn Monro Miller: Interestingly enough they usually take many, many years.  When we started on this whole process we thought it was going to be three, up to five years away.  This whole process took more, about two and a half years in total…

Graeme Innes: Oh wow that is quick.

Robyn Monro Miller: …but it was - it came together a lot faster than a number of other General Comments and it was certainly, it was a process that surprised us because it was - obviously had a lot of people involved but there was a shared commitment to actually pushing this through and making sure that we were all agreed.

Graeme Innes: That's great.  What impact do you think the General Comment will have on the way that Article 31 is implemented in countries across the world?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well we're hoping that the impact will be that it will no longer be the forgotten article but it's actually now, there's a General Comment written about it and that the United Nations Committee that when it's looking at the reports from each country, because each country obviously produces reports to detail, how they're implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in their country.  They all now look and be looking and saying, well what, how are you implementing Article 31?  It won't be the Article that they just overlook and forget about. 
So we think that will be really important in making sure there is a tool for advocacy and reflection and that other groups across the world can actually go to their governments and use the General Comment as that tool to promote discussion.  Already that process has started to happen which is really exciting.  We're hearing about it from different countries such as Brazil and such as in Kenya, we're having people talk about Article 31.  So that is a really great move forward.

Graeme Innes: Well it is particularly if it's only a week after it's been launched.  So that's fantastic.

Robyn Monro Miller: Just prior to that I should add that we attended just before the Geneva Conference, we attended the European Network of Ombudsmen and Commissioners in Brussels and were able to present on the Article 31 General Comment there.  So all of the European Network of Ombudsmen and Commissioners for Children, were able to actually be briefed on this General Comment.  So that in itself means that there's a tool, it's being used as another tool for advocacy for those particular commissioners and ombudsmen.

Graeme Innes: Sure, well that was a great opportunity.  Coming back to Australia, what relevance does the General Comment have here and does, and what relevance does your role have with the National Children's Commissioner, with Megan Mitchell?

Robyn Monro Miller: Well Megan has been an incredible advocate for children and certainly she was one of the people who have spoken out loudly about the importance of play.  So I think for me and this particular document, will actually help the arguments and the advocacy that's already happening in promotion of play in our community.  It also means that it addresses some of the challenges that we're facing at the moment.  One of those challenges actually is around that, what I'd term and what other people have termed as scholarisation of play.

We talk about play based learning and in a way we're losing the fact that there is just play, shouldn't be driven by an adult agenda, that basically we should be looking at play for free play opportunities, not always because it's an outcome based environment for children.  I want to say that play is valuable for children but we don't need to always put it in some sort of a technical term to make it appear more valuable, just because we've written about it or we're studying it.  So I think there's those sorts of emphasis on making sure that children's play is something that we all accept but we also appreciate must happen in our community.           

Graeme Innes: Well that's fantastic and so it was launched last week.  As part of your role you facilitated a panel and a World Café looking at the next steps for implementation of the General Comment across the world, can you briefly tell us about those?

Robyn Monro Miller: Yes well at the launch which was in Geneva we basically had, it was a large celebration and it was launched, the General Comment was launched by the Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Kirsten Sandberg.  It was attended by the whole committee as well as 80 people from across the world who came from as far afield as Uganda, Kenya, Brazil and of course Australia.  I think I might have travelled the furthest.

There was some debate about who came - who got there but it was a noticeable show of support to that committee to say that obviously Article 31 isn't a forgotten article, when you've got so many people prepared to travel from so far to participate in this launch and to have that discussion.  One of the things we did was actually had a World Café which meant that we had 80 people who were known as experts in children's play from across the world.  It wouldn't have done it justice to have just one speaker so we basically drew on the knowledge of all the people in the room and took them through a series of questions which will helps shape the future of where we go with this new launch of Article 31.

So some of the questions we asked were, one of the questions was, what are the first steps governments should be encouraged to take to fulfil the obligations set out in the General Comment?  So we had groups discussing that and looking at what are the first steps.  Certainly what was identified was that we actually needed state of play reports from across the countries where government departments and local authorities actually identified where were they up to with Article 31?  Where are they on the scale?

Getting the influence of non-government organisations to actually influence the development of those reports so that we could actually identify where we had the scope to support and grow the aims of Article 31

Graeme Innes: Sure.

Robyn Monro Miller: The other thing we did look at in those discussions groups was around the role of the private sector and civil society in implementation which was obviously a really interesting debate about, well what is the role of different organisations of the corporate sector.  What's the role of the community in actually promoting Article 31?  We did identify a strong ethical policy is needed to exist with the sort of any strategies we did around our promotion of Article 31, so that where we had different approaches, lots of people seeing the sort of supporting play, that we needed to make sure it was done ethically and transparently.  Certainly in the marketing for children which was identified in the General Comment as marketing for children wasn't necessarily the most ethical way of actually promoting play.

Graeme Innes: That's interesting because a lot of organisations or a lot of people wouldn't think that it was the role of all of those organisations to promote children's play.

Robyn Monro Miller: Well it's interesting that there's a number of large corporates in the discussion.  A number of large corporates have started to discuss the absence of play as being detrimental to their future development of the corporate identity, because without people who are creative and able to take initiative and are risk takers and can measure even risk which you all learn through play, you actually don't have very productive employees. So there is a natural progression that needs to be identified that it is in the interests of everyone that we actually have children who are excellent at playing.

That they're actually developing their skills because those skills are what they take with them into adulthood, and the ramifications if we don't have creative, free thinkers, if we don't have children that can measure risk, then what are the implications for our work health and safety in the future.  So there was a whole range of discussions that was started at that meeting that will obviously flow through into other areas of development over the coming years.

Graeme Innes: Well thanks Robyn, clearly a far more important and relevant area than on first blush it might appear and it's really been great to have an opportunity to discuss it with you on Pod Rights today.

Robyn Monro Miller: Thank you very much for having me.

Graeme Innes: Okay and thank you to all of you listening to Pod Rights.  Remember this Podcast is for you, so if you have a suggestion of someone with whom I should talk or a comment on the Podcast, please e-mail me at or find me and message me on Facebook or Twitter.  Just search for Graeme Innes and keep your pod catches ready for the next Pod Rights in the series because human rights are everyone, everywhere, every day.  I'm Graeme Innes, good bye for now.

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