Children’s right to play

‘No-one is born a good citizen’ said Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General. But children are born with rights. This blog explores children’s rights and how they are identified in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children’s rights to rest, leisure, recreation and play appropriate to their age, are recognised under Article 31 in the UNCRC (1989). The same Article also recognises their right to be active participants in the cultural and artistic life of their community. Article 31 provides strong support for using play-based approaches to learning in education and care settings.

Children’s right to play and leisure time is sometimes threatened by:

  • less time for children to play because of a focus on a ‘push down’ curriculum
  • less time to play because of a focus on getting ready for ‘tests’
  • a focus on commercial toys and products that may not provide open-ended play opportunities
  • less time to play and explore outdoors because of educators or parents being worried about safety.

Adults who are committed to children’s right to play think seriously about these issues. They ask questions such as: ‘Is this a space for children as citizens where they have some control and can take risks, think, wonder, be amazed, have fun and learn with other children and with adults?’ A place, as Dahlberg calls it, of ‘collective adventure’ (as cited in Moss & Petrie, 2002, p. 111).

The term ‘collective adventure’ could be interpreted in a less serious way than was intended. A space or environment for collective adventures is a place where children and adults learn and have fun together; where the time allocation for play is not always ruled by fixed routines or adult agendas and where there is a balance between child-initiated and adult-led learning that has both parties learning in new ways and learning new things together.

We should not trivialize the use of play and play materials by early intervention specialists. It is endemic to their work with young children and families (Nwokah, Hui-Chin & Gulker, 2013, p. 211).

The UNCRC’s protection and promotion of children’s right to play has influenced current policies and practices in early intervention and inclusion for children with disabilities and developmental delay. Previously, the focus for early intervention practices was often on therapeutic interventions to meet goals for children set by professionals. Meeting these goals often required removing a child with special needs from a group and their peers while the child practised a specific skill to achieve a goal.

A United Kingdom study involving parents of children with Down syndrome identified that non play-based interventions not only didn’t achieve good outcomes for their children, but they also left them with a strong sense of guilt and failure (Rix, Paige-Smith & Jones, 2008). The parents were clear about why highly adult-directed and structured activities failed to meet their children’s right to learn through play-based experiences:

  • children didn’t feel they were in control of the activity
  • the activities didn’t provide the children with choices
  • children did not always enjoy the activities
  • the activities often ignored the children’s abilities, strengths and interests
  • the rigid way the activities were to be implemented generated conflict between the parent and their child.

The highly structured activities described by the parents focused on what the children couldn’t do, for example, not being able to use a feeding tool such as a spoon independently. The early intervention goals for the children could have been better promoted through using play-based approaches that recognised the children’s interests and strengths. Learning skills like eating or dressing independently can be gained through participating in routine activities at home and through play-based learning in the home corner, or in dress-up play with friends.

Families and childhood professionals show respect for children’s right to play by their interest, support and involvement. They understand the need to balance child-led and initiated play with adult-guided play and support. Being aware of not taking over children’s play and allowing them space, time and resources to engage in play of their choosing is important for meeting the intent of the UNCRC’s Article 31 on children’s right to play (Lester & Russell, 2010).

This article was adapted from the Everyday Learning Series title—Children’s rights: Every day and everywhere. To purchase your copy, click here


The purpose of this Everyday Learning Series booklet is to share information about children’s rights with a particular focus on two important UN Conventions for children: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1989) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006). Reflecting on key features of these Conventions supports increasing our understanding of what rights mean for children and for those who care for them, including families, communities and educators.

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Anne Kennedy

Dr Anne Kennedy works as a consultant, trainer, writer and researcher in early childhood education. She was a member of the small writing team led by Charles Sturt University which developed Belonging, Being and Becoming, The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Since the launch of the Early Years Learning Framework she has provided training for early childhood educators across the country.

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