Harry Shier, Learning and Development Officer discusses the importance of the child’s right to play, and his experience visiting missionary projects in Peru and Colombia that work to uphold this right. Read Harry’s blog below.
A Child’s Right to Play: Peru & Colombia
“And the streets of the city shall be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.” (Zechariah, Ch 8 v 5)
When I visited missionary development projects in Peru and Colombia on behalf of Misean Cara last year, the child’s right to play was not the first thing on my agenda; in fact it wasn’t on my agenda at all. And yet, as I went from city to city, I found in the right to play a common thread linking community projects with very different approaches. Each one gave me new insights into the right to play: not just its importance as an undervalued human right, but also the day-to-day practice of defending and upholding it.
I started at Santa Bernadita, a civil association supported by the Columban Fathers in St Martín de Porres, Lima. For someone like me who has campaigned around the child’s right to play for many years, this place was like a dream come true: A massive centre (four stories high – see photo) for all the children of the neighbourhood where play is the only agenda.
Let me explain what I mean by this: I have seen so many projects where play is used to manipulate kids in the interest of adults’ agendas; e.g. to control them, socialise them, educate them, mind them while their parents are working, get them into shape, therapise them, keep them off the streets, stop them becoming obese etc. At Santa Bernadita they come to play because they want to and it is their right and that is enough. All those other benefits occur too, but they are realised through the power of play itself, not through adult interference.
Raising the funds to sustain this place is a huge challenge for the Columban Fathers, and Misean Cara is proud to support them in this cause. But, how I wish there could be a place like Santa Bernadita for every child in every poor and marginalised community in the developing world.
Another project supported by the Columbans, Warmi Huasi in San Benito on the edge of the Lima conurbation, takes a different approach to the child’s right to play. Whilst in Santa Bernadita it is adults as duty-bearers who uphold the right to play through direct provision, in Warmi Huasi it is the children who take the lead, organising and campaigning, advocating and influencing for the defence of their rights. They have formed their own advocacy organisation, Children of San Benito in Action (‘ONNSBA’ in Spanish), where the adult role is to support, facilitate, establish liaison with adults in power, and secure resources for meeting and mobilisation. Though the children have campaigned on a number of issues, first and foremost has been to reclaim and rebuild spaces for play in their neighbourhoods. Again, Misean Cara is proud to support their cause.
In Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I visited Codo a Codo (literally “Elbow to Elbow”), a multi-faceted community development project supported by the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Like Santa Bernadita, Codo a Codo runs a children’s play centre, but there the similarity ends. Instead of a dedicated four-storey building, the local young volunteers at Codo a Codo operate out of a converted two-room shack. They have minimal equipment and even less space, and yet the children flock there every day after school, reclaiming their right to play. If Santa Bernadita was a playworker’s dream come true, with hard-won resources put to good use by a dedicated staff team, Codo a Codo was more of an inspiration, a reminder that the missionary approach often means doing everything with nothing; nothing, that is, except energy, commitment and belief in the strength of the community.
In Medellín I visited Opción Futuro (Future Option), a project backed by the Salvatorians. On the face of it this project had nothing to do with the right to play; it was a livelihoods project helping disadvantaged local women earn a living as craftswomen. But it turned out there was more to it than I realised. As the adult participants, who are mainly lone mothers, live in poor barrios where there is a high level of street violence and few opportunities for children, they had also set up a street play project for their children. The girls and boys, supported by skilled local playworkers, met regularly after school, and their play project had become a valued and vibrant part of the local community, and a remarkable achievement for the Opción Futuro team. Can you spot the Misean Cara Learning and Development Officer in the photo actively promoting the right to play?
My last visit was to Niquía in the outer suburbs of Medellín where the team from Ser Vida, another project supported by the Salvatorians, took me to a refuge for girls who were survivors of sexual abuse. The Ser Vida team, made up entirely of volunteers, visits the refuge a couple of times a week to organise play sessions for the girls. Watching these girls laughing, shouting, dancing, running, jumping – repossessing the childhood that had been stolen from them – was a profoundly moving experience; indeed remembering it today still has me on the verge of tears.
I believe this healing power is inherent in children’s play. It doesn’t need a “play therapist” to achieve this, all it needs is for children to come together in a safe environment and for play to be allowed to happen; in other words, for the child’s right to play to be upheld.
I would like to thank the staff teams from all the projects mentioned for their hospitality, for permission to share photographs, and for their inspiring belief in the power of play.
Want to learn more about the child’s right to play?
Lester, S., & Russell, W. (2010). Children’s Right to Play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation.
Playboard Young Research Team. (2013). Easy-to-Understand version of the Right to Play. Belfast: Playboard Northern Ireland.
Shier, H. (2010). IPA Global Consultations on Children’s Right to Play Report. Farringdon: International Play Association.
Shier, H. (2008). Pearl Lagoon, a Playworker’s dream. Ip-Dip Magazine, (3), 24–25.
Photo caption: Harry Shier, Learning and Development Officer at Misean Cara with children from the Opción Futuro project in Medellín, Colombia, supported by the Society of the Divine Saviour.