UNICEF Kenya Country Representative Shaheen Nilofer with pupils of Shauri Moyo Primary School during the International Day of Play held at the School on Tuesday, June, 11, 2024. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Experts are warning that parents and teachers are squeezing the role of play out of children’s lives as they try to prepare them for a competitive world.

In an ideal society, playtime means exploration, creativity, experimentation and social interaction. Today, though, a lot has shifted. 

“We used to play all sorts of games, climbing trees, bathing in the ponds and covering the whole neighbourhood on foot,” says Brian Ngao, a 29-year-old businessman in the city. 

The problem, according to Elizabeth Waitha, an Education Officer with Unicef, Kenya, is not that parents don’t have their child’s best interests at heart. Global competition and economic development has put a level of fears and concerns into parents and into governments over how the children turn out.

“Less focus on play means children miss out on the early play-based learning that helps to incorporate creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and empathy,” she said.

“Play is the foundation for everything,” said Ms Monica Leshamta, the headteacher of Our Lady of Mercy Primary School, Shauri Moyo where the first-ever event to mark the International Day of Play was held. “Use of hands is important for the development of children. During play, they learn a lot of values including love, care, sharing and teamwork.” 

Shaheen Nilofer, the UNICEF representative to Kenya says that playing is crucial for a child’s growth and physical and cognitive development. She further called for the preservation of playgrounds and protection from land grabbers.

“Slowly by slowly we’ve seen open parks, open gardens and spaces have been taken away by new buildings,” she said.  She called for policy implementations that ensure that all malls and public buildings have spaces where children can engage in play.

“It’s also important to ensure children with disabilities also enjoy play,” she said, encouraging children to minimise time spent on gadgets like mobile phones and asking parents to join their children in play.

Experts surmise that our current culture is less friendly to play and that children may be unable to explore all its possibilities.

“There’s a need for all of us to come together and ensure that children are engaged in meaningful play and not just as a by-thought. The community and government need to work with children to invent games and spaces to be more creative and innovative games to create collaboration, leadership skills and creativity,” Ms Waitha said.

The UN General Assembly passed a draft resolution proposed by Vietnam and the five other core group countries, including Bulgaria, El Salvador, Jamaica, Kenya, and Luxembourg, designating June 11 as International Day of Play.

According to the UN draft, play in-builds essential and transferable physical, social, cognitive, communication and emotional life skills at all ages. It has a positive impact on promoting tolerance and resilience and facilitating social inclusion, conflict prevention and peacebuilding. 

The draft also acknowledges that play and recreation are essential to the health and well-being of children and promote the development of creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy and sense of responsibility, as well as physical, social, cognitive, communication and emotional strength and skills.

Dr Gichuri Ndegwa representing the Ministry of Education said the government is committed to supporting play. “Physical education (PE) is part of the curriculum,” he said.

The deputy director of special education, Maulid Ali, said the government gives grants and bursaries to put children with disabilities in inclusive setups in areas of play and has adapted special games for learners with disabilities.

The experts were speaking during the first International Day of Play, which, according to the UN, ‘creates a unifying moment at global, national, and local levels to elevate the importance of play.’