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In Conversation With Sudeshna Chatterjee, On A Child’s Right To Play

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Urbanist, researcher, and planning and development professional who uses her knowledge and expertise to work with diverse stakeholders and institutions to create safe urban communities, and inclusive and resilient cities, Sudeshna Chatterjee has also been on the 14-member panel that drafted the General Comment on the right to play, and worked determinedly to build a more cohesive and coherent voice on every child’s right to play.

As CEO of Action for Children’s Environments and Board Member at International Play Association, her unique contribution to advocating for safe and friendly spaces for children to play and thrive, has played a significant role in India and across the world.

In conversation with the power-lady whose vision and ambition are gaining momentum in addressing a huge challenge in the child rights agenda – play.

Leher: Tell us about your extensive work in research, urban design and planning and in promoting a child’s right to play.

Sudeshna Chatterjee: I vividly remember 8-year-old Soham with his droopy, dreamy eyes. The year was 1998 and I was doing fieldwork in Calcutta for my master’s dissertation in Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi on the topic of “Child in the City”. I had asked children from different neighbourhoods to draw and describe their favourite places in their local environment and Soham had drawn the upper floors of a high-rise building, the crowns of coconut palms, and a young boy in an upper balcony staring at the floating clouds above.

It was such a poignant portrayal of an urban child, trapped in an apartment high above the noisy, traffic filled streets, with no permission to play outside, no one to play with and no safe space to play in the neighbourhood. My master’s dissertation was the starting point of a twenty-year journey in which I have explored with children and many organizations different aspects of what makes cities, neighbourhoods, schools and open spaces child-friendly.

The saying “It is a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together,” is definitely true in my case. I am the founder and CEO of the non-profit Action for Children’s Environments (ACE) based in New Delhi, India. ACE seeks to fill a vital gap in development practice by offering cross-sectoral urban expertise including policy, planning, and design expertise to make cities more safe, inclusive, resilient and livable for all

I was trained as an architect and urban designer, and finished a PhD in Community and Environmental Design under Robin Moore, a pioneer in the research and design of children’s environments, from North Carolina State University, USA. My PhD dissertation deconstructed the idea of the child friendly city and had the central hypothesis that from an Environment-Behaviour perspective, a child friendly city can only be studied as a disaggregation, made up of numerous and interlocking child friendly places with which children engage and develop emotional and affective bonds through exploration in the everyday environments of neighbourhoods and cities. The primary vehicle of children’s exploration of and engagement with places is play in its many forms.

With maturing age and abilities children seek out places further and further away from their home base and seek out opportunities for play, fun and freedom typically in the company of friends. Free play which is the only self-structured spontaneous behaviour in childhood allows children to make sense of the world around them and define their place in the world. As experts have pointed out play enables children to move from dependence to independence, competence and in many cases, resilience.

This is now an important thread of my work on child friendly cities and we at Action for Children’s Environments (ACE) through a consortium of partners are hosting a major international conference on the theme of Play and Resilience in India next year: the 21st IPA Triennial World Conference in Jaipur, November 4-7, 2020.

L: How do you believe the right to play is intrinsically linked to creating safe urban communities, that are inclusive and resilient cities for children?

SC: In 2016, the International Play Association (IPA) developed a concept paper for the Day of General Discussion, UNCRC on the topic of children’s right to play in relation to the right to a healthy environment. I had contributed to that paper along with many international experts and I will draw from it here. As a board member of IPA let me first introduce IPA’s position on play: Play is a vital and fundamental part of the human experience; it is important to the lives of children in that it gives them pleasure, is essential to their healthy physical and mental growth, and enhances their ability to function in the culture and society in which they are born (IPA Declaration, 2014).

We know that children play anywhere and everywhere as opportunities present themselves. These could be in a well-designed play space in the neighbourhood park or a railway track next to their squatters. Children’s play and indeed children’s well-being are closely related to and dependent on the quality of spaces and places they inhabit and the social relationships they enjoy in them. The nature of play is very much shaped by the context in which play happens.

The New Urban agenda makes clear the need to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between urbanization and development as parallel vehicles for sustainable development. With 70 per cent of the world’s populations living in cities by 2050, the development of this relationship in the short term is critical if we are to be adequately prepared for meeting the demands that will be placed on future urban populations.

Over 1 billion people globally are living in slums and informal settlements. Children growing up in these settlements are at a disadvantage due to the inadequacies in their physical and often social environments. Promoting the child’s right to play by making available space, time, resources and permission to play in public places will help to fulfil one important SDG target (#11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities) for children everywhere and especially for those living in inadequate housing.

Planning, designing and providing safe yet thrilling play spaces that promote and protect children’s rights, is a challenge. The tendency is often to over design and sanitize, to take away all risks from children’s play. Yet children seek out risks to manage and create challenges through play. In the higher-income countries there is a growing awareness today to take a risk-benefit approach to play provisions which recognizes the benefits of certain manageable risks and incorporating them in play space design. Unless we respect the abilities of children to negotiate manageable risk, we will rob them of the vital benefits of free play.

However, in low-income countries including in India, the risks that children face in the places they play due to lack of formal provisions for play are often not manageable at an individual level without support of the adult duty bearers of children’s rights. While provision of safe space to play does not fully address the right to play, it is an important compensatory factor when children would otherwise be forced to play in hostile, unhealthy and or hazardous environments as in the case of slum dwelling children.  Creating safe, inclusive and resilient cities would involve providing safe but fun, thrilling and child-friendly, age and culturally appropriate play spaces for children. It is also important to take into account access conditions to promote independent mobility and free play of children in the planning and management of the public realm of the city. Such an approach is fundamental to both inclusive urbanization and child-centred development.

L: Your report “Access to Play for Children in Situations of Crisis” is the first of its kind. Do share with us some of the key insights from the report.

SC: It was a real privilege to lead IPA’s Access to Play in Crisis projects as it for the first time allowed us to dive deep and understand play or the lack of it in situations of natural and man-made disasters, humanitarian and everyday crisis. The case studies in six countries (India, Japan, Lebanon, Nepal, Thailand and Turkey) show that children were able to transact with their environments and develop meaningful relationships with peers and places when they had access to play, typically in very unsafe places, whether after natural disasters, humanitarian crisis or in the context of everyday crisis of poverty and marginalization. In almost all the contexts, when children were asked what play meant to them, the overwhelming theme appeared to be that play allowed them to have “fun, friendships and freedom”.

The myriad forms of play that was witnessed in these many different situations of crisis across the world speak to the capacity of children to ‘overcome adversity, survive stress and rise above disadvantage’ (the very definition of resilient children by Rutter, 1979) while partaking of the pleasure of childhood. In the situations where we saw the most access to play in the wider geographic area had supportive adults (not saying don’t play was also a big support in most contexts).

Other factors that contributed to play included numerous spaces with rich environmental affordances with varying degrees of risk which children learned to manage, and less restrictions on children’s time. Under these conditions play emerged as a living resource for children that allowed them to bond with places and create parallel worlds for escaping the harsh and scary real one. Play prepared children to bounce forward from the crisis.

A word of caution when we talk about play as a resilience building tool. Even as the children who played freely and creatively in the most challenging of environments emerge as resilient beings, as Luthar and Goldstein (2004) noted, “If children are faced with continuing and severe assaults from the external environment, then they simply cannot sustain resilience adaptation over time—regardless of how much they are helped to believe in themselves, how intelligent they are, or how well they learn to regulate their emotions”

Risk reduction and management cannot be the sole responsibility of individuals and communities, the state has a significant role to play in this. The General Comment 17 emphasized on this and recommended that States should take active measures to restore and protect the rights under article 31 in post-conflict and disaster situations, including, inter alia:

  • Encouraging play and creative expression to promote resilience and psychological healing;
  • Creating or restoring safe spaces, including schools, where children from diverse backgrounds can participate in play and recreation as part of the normalization of their lives (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013: 19)

To know more about the report, please read here.

L: You were part of the 14-member international committee that drafted the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC, referred to as the ‘Play’ Article. How has (or not) the Government of India incorporated the spirit of this article in addressing this as a right for all children?

SC: The recent development in this space is encouraging. There is now recognition of play for the first time in plans and policies for children in India. ACE had reviewed the draft National Policy for Children 2013 as well as the National Plan of Action for Children 2016 and given substantial inputs on the right to play. It is great to see that reflected in the new policies and plans.

For example: National Policy for Children (2013), under “Education and Development” has the Clause xii: Review, develop and sustain age-specific initiatives, services and programmes for safe spaces for play, sports, recreation, leisure, cultural and scientific activities for children in neighbourhoods, schools and other institutions.

And the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy (2013) says: The Government shall ensure the provision of safe, child-friendly and developmentally appropriate play and learning materials and appropriate play spaces by appropriate instruments and instructions in ECCE settings.

L: With increasing urbanization, cramped living spaces, and complex city governance structures, especially in big cities, what ideas would you recommend to address a child’s right to play?

SC: The solutions have to come from first understanding that our cities are failing children and then being proactive about participatory visioning and dialogue including all stakeholders: children, adolescents, youth parents, teachers, government, urban planners, designers and the civil society organizations. Promoting child friendly cities which enables outdoor play of children fulfils many SDG goals and targets for governments including most notably healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages; inclusive and equitable quality education; resilient infrastructure; inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities; peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.

Many cities across the world are committing to making child friendly cities such as the “My City Too” initiative by Earth Day Canada and 880 Cities to develop a strategy that advances outdoor free play and independent mobility for children across the city of Toronto. Canada ranks 25th out of 41 countries in overall child and youth well-being. According to UNICEF, lack of child-led, outdoor play and independent mobility contribute significantly to these rankings.

Over the course of 2019, both organizations will convene Toronto families and children, municipal leaders, and child advocates to gain insight into the opportunities and challenges in providing children with access to outdoor free play and independent mobility. These conversations will inform a strategy for Toronto to establish itself as a child-friendly city that actively supports outdoor free play and independent mobility.

L: Tell us about new innovative approaches to promote the right to play in India and across the world.

SC: One of the innovative approaches that I am very excited about is the global Outdoor Classroom Day campaign by Semble (formerly Project Dirt) and backed by Unilever. ACE works on this campaign in India as we believe that the school offers a vital opportunity for play in children’s everyday lives by providing access to safe spaces, peers, and resources for play. This is especially important for girls and vulnerable children who often do not have parental permission to play in the neighbourhood outdoors.

This global campaign advocates for celebrating and inspiring play and learning outside the classroom and to inspire schools everywhere to make outdoor learning and play part of every day. It shows that outdoor play at school helps develop healthy, curious and active kids who are better connected to their environment. It brings together evidence that shows that time outdoors is particularly important for children’s mental health – reducing stress, giving a sense of calm and simply making them happier.

Over 2 million children around the world went outdoors in 2018 on Outdoor Classroom Day! On November 7, 2019 thousands of schools across the world including in India will be celebrating outdoor learning and play. Schools who participate in OC Day talk about the positive impact it has on both students and teachers. It helps to develop a culture of learning without walls and outdoor play and physical activities of children every day.

Unilever is part of the Real Play Coalition that was formed at Davos in 2018 by four corporates: Lego Foundation, Unilever’s Dirt is Good brand, IKEA and National Geographic. Their mission is to create a movement that prioritises the importance of play as not something that only lets children be children, but as something that sparks the fire for a child’s development and learning.

Sign up here to participate in Outdoor Classroom Day!

L: What advocacy efforts are underway in India to acknowledge and act on a child’s right to play? Give us ideas that need to be advocated for in order to change attitudes towards the importance of play in childhood.

SC: Government and civil society, with these new policies, want to promote play both in the context of education as well as in all everyday settings of children involving parents and communities including for most vulnerable children across India. Some excellent projects have been piloted by civil society groups in diverse geographies but they need scale up.

The Smart Cities Initiative is committing to making cities child friendly in India. A very welcome initiative. Providing adequate parks and playgrounds is an important component of that. But how do we advocate for meaningful contextually relevant play opportunities for say slum children within high-density low-quality environments? If we make more playgrounds, how do we make them inclusive where all children irrespective of class, caste and ethnicity can play freely?

How do we make these play spaces climate resilient and culturally appropriate? How do we replicate best practices of promoting community based indigenous play even for the most vulnerable children and reach scale? How do we sensitize adults and society to the value and need for play in childhood so that parents and communities become champions of play and protect, preserve and promote children’s free play?

These are some of the questions that we are grappling with. In order to find answers to some of these questions and chart new pathways to solutions we are hosting the 21st IPA Triennial World Conference in Jaipur (Nov 4-7, 2020) to provide the right momentum to seriously promote play and provide access to play for all children in India. This conference will bring together government, civil society and private sector actors from across the world for four wonderful days to share knowledge and best practices, advocate, demonstrate and champion children’s play.

#PlayMatters is a micro-campaign by Leher, a child rights organization working to make child protection a shared responsibility. The aspiration of this campaign is to start conversations and draw collective understanding and action towards a child’s right to play. You can follow us on twitterinstagram and facebook to participate. 

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Read more about her campaign.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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