Places where play can unite us all

When thinking about the most fundamental rights for children, you’d be forgiven for jumping to headline needs—nutrition, healthcare, education. But, while these necessities are fundamental, they’re about surviving, not thriving. In a society that values academic achievement and business acumen, it’s very easy to forget another vital ingredient to a child’s development; the ability to play. 


Every child may have a right to play, but not everyone can access spaces to do it. Children with disabilities especially often struggle to engage in community play spaces. In the UK, for example, research conducted by disability equality charity, Scope, found 49% of households with a child with disabilities face accessibility problems at their local playground.  The most common answers as to why, included children not feeling safe on equipment, or hurting themselves while being unable to use it properly.


Physical inaccessibility is only part of the problem. Another major factor is social stigma and discrimination; a UNICEF study in Malaysia,  highlighted children with disabilities as one of the most discriminated minorities in the country and also the world. According to the study, lack of knowledge and negative attitudes are largely to blame—13% of the people surveyed thought that children with disabilities needed less food to survive than children without disabilities. A staggering 42% of those people also felt that it’s unacceptable to live in the same neighbourhood as a child with mental health, learning, or behavioural disabilities. 


Giving every child a more equal footing in society really could be as simple as equal opportunities to play. “By playing together as equals, we take a step closer to ensuring that all forms of exclusion and discrimination in education, healthcare and within our society become unacceptable.” Says Zoë Gan, Gender and Disability Specialist at UNICEF Malaysia. “Once they have a shared understanding of inclusion and diversity, children and adults begin to demand that their peers can equally participate in all forms of life regardless of their age, gender, or disabilities.”


Inclusive play doesn’t necessarily mean that every type of play or piece of equipment needs to be accessible to everyone, thereit just needs to be a range of experiences that provide something great for each child. Some children can’t climb a rope ladder, some don’t want to, and some like nothing better. The key is having a number of options that give everyone the opportunity to take part. The concept isn’t complicated, it just requires consideration when planning spaces, especially in cities. Local city councils, the private sector, and civil society organisations are the change makers who can address the lack of inclusive play spaces for children both with and without disabilities. 


Play is a powerful and effective tool for teaching children about social cohesion, inclusion and diversity. Izdihar Adzly, a Youth Disability Advocate in Malaysia says “I like going to the inclusive playground, because I can play just like my friends and play with them. When I play with my friends without disabilities, I feel grateful because I have friends who are there for me and help make things easier. I don’t feel left out. When my friends without disabilities play with me, I think they learn to be more patient, kind, caring and always help each other.”  So, when we teach children how to play together as equals from an early age, we are helping them develop the skills they need to become leaders who will stand up against all forms of discrimination as adults.  


These play spaces don’t just have to be playgrounds either, they can be any space where children can have playful interactions and become part of a group. There, they’ll be able to make friends, normalise any differences or conditions, learn to share and problem-solve. “Imagine a place where children and caregivers can learn, develop and interact with a diverse group of people,” says Zoe Gan.. “Barriers can be broken, bridges can be built and children with and without disabilities can be seen, valued and equally included.”


For those city planners looking for advice on just how to achieve this, UNICEF Malaysia suggests three key actions: Decision makers can build inclusive policies for all children and make them a key inclusion in any urban or community development plans. Local authorities and property developers can also invest more resources into inclusive spaces when considering development opportunities. And lastly, everyone else can play their part in eliminating negative attitudes toward disabilities, simply by calling them out and celebrating diversity in society. To learn more about the perspective of Real Estate Developers building inclusive playgrounds in Malaysia, watch this video by UNICEF Malaysia. 


UNICEF Malaysia has also developed a toolkit and advocacy package to help stakeholders take action, and the Real Play City Challenge is awarding placemaking initiatives that enable inclusive play. If you’re a playmaker creating more inclusive places to play, you can apply for the Real Play City Challenge and showcase your work on this global platform. The deadline for submission of applications is September 4, 2022.  


So, start your application here: