Living as a Global Citizen

Hitoshi Shimamura
"Play" is vital for society

Hitoshi Shimamura (left) plays with a child on "Playday," the national day for play in the United Kingdom. (London, August 2011)

Hitoshi Shimamura

Born in Tokyo in 1968. After graduating from Sophia University, he completed the program in playwork at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. He then worked at Hanegi Play Park in Tokyo and Children's Dream Park in Kawasaki, and became the regional vice president of the International Play Association (IPA) for the East Asia region. Currently, he works at Playpark Musashino in Tokyo and heads the organization TOKYO PLAY. He is also the director of the Japan Adventure Playpark Association.

"Play" is often thought of as a "waste of time" or a "reward for studying." But, in fact, "play" is not only vital for the healthy growth and happiness of children, it also has a positive impact on parents and the society as a whole. I have worked at an "adventure playground" for about 15 years in my role as "playworker." An adventure playground is a place where children can freely experiment with such things as handsaws, hammers, and fire, sometimes experiencing slight injuries that prove educational as well. Such adventure playgrounds can be found all across Japan, created through the joint efforts of administrators and local residents.

My connection with "play" goes back to my childhood. When I was in elementary school, I lived in Tokyo and in Chiba Prefecture. After school, I didn't attend extracurricular activities; instead, I played as much as I could.

I came into contact with the world of children's play more concretely when I was a freshman in college. My friend told me he knew an interesting place and he took me to an adventure playground called Hanegi Play Park, located in Setagaya, Tokyo. At this park I saw many generations enjoying the chance to play together, from toddlers and elementary school children to the elderly. Later, I learned that "play work" is actually a special field of study at universities in Europe.

"Playwork" is the study of building a relationship with children through play and creating a suitable play environment. It involves learning about policy making with regard to the construction of roads and parks, as well as social welfare and education, and how those factors affect children's play environments. At the same time, children's issues are also a focus of discussion.

After I graduated from college in Japan, I worked part-time and saved money. Then I won a scholarship and I was able to enroll in a "playwork" program at a university in the United Kingdom. Since 1948, the UK has led European nations in the construction of adventure playgrounds. Today, there are about 150 of these playgrounds in the UK. In my free time, I visited many of them. Adventure playgrounds broaden community ties between adults as well as children.

After returning to Japan, I became a playworker and I began assisting the efforts of the International Play Association (IPA), an NGO that promotes the child's right to play. IPA is an organization of international experts who are involved in creating suitable play environments for children and is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a consultative body. To date, IPA has organized conferences of the world's play experts in the eight nations of Japan, Mexico, Thailand, India, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Kenya, and South Africa. I was in charge of coordinating the conference held in Japan.

At this gathering we discussed the state of play in the world today and the fact that, although "play" seems to be a simple and everyday activity, it actually has become difficult to do in a number of places. One report from Lebanon described how landmines shaped like dolls and soccer balls have been placed in parks. Efforts are being made to remove these dangers, but until there is clear confirmation that all landmines have been removed, parents are afraid to let their children play at these parks. Another concern, found in Kenya and South Africa, is the fear that children will be kidnapped if they play outside. Experts from these countries said that "Even if new parks are built, unless the cities themselves are made safer, children won't be able to play outdoors."

Regarding the situation in Japan, we discussed such issues as "children have little time to play because they study for too many hours in the day, attending cram schools and extracurricular activities after school" and "concerns over liability and injury have increased 'prohibitions' when it comes to play." The report we made based on the conference proceedings was submitted to the United States in February 2011 and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child decided to issue guidelines on play to the nations of the world.

Children's play has direct links with problems in society and the environment. The decline in children's physical strength and the rise of childhood obesity is connected with a lack of outdoor play. The experience of "failure" is one of the important aspects of play, but an overemphasis on avoiding difficulty and injury has resulted in increasing numbers of children being unable to encounter this experience. When these children grow up, they come to fear new challenges and the prospect of failing due to worries over what other people think. Play provides children with abundant opportunity to release pent-up stress and learn how to regulate their feelings. If children don't have this opportunity, they will be forced to search for other outlets to manage their stress.

Many people feel that children's play is important, but it can be difficult to find ways to realize this aim. As head of the organization "TOKYO PLAY," I want to find these ways, through our many projects, so that children will be able to play as much as possible.