You won’t miss the three young boys behind a five-floor block of apartment at Clayworks estate playing different kinds of games on any ﬁne day.
For the three boys, who are enjoying the last bit of their school holiday, every second counting down on the clock is a moment to create new memories.
On this particular day, these boys are playing a game called Sita, a game which involves two people kicking a plastic bottle half-filled with water or sand and tied to a wooden pole using a string.
“We like playing football, but the boy who has the ball is yet to arrive,” says Darlington Masese, a Class Seven pupil at Brainstorm Academy in Githurai.
The game of Sita involves two players standing next to each other. The third boy acts as a referee and ensures the players don’t use their hands at all, a move that results in an immediate punishment by a penalty kick just like it happens in a football game.
Blocking an opponent is also against the rules. John Deng, a pupil at MacWilliams Academy, who is acting as the referee, explains that to block the other is tantamount being caught offside a football pitch and also attracts a penalty kick.
Braulio Wanga, who plays as a striker in his Mwiki Good Hope Academy football team and draws lots of inspiration from his namesake and Kenyan acclaimed former striker Allan Wanga, explains that Sita helps him gain flexibility, something he will need to further his goal of playing football professionally.
But despite their love for games, these boys lack a designated place where they can engage in play while at home, the fact that they would be home for more than two months notwithstanding.
Masese tells DN2 that they have been moved from several playgrounds to pave the way for new houses.
Like many estates in Nairobi, Clayworks, a sprawling middle-class neighbourhood in Kasarani where these kids live, lacks a playground.
Interestingly, a few metres from where these children are playing a fading signboard declares the estate a zoned area, with residents expected to build single dwelling units.
This is despite several high-rise apartments already built and several others in the pipeline.
“In partnership of City Council of Nairobi and Clayworks Welfare Association, this is a controlled development area, single dwelling unit per plot. Excess areas set aside for commercial and public utility,” the enforcement notice reads, listing more than 10 pieces of land set aside for a commercial zone and public utility space.
GREED, POOR PLANNING
A spot-check by DN2 could not establish the open spaces as almost every corner and opening of this estate is occupied by a flat.
Henry Ochieng, the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association (Kara) CEO, told DN2 that this is not a unique problem to Clayworks, but one that cuts across the city.
“If you look at most estates in Nairobi, many of them don’t have adequate space for children to play and go about their business. This is a problem that cuts across several estates. And it’s for different reasons,” Ochieng says.
One of them, he says, is that developers failed to factor open spaces for children when planning in the estates.
He adds that the other reason has got to do with greed in the sense that even where open spaces had been left out, they have been grabbed and put to a different use altogether.
On paper, Kenyan children ought not to worry about where to play. In Nairobi, for instance, before a building development is approved, the county urban planning policy requires that a developer leaves at least 20 per cent of the piece of land open for recreation.
According to Patrick Analo, an urban planner, global regulation by the World Health Organisation dictates that every human being is entitled to a minimum of 15 square metres of open space to unwind and socialise with nature.
He adds that one of the requirements of urban planning is that a developer should provide for recreational open spaces for children and young people.
“These spaces play a very critical role as a place where young people meet for recreation, exercising and socialising. It is important for physical health and it makes a city look beautiful and attractive to live in,” he says.
The country is also compelled by an international treaty to ensure children have facilities to engage in cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activities.
In 1990, Kenya became the 20th member and the first African country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that is defined as a benchmark against which a nation’s treatment of its children can be measured.
Article 31 of the treaty states that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
“Member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity,” reads the article.
Yet in many countries, time, space and opportunities for outside free play areas, especially in fast-growing cities such as Nairobi, have actually been declining, thanks to rapid and unplanned urbanisation.
But as much as children having safe spaces to play is a rights issue, it is also a health issue.
For instance, a 2017 study by Lancet showed that the number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has risen tenfold in the past four decades, with more boys than girls getting fatter.
The study done by the World Health Organisation and Imperial College London revealed obesity in those aged between five and 19 years has increased from one per cent (which is equivalent to five million girls and six million boys) in 1975 to nearly six per cent in girls (50 million) and nearly eight per cent in boys (74 million) in 2016.
Combined, the number of obese five-to-19-year-olds rose more than tenfold globally, from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016.
An additional 213 million were overweight in 2016 but fell below the threshold for obesity.
Interestingly, and quite unsurprisingly, at the heart of the problem, researchers found out, is lack of physical activity.
Whether it’s running, jumping, climbing, swinging or sliding, research shows that play is an essential part of every child’s life and is vital for the enjoyment of childhood as well as social, emotional, intellectual and physical development.
Terry Maina, a child protection officer and director of Value Life Foundation Trust, says when children are asked about what they think is important in their lives, playing and friends is usually at the top of the list.
“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Psychologically, for instance, it is a stress reliever,” she says.
While children might be said not to have stress episodes, Maina says they actually do. This is because at that age, and as they grow up, they are also developing their ego.
In terms of overall growth, research has found that when children are playing, they are learning reflexes and movement control, developing fine and gross motor skills and increasing flexibility and balancing skills.
On top of that, when they are involved in physical activity, they’re building stronger muscles and improving bone density, improving heart and lung function and preventing obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
LEARNING LIFE SKILLS
Additionally, they acquire important life skills such as problem solving, communication and negotiation skills, self-awareness and crucial values such as kindness, caring and integrity.
“Paediatricians say boys’ testosterone develop even more quickly at the age of five to 10 years. So the rough and tumble games is meant to test the limits of the energy they feel they have,” says Maina.
She underpins the importance of play for girls, saying that the innate nurturing character synonymous with the female gender is picked and moulded at this age and mostly during games with their peers.
Apart from these benefits, play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to bond with their children.
Without safe playgrounds, Maina expresses concern that children are turning to gaming cafés to play video games, a rather unhealthy alternative to physical activity.
“They are doing so to feed a certain fantasy. When a child puts down the joy stick or whatever it is they use, the question to ask is ‘what lesson will they have learnt?’ It’s no wonder that nowadays when children fight, the scene is usually very violent, because of that fantasy world they visit every day,” she says.
NEED FOR NEW SKILL SET
Despite a widespread belief that time spent on electronic devices is the major reason that children are spending more time indoors, researchers in the developed world have found out that outdoor play has been declining for decades.
They hold that lack of better playgrounds is the reason children spend most of their time indoors.
“I don’t buy the argument that the screens are keeping the children from the playgrounds,” Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and the author of American Playgrounds, told the New York Times.
“If the playgrounds were better, children would be there. Better playgrounds would definitely give screens a run for their money.”
As Kenya rushes to rollout the new competency-based curriculum, which focuses on a child’s talents and skill sets, it appears playgrounds are going to play a key role.
For instance, during this year’s World Economic Forum, a number of global organisations, including the Lego Foundation, IKEA, Unilever, and National Geographic, through a coalition, made the case that our world is changing so rapidly that the workers of tomorrow need a different skill set — one that’s based on the skills you learn through play. These are confidence, creativity, and critical thinking.
Maina seems to read from the same script. She says: “Almost every creative — think of artists like drawers or painters — turns to the child in them to do what they do.”
ROOM TO INNOVATE
And children don’t need much really, Maina says, just an empty and safe space to begin with.
“I disagree with those who say that we need to provide children with space and play equipment. When we say that a child’s character is built when they go out to play, that only happens when we leave them to innovate. A playground is the place for innovation,” Maina opines.
So, what about the playgrounds in shopping malls where parents troop over the weekend with their children to play, we ask?
“That kind of controlled and choreographed play is not good for them,” Maina says. “When you guide their play, children will not explore beyond that. Let children innovate their own games.”
Considering that urban areas are the worst hit by among other things illegal acquisition of playgrounds, urban residents have a big role to play in protecting children spaces.
Giving the example of Lang'ata and South C estates, where residents associations have succeeded in taking back grabbed play areas, Ochieng says that the way forward is for residents to be more proactive in protecting such areas.
“What needs to happen is that whenever people are moving into an area, they should first and foremost demand from the developer the full design of the estate so that they can establish the open spaces and common areas.
“After identifying these spaces, residents should take charge, and if necessary, fence off the space to ward off trespassers,” Ochieng advises.
DN2 sought comments from Nairobi County supremos on a number of issues without success.
For instance, we wanted to know what the county is doing to reclaim grabbed playgrounds and the progress of an earlier directive by the county boss to have all illegal dumpsites rehabilitated and converted to children's playgrounds.
With reports indicating a rising obesity burden among young people, we also wanted to know whether Nairobi County Urban Planning department understands the importance of playgrounds in urban community set ups.