Why Delegates to the World Economic Forum Took Time Out to Talk About Play

The lack of opportunity for many of the world's children to engage in unstructured play is a growing and urgent issue — and inspired a new coalition.

The theme of the 48th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, which took place in Davos, Switzerland Jan. 23–26, was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Its overall aim — to “rededicate leaders from all walks of life to developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world” — was in response to what organizers of the Forum called “geostrategic fissures on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic, and social consequences.”

You wouldn’t call this weighty issue child’s play, and yet at least one of the initiatives that came out of the forum is just that. During the Forum, Unilever (through its Dirt is Good brands), LEGO Foundation, and IKEA Group, founded the Real Play Coalition in partnership with National Geographic. The coalition is dedicated to creating a movement that expands children’s opportunities to grow and learn through play.

According to an article on the Forum’s website, research has shown that play is vital to a child’s development, helping them to learn the skills necessary for their — and humanity’s — future, including emotional intelligence, creativity, and problem solving. As the article puts it: “To be a superhero is to lead; to host a teddy for tea is to organise; to build a fort is to innovate; to play is to learn.”

More than half of children in the world spend less time outdoors than maximum-security prisoners.

The article doesn’t provide specifics about the Real Play Coalition’s plans, although it points out the lack of safe spaces for exploratory, hands-on play, the fact that school curriculums have cut back on the amount of time devoted to free play — and that more than half of children in the world spend less time outdoors than maximum-security prisoners in the U.S. If this continues, the article reads, “then the harder the search for our future leaders, creators, and explorers will become.” With LEGO and IKEA as partners, I would surmise that new playgrounds and imaginative environments built for interactive experiences will be part of how the Real Play Coalition puts its mission to practical use.

In that, the coalition has a forerunner in the International Play Association (IPA), which is dedicated to securing “every child’s right to play and promote healthy, high-quality play opportunities and environments.” We wrote about the IPA’s recent Triennial World Conference in Calgary this past September. Hosting the conference had such an impact on its host destination that the city of Calgary created a play charter, in which 30 organizations came together during the conference to pledge to do something about play in the coming year.

Mobile playground in Calgary.

When children play, according to the Forum article, they practice original thinking, one of the main cognitive processes in creativity. It’s that kind of thinking that we need in a fast-changing world in which the growth of technologies such as machine learning and AI, the article points out, “means that children entering primary school today will be working in jobs that are yet to exist.” 

Both the World Economic Forum and the IPA World Conference demonstrate that face-to-face events are the ideal environment for adults to exercise their creative thinking, to solve our present and future challenges.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.