Children learn 'magic' of play
Many three-year-olds know their way around a computer these days. But take them outside and they may scream if they see an ant. Do you have any problem with that?
The Playright Children's Play Association does, so it is working to 'bring back the happiness' of playing outdoors in the natural environment, even within the confines of the modern concrete jungle. To this end, it has found a like-minded corporate partner in Melco International Development.
Melco, a Hong Kong-listed gaming and entertainment company founded in 1910, has a long history of contributing to the communities it serves. Lately, the group's corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes have focused on youth, education and the environment - three areas Melco perceives as pivotal to the sustainable growth and well-being of a new generation in Asia.
The notion of good, old-fashioned play as an essential element in the development of a happy, well-rounded individual is gaining worldwide momentum. Moves to put the play back into childhood through initiatives, such as forest schools and other outdoor activities, are being launched in several countries. In Hong Kong, Playright's Melco Environmental Play project is groundbreaking.
Kathy Wong, director of Playright, stresses the importance of unstructured childhood play in the natural environment. 'It is a crucial factor influencing the development of life-long conservation values and the holistic development of children,' she says.
The programme, now into its fourth year of financial sponsorship and volunteer participation by Melco and its staff, counters a culture where people have become disconnected with nature. 'Children live in a material world. They are surrounded by artificial things, including 'plastic' food, and protective parents who keep them indoors where they will stay safe,' Wong explains.
Even children's leisure time is scheduled and structured. But restricting activity has a downside: obesity is a growing problem, especially among the young. Today's child doesn't learn how to take risks. Without a vehicle for their natural curiosity, imagination and its infinite possibilities are stymied.
The Melco project involves three parts: family days out, community play days and training of professionals who work with children, such as teachers and social workers, to introduce play into their charges' routine. Through its website, www.playright.org.hk, and online newsletter, the association also shares ideas for playful activities (in Chinese) with the wider public.
The project began with organised bus trips to the countryside for children and their parents. Over the past three years, 1,000 families have registered and participated.
Community play days, held several times a year at parks throughout Hong Kong, are open to all-comers. To date, 12,000 have joined and numbers keep growing. The activities might be as simple as 'skiing' on a flattened cardboard box down a grassy slope, feeling sand slip through tiny fingers, or building a simple toy from a leaf and a stick. The laughter of parents and their children rings out.
Parents don't have to push their children to play - the instinct has not been lost among too many hours in front of a screen. According to Wong, 'the magic' comes naturally. In Hong Kong, you don't have to travel far to find an outdoor park or playground, with more than 30 green spaces in the city.
For the 330-odd Melco staff members who have participated, the project is rewarding, if hard work. There are play areas to be set up, children to be supervised and all the cleaning up afterwards. An event that lasts just a few hours in the afternoon requires a full day of volunteer service.
Wong says many find their first experience exhausting, leading Playright staffers to sometimes wonder if they will ever see them again. 'They always return and bring others with them,' she says. Of course, it helps that Melco rewards staff with a rostered day off when they participate in voluntary events organised as part of its CSR commitment. 'It's hard work, but they [have] fun,' Wong says. 'When you see children laughing, your heart just melts - and all the work is worth it.'
The programme doesn't have an overt environmental message, although that goal is never far from organisers' thinking.
'One play day does not change the world. Rather, play is a movement that generates change,' Wong says. 'If you love the environment, you will start to care. But this has to come from the heart.'
In its endeavours to 'bring back the happiness' through play, Playright hopes to expand the programme to launch Hong Kong's first forest school, an innovative approach to outdoor play and learning based on a Scandinavian model. As Playright is not government-funded, it is reliant on community support and the largesse of firms such as Melco.
For Melco, its sponsorship is entirely in sync with its core values. For its CSR initiatives, Melco has been named a Caring Company since 2005, while it is recognised by FinanceAsia as one of the best CSR organisations. It has received a Community Chest President Award for continuous support for the community over the years. The group's contribution to WWF Hong Kong is also well-recognised.
This year, with youth development as its CSR theme, Melco and its staff are furthering their commitment to connecting children and their families with nature and motivating young people to live life to the full.
As noted by Lawrence Ho, group chairman and CEO, it is through such partnerships with non-governmental organisations that family bonding is promoted and children can be guided towards a better future.
Community Play Days (free entry)
Sunday, August 5, 1.30 to 5.30pm at Jordan Valley Park
Saturday, September 1, 1.30 to 5.30pm at Jordan Valley Park
For more information, visit www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/jvp/en/index.php