Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is rapidly expanding and urbanising. Roads, new buildings, car parks and concrete take president and priority over child’s play and recreational space. Evidence, time and time again, has shown that common to all children is a propensity – a natural, innate drive and desire – to play. Children naturally spend most of the day playing if they can – improving their social, physical and cognitive development and wellbeing in the process. But the reality is that play is becoming a luxury for many urban children, while infants are not getting access to adequate and affordable day care which helps ensure they go to school ready and equipped to learn.
Facilitated by a new organisation called Out of The Box, over the next two months a simple yet effective pilot project involving local children, parents, artists and newly graduated Addis-based architects is underway to create a child-centred, community-managed space in the heart of city of Addis Ababa.
Urbanisation and the place of the child
Ethiopia is undergoing unprecedented levels of social, economic and urban change. With a population of over 4 million, the rapid urbanisation of its capital city, Addis Ababa, brings increased danger for the child from traffic, pollution, and construction, combined with a decline of public space. Not only does the planning process tend to ignore the needs of the child, but the dramatic shift in housing from low-level forms to high-rise apartments, referred to as condominiums, adds further restrictions to the spaces in which the child is able to interact with his/her surroundings . As across the global south, resource-poor local government is forced to make hard choices – investments in play and play space being seen as a luxury rather than a right, with the economic and social returns from investing in play rarely understood.
Importance of play, interactive learning, and the investment in young people’s spaces
Children are born with a natural hunger for experience, exploration, understanding and desire for passionate engagement with the physical and social world around them. Play is the process by which children achieve this intrinsic quest for learning, enjoyment and adventure, while the way in which children play, and what they play with, is determined by the physical and social environment they are brought up in. Play, like childhood, is culturally relative: socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, physical ability and race impact on the forms of play a child participates in.
Play is essential for the development of both individual identity and the creation of active and responsible membership of society. Play, according to the UN Convention of the Child is a human right, and research on play interventions, particularly during a child’s early years, show that the active participation in play-based activities results in significantly raising IQs, greater levels of education attainment, higher rates of employment, and increased wages in later life, whilst investing in playgrounds, sport and recreational spaces and youth centres plays a crucial role in the creation of strong and cohesive communities, directly enabling the child to feel respected and valued within their immediate community.
Bob Hughes, a pioneering adventure play worker in 1970s Britain, states: “Children will always be children and will always find a way to play”. This begs three important questions: 1. Is where children play safe? 2. What play facilities do governments, policy makers, city planners and communities provide for their children? 3. Does the child have any say in this provision?
Out of The Box Project
In 2012 I spent 3 month living in a housing condominium called Balderas. Constructed in 2008, it’s home to 1050 households and 6000 residents, one third of whom are under 16 years old. During this time I saw first hand how there was a distinct lack of designated early years day-care, play and youth space both in Balderas and across Ethiopia. Inspired by the children I met and the openness of the Resident Association to listen to my slightly “out of the box” ideas, we set about developing Out of The Box (OTB) with the aim of building an adventure playground, a children’s permaculture garden, and multipurpose youth and early years day-care centre at Balderas as a pilot for seeding similar developments in condominiums across Addis Ababa.
Based on interactive children’s workshops and consultations with the Balderas Resident Association, newly graduated architects from the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture (EiABC) are currently designing an original, culturally relevant, dynamic space for children to play, socialise and learn. Incorporating 5 key elements of early years learning and play (Physical, Cognitive, Sensory, Social, Imaginative), the playground aims to be inclusive of different ages, genders and abilities, and use local materials such as bamboo and recycled tyres, jerry cans and satellite dishes. In addition, the site will feature a 30 metre art wall featuring collaborative work from local Addis artists, art students and the children themselves. A children’s permaculture garden will ensure the space is green, vibrant and a celebration of the natural environment in this urban setting.
A second phase to the project will build a children’s centre for early years day-care, youth activities, plus library and café – all managed by Balderas Youth Board and community members.
The first phase of the pilot project will start at Balderas in early 2015. This will act as an example which OTB hopes to replicate in other condominiums in Addis and further afield, continuing to work in creative partnership with a diverse range of individuals and organisations based in both Addis and the UK – promoting the importance of play and the opportunity for every child to play within their immediate community, through both active community participation, cultural dialogue, and exchange.
 Tiumelissan, A and Pankurst A (2013) Moving to Condominium Housing? Views about the Prospect among Caregivers and Children in Addis Ababa and Hawassa, Ethiopia, Young Lives Working Paper 106 [Online] Available from: http://www.younglives.org.uk/publications/WP/moving-to-condominium-housing/wp106-pankurst-moving-to-condominiums [Assessed 1st August 2015]
 Bartlett S, Hart R, Satterthwaite D, De La Barra X, Missair A (1999) Cities for Children – Children rights, Poverty and Urban Management, Earthscan Publication Ltd, London.
 Valsiner, J (1989) Human Development and Culture; The Social Nature of Personality and its Study, Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books.
 Holloway S and Valentine G (2000) Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning, Routledge: London and New York
 Kellock P (2015) The Case for Play, Playground Ideas Report [Online] Available from: http://www.playgroundideas.org/wp-content/uploads/The-case-for-play-V5.pdf [Assessed 09th December 2015]
Sally Duncan has just completed an MSc in Social Development Practice from DPU. She is the CEO and Founder of Out of The Box and also works as a consultant for Oshun Partnerships. Formerly she worked for DFID, as well as for local NGOs in Ethiopia, India, South Africa and Madagascar. Sally is now living in Addis Ababa carrying out her dream to oversee the construction of the adventure playground and youth center in Balderas condominium where she used to live – she hopes this will be the first of many!