Celebrating the UN International Day of Play – and the essential role of play in both human devt and society’s future


Through imaginative play scenarios and interactive games, children engage in complex cognitive processes, experimenting with different strategies and perspectives. – Pexels

THE United Nations International Day of Play is celebrated for the first time ever on June 11. To see play receive recognition by the UN makes me very happy – and not only as a former child, but as Ambassador of Sweden and a former clinical psychologist as well.

These roles, as a psychologist with a special interest in creativity, identity, and social development, and as the representative of a country leading in innovation, equality, and democracy, have left me convinced of the profound impact play has on individuals and societies alike.

Play is no frivolous breaktime distraction from the important education going on in the classroom, but an important complement to it.

Philosophers such as Friedrich Schiller and Jean Piaget have long recognised play as a fundamental aspect of human nature, integral to cognitive and emotional development. Schiller extolled the transformative power of play in cultivating the aesthetic sensibilities of children, while Piaget delineated the stages of play that mirror the evolving cognitive capacities of the developing child.

Dr Joachim Bergström

Building upon this philosophical foundation, contemporary research in psychology and education has provided empirical evidence for the multifaceted benefits of play.

Studies have demonstrated that play serves as a dynamic, social arena for cognitive exploration, facilitating the acquisition of essential skills such as problem-solving, spatial reasoning, and self-regulation.

Through imaginative play scenarios and interactive games, children engage in complex cognitive processes, experimenting with different strategies and perspectives. Furthermore, play builds social competence by providing opportunities for peer interaction, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Researchers have found that children who engage in unstructured play exhibit higher levels of empathy, cooperation, and emotional intelligence, traits essential for navigating the complexities of social relationships and society.

Play does not end where the sandbox, dollhouse, or schoolyard does. Sport, with its many benefits to health, cooperative socialisation, and development, is a type of play.

In the same vein, play and reading flow naturally into one another – both transport the mind into new worlds and perspectives by stimulating the imagination. When children engage in imaginative play – whether they’re exploring fantastical realms or role-playing real-world scenarios – they’re actively constructing narratives, developing empathy, and expanding their understanding of the human experience.

In essence, is this not also what we do when reading? When active reading is invited to inform and promote play it becomes a powerful tool of learning, by establish emotional connections with the writing allowing us to better understand the texts and remember them more profoundly.

Education can also be strengthened by instilling it with a playful mindset. I grew up in the 1970s – an era in Swedish history often associated with flared jeans and ABBA – but also with the abolishment of formality and new educational approaches that emphasised creativity and play.

We were taught not to look to authority for lists of ‘rights or wrongs’, but to with gentle guidance trust our intuition and inner compass. A playful attitude to academic achievement also ruled: when I failed (which was often), I was told to remain playful and hopeful, to try again, and if I were to fail again, at least ‘fail better next time’.

This attitude fuels innovation by fostering curiosity, experimentation, and risk-taking. Many breakthroughs in science, technology, and the arts have stemmed from playful exploration and unconventional thinking, by ‘failing better’ at each new try. The importance of play extends into adulthood in other forms as well – from hobbies and recreational activities to creative pursuits and intellectual challenges. Engaging in play fosters mental agility, emotional well-being, and social connections, all of which are crucial for leading fulfilling lives.

The connection between play as a lifelong pursuit and as a gateway to innovation is eminently clear in the Swedish gaming industry, symbolised by gamers-turned-entrepreneurs such as Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft. From a retained sense of playfulness, ingenious devotion to their hobbies, and daring to try their way forward, they have built a professional and innovative industry exporting for over RM14 billion annually.

This success is built upon making games that offer players the opportunity for creativity, systems thinking and problem solving – all of which are important skills for both for life and for addressing complex global challenges such as climate change, poverty, and inequality.

Play is essential for our democracies as well: in play, children learn the value of cooperation, negotiation, and compromise – essential skills for functioning within a diverse and democratic community. By engaging in cooperative games, collaborative projects, and imaginative storytelling, children learn to respect differing viewpoints, navigate conflicts peacefully, and work towards common goals. Thus, play cultivates the qualities necessary for active citizenship and democratic participation.

To invite play to lead us towards happier lives and solutions to our challenges, we can start by the integration and promotion of play within the educational system, the creation of public spaces that invite interactive play, the encouragement of cross-generational playful engagement, and the nourishment of a respectful, tolerant, playful, and creative attitude at work. Will future workplaces and public libraries have playrooms for grown-ups, too?

To harness the potential of a playful approach to create change even on the most serious of issues, the Embassy of Sweden in Malaysia has this year launched a platform called ‘Jom Kita Bincang’ – with staunch support from local politicians and opinion-makers, partners, libraries, schools, and civil society.

Through children’s literature, conversations, and play, the project has engaged thousands – across generations – in seminars, exhibitions, workshops, and events to stimulate learning and awareness on sustainability, universal rights, social issues, health, and more.

Through promoting literacy and play, ‘Jom Kita Bincang’ is not only a contribution to knowledge, but to the larger, global, democratic project to which both Malaysia and Sweden are committed.

Play is more than just a pastime; it’s a powerful force for human development, social cohesion, and global progress. Play comes naturally to us as humans, so by not stifling it and instead recognising its value and prioritising its integration into education, work, and community life, we can unleash the full potential of individuals and societies alike.

As we celebrate this first International Day of Play, let us reaffirm our commitment to fostering a world where play thrives, imagination flourishes, and humanity prevails.

Dr Joachim Bergström,
Ambassador of Sweden to Malaysia

  • ‘Jom Kita Bincang’ will come to Kuching on June 13, 2024 in collaboration with the Sarawak State Library.
    An initiative by the Embassy of Sweden in Malaysia, ‘Jom Kita Bincang’ explores how children’s literature can promote and spur dialogue around sustainability, health, and social rights.
    The Sarawak State Library will display an exhibition which presents the philosophy of Astrid Lindgren in a sleek Scandinavian environment, with bookshelves filled with Swedish children’s literature – including three contemporary titles specially translated into Bahasa Malaysia.
    In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, a forum with perspectives on children’s rights and children’s literature from government, international organisations, civil society, practitioners, and culture will be held in the Auditorium at the Sarawak State Library at 9am on June 13.
    Sign up is open to the public.