By Linda Ngari 

Adults who play handle stress better according to BBC’s The Compass, which explores the role of play and its overlooked importance.

However, “As we grow older, we begin to associate playfulness with bad behaviour”, as is often seen when playful kids at school presumably become the bad example, not to be associated with. A case of kids being affected by adults’ attitude towards play.

It is on the back of profound lessons that can’t be taught in class that the globally acclaimed sport of Olympics began in ancient Greece. This was to instill a competitive spirit, which was part of Greek education, in addition to the discipline that comes with observing the rules of the game. If play would play such a big role in adults’ life, then how much more for children?

The United Nations Children’s Fund upholds play as a child right. A right that is also acknowledged by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. “Crime, immorality and drug abuse, become readily available as an alternative to playing,”- UNICEF.

The Kenyan education curriculum largely focuses on play at the Early Childhood and Development Education (ECDE) stage, where the syllabus stipulates five sessions of play activity per week.

The play sessions come in form of Physical Education (P.E) classes. The same is employed in the UK Curriculum, where play is adopted in a child’s formative days and found to be helpful in developing language, as well as personal, emotional, social and physical development.

These sessions however decline as children progress academically according to data captured by the Ministry of Education’s State Department of Early Learning and Basic Education.

“According to National Assessment System for Monitoring Learner Achievement (NASMLA), a Class seven study 2019 close to half (47.9 percent) of learners reported that they were not
taught P.E in schools.

Further, the NASMLA Class three study of 2018 revealed that a notable proportion (18.8 percent) of learners did not attend P.E lessons. This implies that there were variations in the teaching of P.E and sport as learners progressed from lower levels to higher levels,” the report states.

The same report also cites that while all primary school teachers are trained in P.E, the same is not a requirement for post-primary school teachers where majority turn out not to have undergone the training. Disinterest in play appears to increase with time albeit it was an integral part of formal education even during the colonial era.

“The main objective of teaching P.E in this period was to develop the learners’ character by instilling virtues of obedience, discipline, and submission to authority, which were important in entrenching the colonial rule,” the Ministry of Education report states.

“After independence, the country embarked on various education reforms which have adversely affected the teaching and learning of P.E and sport among other subjects in Kenya.”

Esther Gathitu, a Community Development expert defines play therapy in her report titled; ‘Children Environment and Mental Health’. Bemused by her childhood experience of being defined as “not good enough”, she deciphers the perception of play, or lack thereof among parents and children living in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

This, she finds, is also tied to the rapid rise in child crime and child suicide. Esther in her report found that play therapy is a key component in child psychology. She states that classrooms are less important than playgrounds when it comes to brain development.

“Growing up, I struggled to fit in. To society, I was viewed as not good enough. But I always wondered why, why was I not good enough?” Esther recounts, “I became angry and rebellious because I could not understand why there was no room for people like me who tried but were unable to succeed.”

“Those questions stuck with me even as I grew up and I decided to find answers. I learned that society was putting pressure on children to be perfect pillars and this only created confusion, anger and loneliness in children who could not keep up with those standards,” says Esther.

Children growing up in informal settlements are more likely to engage in crime. This is evident from available data on children in the Kenyan juvenile justice systems. Over 50 percent of child offenders held up at Kenyan Borstal institutions as of 2015 commited crimes related to property according to data from ‘The Juvenile Justice in Kenya: Growth, System and Structure’ report by Clement Oketch.

Borstal Institutions are facilities that take in youthful juvenile offenders who have attained the age of 15, but under 18 years according to The Borstal Institutions Act. However, no person shall be detained in a borstal institution after he has attained the age of 21-years. The term of imprisonment in these institutions does not exceed three years.

Out of 548 Borstal inmates in 2013, 382 committed crimes in relation to property (this entails theft) in 2014, 321 inmates committed these crimes out of 482 new inmates and 212 out 326 new inmates in 2015.

Visualisation by Clement Oketch 
Visualisation by Clement Oketch 

Theft is attributed to living with poverty. This type of crime is especially rampant in Nairobi, that the city has in half jest earned the name ‘Nairobbery’. According to Komarock Chief Salome Muthomi, children often end up in crime as they assist their parents to make ends meet and also due to parental negligence.

“Most parents are young parents and give minimum attention to children, most of them [parents] are jobless and find themselves parenting without being prepared. We even get children as young as 9-years-old in crime.”

Data exploring three rehabilitation schools for character reformation within Nairobi similarly indicates that majority of children in these schools had been caught stealing.

Visualisation by Onyango Tobias Odera

Saved by the ball

Kids as young as 10-years-old shared stories of being introduced to crime after deciding to move out of their homes. They would linger in the streets of Kayole, where criminal gangs would take advantage of their situation and offer them jobs. These kids would be tasked with transporting guns and ammunition, peddling drugs or committing petty crimes which would become their solace in the midst of desperation.

“It is easier to get a gun than get help in Kayole”, Coach Shuba, who runs a reformation program in the area said. Saved by the ball, some of the children got to go back to school through well-wishers’ donations that came through the reformation program run by Coach Shuba. Since they spend more time in between home and school, the football ground at Tushauriane is their safe haven.

While it offers long-term rewards, the financial rewards offered by Coach Shuba would certainly not match those offered by the criminal masters. This is a challenge that the coach highlighted, saying that it gets hard to retain the kids as they grow.

Part of the reasons is the underfunding of such reformation programs and an incessant lack of social amenities like libraries in informal settings. Coach Shuba mentioned that the area could use libraries, where school-going children can spend more time.

He also spoke about his vision for the football team to acquire more jerseys and shoes so they can perform in more tournaments, as well as his hopes to be able to provide food for the kids whenever they show up at the field.

The underlying factor for most children being that they all had to deal with so much at a young age and wound up in the streets in search of an alternative place to call home. Seeing as they have to fend for themselves, they turn out to be petty thieves, drug peddlers and form criminal gangs. Kayole’s history of the Gaza criminal gang left the neighborhood jarred.

“I coached some of them”, Coach Shuba said, “It is very painful to see that they ended up that way”. According to the coach, there is only so much he can do to prevent children from going back to crime seeing as most of them are often caught up idle and hungry when in between home and the field.

In a survey where the Rural-Urban Social Empowerment Program (RUSEP) asked 15 parents and children under Coach Shuba’s reformation organization, most of them thought that the youth are to blame for insecurity in the area.

Visualisation by Linda Ngari 


The same survey also found that sports and co-curricular activities are the most preferred form of rehabilitating children in crime and preventing child crime. This over legal ramifications and even jobs.

Lack of political will

The Tushauriane football ground in Kayole, though it bears life-changing stories and opportunities, still remains to be but a piece of land. A bone of contention that private investors have attempted to grab according to area chief Salome. Matatu owners would also use the piece of land as parking space.

Among the most lauded projects proposed by the ruling Uhuru Kenyatta administration when vying for office in 2013 was the establishment of four stadia in Nairobi county. These projects were allocated Sh1.3 billion in 2018 but remain stalled to date.

The same projects would now be used to stir hope by gubernatorial aspirant Johnson Sakaja who claims that the Dandora stadium would be complete before the August 9, 2022 election date.

About that school motto- ‘Education is the key to success’

This slogan is so deeply ingrained in children and parents that any ‘childlike’ act of going to the football grounds over studying is frowned upon and even forbidden in some homes.

“In Kenya, developing children’s way of thinking has been neglected and instead the main focus has been gaining educational certificates,” Esther says.

Kids growing up in informal settlements are smothered by societal demands, and sometimes very grown up responsibilities. Not to mention the inaccessibility of psychological therapy.

Through play elements like repetition and coordination, play is just as much a therapeutic activity for children growing up in informal settlements to handle stress and altogether avoid being on the wrong side of the law.


This article was written by Linda Ngari, a journalist at Africa Uncensored and a data journalism fellow with the Baraza Media Lab and Fringe-Graph.

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