My child, not yours.

April 11, 2013

Mother Holding ChildI have just been reading about the recent story of how a shop worker smacked a three year old girl, who she deemed to be misbehaving, without the permission of the parent. Needless to say, I am outraged (although it seems not everyone is). 

I could of course write a good deal on why I think smacking is wrong, and have a good rant about this. But the story also made my blood pressure rise for other reasons. It evoked that all too familiar feeling of extreme annoyance and affront that I feel whenever someone takes it upon themselves, uninvited, to speak to my child in a way I feel is not appropriate. 

At what point is it OK to intervene with someone else’s child? This question could lead to an endless debate about what is and is not acceptable behaviour from children, but I think that misses the point. 

Sarah Ditum’s article in The Guardian, whilst expressing her disapproval of the incident, concludes by saying, “… there are so many ways of dealing with another person’s child in the act of naughtiness that don’t involve physically attacking them‚ like, say, talking to them gently but firmly.” 

True. But I would go further, like, say, talking to their parents. Anyone ever think of that? It’s not like the mother wasn’t there. 

And that’s what really gets me. I would always favour talking to the parent first, rather than to their child. 

It’s the parent’s job to choose their methods of parenting, of disciplining and limit setting. And it’s the parent’s job to decide what they think are reasonable limits to set. If we disagree with these limits and feel there is a problem then it is surely more appropriate to discuss these with the parent than to take matters into our own hands with their child. The parent is also the one with intimate knowledge of their child, of the sort of language and methods they will and will not respond to, how they’re likely to respond, how they’re likely to be feeling, where their behaviour is coming from in the first place, what has gone before. 

And yet so often I find people talk to my child inappropriately. Don’t misunderstand. I do not let my child just run amuck. I don’t think it’s OK for my child to charge round a shop knocking things over and breaking them. Nor, I’m sure, did Angela Cropley. I’m right there, ready to deal with the situation as I see fit, and yet so often it’s taken out of my hands before I have the chance. 

And it’s not just issues around behaviour that bug me. It bugs me when people comment to my child on how dirty he is when I don’t mind him getting dirty if he’s having fun, and I don’t want him to be worried about it. It bugs me when people use language like ‘naughty’ and ‘not very nice’ around my child. It bugs me when people try to distract or cheer up my child when he’s crying, or worse, mock or belittle him, when I would rather validate his feelings and let him have a good cry if he needs to. 

I recognise that much of the problem for me is that others’ perception or definition of what is bad or normal behaviour are often not on a par with mine. Couple that with the fact that my methods of dealing with behaviour are not on a par with theirs, and the result is, well, lots of difference of opinion, and perhaps I’m over-sensitive about it. But the thing is, I spend a great deal of time biting my tongue or turning a blind eye to parenting methods that I strongly disagree with, and that I often find quite upsetting to witness. Children being smacked, children being left to cry, threatened, bullied, talked down to, disrespected and humiliated. But I say nothing because I don’t feel it’s my place to interfere. So it would be really nice to feel other parents could extend me the same courtesy. 

So as well as raising the issue of respect for children, this recent incident of the child being smacked by a shop keeper raises the issue of respect for parents. 

Please stop assuming that everyone uses and approves of the same old dated parenting methods. If you want to use them with your child, that’s your business, but my child, my methods are my business. Butt out.

TV beneficial to children? Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

April 8, 2013

I sighed when I read another article in The Guardian this weekend that does nothing more than simply tell parents what they want to hear – this time that it’s OK to let your children watch hours of TV.

girl holding a remote controlThe article offers no new evidence, just the opinion of a parent seemingly trying to justify the amount of TV her kids watch. Another parent wanting to reassure herself that it’s OK for her children to spend hours in front of the TV because it’s somehow beneficial to them. Keep telling yourself that, but sorry, the evidence for it just isn’t there. In fact there’s plenty to refute it, most of which the writer has saved me the trouble of having to refer to since she does this herself, then proceeds to ignore it.

She waxes lyrical about all the wonderful things CBeebies has to offer to such a degree that one wonders if she was commissioned by the BBC to write such an article. I agree that the quality of children’s TV programmes varies, and that the BBC’s are of the highest. But it’s still just TV. It doesn’t replace interaction with the real world or with real people. It has zero value, other than to give parents a break. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves, cut the crap, and just admit it, please.

But what I really have a problem with is the last paragraph of the article;

“Good-quality children’s programmes are an asset to be treasured and the idea that there is always something better to do than watch TV or play computer games is, I think, rubbish – part guilt about not giving our kids enough time and attention, part snobbery about popular culture not being worthy of serious attention and part nostalgia for a more innocent past when playing in the street was thought to be safe.”

Firstly, if Susanna Rustin really can’t think of something better to do than watch TV or play computer games, if she really thinks her kids can’t, then she must be sadly lacking in imagination.

Secondly, I am very uncomfortable with the choice of words here; “..playing in the street was thought to be safe.” Excuse me? Playing in the street was safe. It wasn’t merely “thought to be”. In fact it still is, at least in many areas. It wasn’t just some misguided notion that we’ve now wised up to. And it’s not just for the sake of nostalgia that organisations like Playing OutOutdoor Nation, Save Childhood Movement and Play England, to name but a few, are working to get kids back outside.

And this is really why the article bothers me so much. I don’t wish to take a shot at every parent who ever allows their kids to watch TV. I’m guilty of it myself. I don’t throw my hands up in horror every time I see a child in front of a screen. But I take issue with articles like this because they undermine the very real need to raise awareness of the growing concern over the changing nature of childhood today and the long-term implications of this. They fail to take seriously what needs to be taken seriously, they promote myths, and burying of heads in sand (or in this case, screens).

So please, Susanna Rustin, keep reassuring yourself if you need to, but don’t try to reassure everyone else.

Three cheers for the natural learning process!

March 14, 2013

There are so many activities available to sign your child up for these days. If you don’t guard against getting carried away, your child’s weekends and the short time after school each day, can quickly become booked up with various classes.

Being a great believer in allowing plenty of time for connection and for free play, and a bit of a sceptic to boot, I’ve guarded against this carefully, taking a very cautious and minimal approach, discarding the majority of letters and fliers that come home from school.

But I always wondered about swimming lessons. Every child needs to learn to swim, right? Should I not sign up for these as soon as possible? But somehow I never quite got round to this either.

A regular swimmer myself, before I had a child I used to watch the mothers and babies in the Baby Swimmers class when I was at the pool, and imagine that if I ever had a child, I would join this class as soon as my baby was old enough.

Sure enough, when baby finally materialised I began taking him to the pool regularly as soon as possible. I got as far as enquiring about the mother and baby classes, but never quite felt ready to start them. We were having such a lovely time together in the pool already you see. It was always such a connecting activity which we both enjoyed. The timing of the classes never quite fit into our routine of meals and naps. And what would we do in the classes that we weren’t already doing in the pool together, just the two of us, sometimes with my good friend Wendy with her support and enthusiasm, who told me to ditch the baby floater seat and the arm bands?

Boy in Swimming PoolI’ll start him in lessons when he’s a bit older, I decided eventually. I then revisited the issue again, annually probably, always on the brink of signing him up, but then always putting it off ‘for a little longer’. The lessons were frequently taking place in another part of the pool when we were swimming. They always looked so regimented. The children never looked particularly happy. The teachers had a shouty, bossy tone. My child loved going swimming, but didn’t like putting his head in the water. I didn’t want him to be pushed into this, but wanted him to do it in his own time. I was afraid he would be ‘put off’ swimming. In short, I didn’t trust anyone else, didn’t want to hand over the job to other adults who might not be so sensitive to his particular needs.

So we have continued visiting the pool every week and having our swim together, and so we continue now my child is six. He is now swimming unaided, a little further each time, and is no longer afraid to go underwater.

What’s really struck me is that I haven’t had to ‘teach’ him at all. It’s been a remarkable testament to the natural learning process. Everything’s just happened so spontaneously as his confidence grows and he gradually tests out and discovers through our antics together in the water what he can do, watching other children and trying different games and challenges.

Too often we are apt to assume that learning must take place through instruction, by adults imparting knowledge. Yet my child’s development in the pool has been a great demonstration of learning just by doing, by playing and having a go at things. And he’s enjoyed doing it all at his own pace and on his own terms. Yesterday he wanted to play at ‘diving’ and retrieving objects in the baby pool. It’s fascinating to watch how much he is teaching himself through this simple game. He experiments with how long he can stay under the water, what he can do under there, how much he can see. It’s all training of course for doing this in the big pool. I’ll take my cue from him as to when he’s ready.

What’s more, it’s been a journey we have shared together. It’s been wonderful to be right there with him to share those special moments of achievement, his delight the first time he jumped in without me catching him, the first time he found he could swim unaided. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up these moments to someone else anymore than I would his first steps or first words. It’s been my little bit of home-education that I always wanted. Learning that’s child-led, play-based, individualised, following my child’s instincts and interests, taking the natural course of things together. My child enjoys going to the pool more than anything else. Even more, perhaps, than playing out on the street with his friends. And that’s saying something!

So if there’s an activity you enjoy, and you think your child would enjoy too, think twice before signing them up for classes. Why not just do it together?

5 tips for facilitating free play

February 28, 2013

Girl jumping over boyFree play isn’t just beneficial or important, it’s essential. It allows children the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, to use their imaginations and creativity, and to develop social skills and emotional resilience through their interactions with other children.

But in order for children to reap the rewards of free play, adults need to know how to facilitate it. There are the obvious things like placing restrictions on screen time, and not over-scheduling our children’s lives into organised, adult-led activities. But there are also the less obvious things.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Don’t interrupt

Let sleeping dogs lie. Let happy children play. Whether playing alone or with other children, if they’re busy, leave them be whenever possible. Very young children will develop their ability to focus on things for longer. Older children engrossed in a game clearly don’t need our input. If we have something we want them to do, can it wait until later? Be flexible.

Don’t make suggestions

My child never does anything I suggest. He will go out of his way not to. Everything must be done his way. I think he’s a bit of a chronic case, but the principle still holds: children like to come up with their own ideas and invent their own games. We need to trust in their ability to do this.

Having said this, I do sometimes subtly leave things lying around that I think my child might play with when he sees them. Often I keep packaging like bubble wrap, polystyrene, or cardboard boxes. Once I gave my child and his friends some carpet off-cuts. But I didn’t make any suggestions as to what they should do with them….

Don’t over-direct or micro-manage

Free play means free of adult direction. Butt out. Let the children make up their own games, their own rules, and come up with their own solutions to problems. They can do it! Occasionally an adult does need to intervene, especially where younger children are involved. Perhaps the children need reminding to make sure everyone gets a turn, perhaps feelings are running high and a situation needs defusing. But give them the chance to resolve things on their own first. Every time we step in we deprive kids of the opportunity to exercise their judgement, their ability to come up with ideas, to manage conflict, and to just, well, play on their own, which is kind of the whole point.

Don’t stress

Allow some risk taking. Children will only learn to manage risk by experiencing some level of risk. Again, we need to trust them to use their judgement, and use ours a little more when it comes to deciding if it’s really necessary to step in or to restrict something. Our risk-averse culture prompts us to step in far too often.

Allow play fighting. Whether wrestling or playing with pretend weapons, we really need to get over it. It’s normal. Trying to ban it is a mistake. Wrestling kids probably will take the occasional bump, but it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisation. Remind them of some basic rules if you must, like no biting or kicking. Observe the play closely. As long as both children are happy, both are willing participants, and the stronger child is holding back some strength, then all is as it should be.

Allow kids to get dirty

When we dress ourselves in the morning we choose our clothes based on what we’re planning to do that day. Don’t we? So if we’re going to do some decorating or gardening we don’t put on our best suit or dress.

Kids are probably planning to play most days. So dress them for it, and don’t stress about it when they get dirty. More importantly don’t project your stress about it onto your child. Children need to be free to explore and have fun uninhibited by concerns over their clothes or appearance. This is childhood. Adulthood comes later.

“The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.” Karl Groos

Home education: what, how and why? – a guest post by Jane Levicki

December 6, 2012

Although I’m not a home educator myself, I am very interested in the subject of home education, in dispelling myths, and in raising awareness of home education as an option. So I was very pleased when Jane Levicki agreed to write a guest post for me.

Jane has four children and has been home educating for eleven years. She is the Co-Editor of Education Outside School Magazine,  and blogs at

Just over eleven years ago I took my children out of school to home educate them. My son, then aged 8, had never been happy. While he was fine with the social aspect, he often found school boring and frustrating; he had no desire to read, fill in worksheets, or sit still for more than 30 seconds! We struggled through, because I knew no different, but when his sister started showing signs of stress in Year 1 (free play and the dressing up corner is left behind in Reception – Year 1 is serious school!) I knew I had to do something.

I had growing reservations about the school system anyway. I always expected to have to cope with stress in the GCSE years, but I was astounded and disappointed to find I had to do that when they were five! From baseline testing through to SATS it really did seem to be all about box ticking and conforming to the mould.

So I took them out of school and we entered the wonderful world of home education. And I found a new community of people who agreed with me and didn’t think I was mad!

I discovered that disillusion with the education system and unhappy children are a common reason for people to turn to home education and I met former teachers who had come out of the system along with their children! Some had coped with years of bullying. Others had realised that their child’s needs were just not being met, maybe they had Special Educational Needs, ADD, were Gifted, or simply needed to learn differently. The occasional family were home educating for religious reasons. One thing we all had in common was the desire to give back to our children the love of learning they were born with.

I imagine that most people think either that I stand over my children from 9 to 3 each weekday as they sit obediently at the kitchen table filling in workbooks, or that I let them run feral, rolling in the mud, or watching TV all day, while literacy is ignored and career prospects disappear.

Neither of those is true. People do ask me how I get my children to ‘sit down and do their lessons’, but home education doesn’t really work like that. Although some people do create a sort of ‘school at home’ environment if it suits them, that’s not very typical.

Much of their learning has been autonomous. This is an approach where the child directs his own learning, following his own interests while you support him. They learn what they need to when they need to. Some families are totally autonomous and never introduce any structure at all, unless their child asks for it. Many families opt for a blend of autonomy and some direction. This approach works well for us – I encourage as much autonomy as possible, but I also initiate projects and suggest activities.

boy with magnifying glassAnd even when I do, I am able to tailor those to the children. Learning can happen in all kinds of ways. Instead of getting the biology books out, you can go to the zoo or keep animals yourself, take walks and observe nature. Instead of printing out worksheets about money, you can pay your children a weekly allowance, take them shopping and help them open a bank account. Instead of boring reading schemes, you can just enjoy books together. Home education works best when you tap into your children’s aptitudes. I remember great fun pacing out the relative size of the solar system, cooking typical World War II dishes and trying out hieroglyphics!

Even as they enter teenage years, the choice is still there. They can do GCSEs or equivalents or focus more on their practical skills. They can enter sixth form or college or university. But they are not sitting on a conveyor belt, churned out at the end.

The Big Question – Socialisation!

Unless you’re going to keep your child locked in the house forever, they will socialise! Home education is a bit of a misnomer really because usually not much of the education happens at home. They are out and about in the real world – in libraries, shops, cafés, on public transport, in museums, the park; socialising all the time with children, adults and the elderly, shopkeepers, policemen, bus drivers. Sounds a lot more like good preparation for life than years spent with 30 children your own age, plus one adult who must always be obeyed, doesn’t it?

And as for making friends, well of course they do. They make friends with the children in their street and with the guys in their football team, drama club or Scout group. Plus there is a network of home educating communities all across the country organising group trips, activities and social events. In fact, some weeks you’ll have trouble finding them at home at all!

Perhaps best of all, they get to socialise in the way that suits them. My eldest son, now 19, has always been very much a social person. During the summer I would barely see him, he’d be out all day playing football with the other boys in the village. He made friends at his football team, basketball club and Scout group. When he went to college at 18, socialising was never going to be an issue! These days it can take us ages to get around the shops because he keeps bumping into people he knows!

My youngest child is also a social animal. She requires lots of contact with people and sleepovers when possible! My two middle children are much shyer but they have the opportunity to develop their social skills at their own pace. It hasn’t stopped them making friends, communicating with shop keepers, their drama teacher and football manager, or being offered babysitting jobs. In fact, being home educated has enabled them to develop their self-confidence and self-esteem from a secure base, which will see them very well for the future.

You sometimes hear the argument that children need to experience the harshness of life and learn to deal with bullies. Ridiculous! Anyone that has been even slightly bullied will tell you that it doesn’t make you stronger – it grinds you down. In addition, just because a child doesn’t go to school, that doesn’t mean he isn’t facing the ordinary disappointments and difficulties of life. I’ve seen my son cope with spending the entire match on the subs bench at the age of 12, my daughter not win the poetry competition. I’ve witnessed them not get the part they wanted in the play but take it like a professional and give it their best anyway.

I’m not saying that home educating has been a walk in the park. There have been difficult times, as with any aspect of parenting, but even through those I have not regretted it for a minute!

In the UK, education is compulsory, school isn’t. You don’t have to be a teacher or follow the National Curriculum. You don’t need to observe school terms, days or hours. You are not required to be monitored and your children aren’t tested. For more information on the legalities see

There are many great books about home education, but the one I would recommend as a great introduction is ‘Learning Without School’ by Ross Mountney.

Toys for Christmas?

November 7, 2012

I have just read this article in the Guardian. Apparently the Toy Retailers Association have come up with a top 13 list of toys. The article implies that it is in fact a list of ‘must have’ toys to buy our children for Christmas this year. Given the timing of the list, this seems quite plausible, and a quick Google search brings up umpteen other articles on the same topic and with the same angle, including one that has appeared on children’s television channel CBBC’s website.

It seems that not only are adults being told what to buy for their children, but children are being told what to want. How many adults will fall for this blatant commercial manipulation? If this article‘s anything to go by, quite a lot. It reports that according to research by the Mothers’ Union, 72% of parents admit to buying gifts they can’t really afford, 46% have got into financial difficulty or debt in order to buy Christmas presents, and 59% admit to buying presents they didn’t consider age-appropriate.

For the last five years now I’ve found myself frequently asked the question, in the run up to Christmas, “What are you buying your child for Christmas?” My answer has always been vague and evasive, because (and here my secret is out) the answer is, very little, if anything. Here’s why:

a) He will gets loads of gifts from grandparents, aunties, and uncles, and he won’t know that none of them are from me, because he thinks they’re all from Santa anyway.

And I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about this. It’s not like I never buy him anything.  Why wait until Christmas? I don’t get extra pay at Christmas or anything. And I don’t use Christmas as a bribe or a threat. My child doesn’t have to earn things. The idea that I must buy him heaps of things at Christmas means I must either hold off buying things in order to store things up to add to an already large pile of presents at a particular time of year, or, if as I do, I buy him things as and when he grows out of something or I feel he needs or would benefit from something, I must then buy him other things at Christmas which he doesn’t really need. I don’t get it.

b) He won’t have any of the above ‘top 13’ toys or other demands for particular toys on his list because he never watches TV commercials.

Children only expect what they’re led to expect. I ‘ve often found the smallest and simplest presents have been his favourites.

c) There are very few toys he actually plays with anyway.

Really. It’s taken me a few years to finally grasp this, but he doesn’t. For years he’s had a load of toys in the house he’s hardly touched. I sold some of them at last month’s NCT sale and he still hasn’t noticed they’ve gone.

He just plays with, well, stuff. If he’s playing at cooking he plays with the real crockery and utensils in the kitchen. Forget all that plastic rubbish I bought when trying to create a ‘home corner’. He ‘goes shopping’ with real shopping bags and food from the food cupboard. He makes miniature ‘soups’ with various ingredients donated by his father while he’s cooking. He makes all sorts of imaginary things outside in his messy play area. He invents things out of cardboard packaging. He and his friends make dens with old blankets and cushions. Right now he’s obsessed with football, and will play imaginary matches with commentary. If no balls are immediately available, he uses anything kick-able.

When he was younger he liked taking random things out of drawers and playing with them. (actually he still does) . He had a great time with the tape measure. I once found him playing with a roll of Sellotape. I took it off him, telling him it wasn’t a toy and we needed to save it for when it was needed. Later I thought how ridiculous that was. I’ll buy him toys, but I can’t stretch to an extra roll of Sellotape?!

The thing is, kids have great imaginations, and a great capacity to create play out of raw materials. Plus this makes for a good type of play that’s most beneficial to their development. Many commercial toys do all their thinking for them, and limit them to playing in certain ways. Hi-tech toys do not encourage creativity or leave room for a child’s imagination to get to work. A toy gun can only ever be a gun. A stick could be a gun, then later a fishing rod. Children with large numbers of toys will flit from one to the next, without spending much time on any, making for short attention spans.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy any toys, or that my child doesn’t have anything to play with. He has bats and balls, a scooter and bike, lego, drawing materials, a collection of toy cars picked up in charity shops, a dressing up box, a much used sand and water tray, for example. I’m just saying our approach to children’s Christmas gift buying, and toy buying generally, is worth thinking twice about. We often hear the complaint that a small child is more interested in the packaging than the actual toy. This is telling us something. Let’s take note, and send the media and the TRA packing.

Advocating for children’s play – away from TV screens

October 12, 2012

An open letter to the manager of David Lloyd Leisure.

Dear Manager,

When the excellent new children’s area opened at my local David Lloyd club over a year ago, I wrote to you remarking that I felt the area was very much spoilt by the presence of television screens, and requesting that their inclusion be reconsidered. I pointed out that there were no other soft play facilities in the city, that I am aware of, that have TV screens, and that I felt their presence was disruptive to the children’s play.

Your response reported that the TVs had received ‘mixed reviews’ from parents, but that some liked having them there.

Over the last 18 months I have used this facility regularly. My child very much enjoys the time he spends there – it has become familiar to him, as have the staff, and other children who go there regularly, making him feel comfortable and relaxed there and able to enjoy all it has to offer. As well as taking part in some of the organised activities, he very  much likes spending time in the play area with other children. He is an only child, and this social aspect of the club is of great benefit to him.

However, I have repeatedly observed during our visits there, the negative effect of the TV screens on this social aspect of the children’s play. One of the screens is visible from all angles of the main play area, including from the soft play structure. On every visit, I have observed how these screens distract from and interfere with the children’s play. Their attention is repeatedly drawn towards the screen. Some children are unable to draw themselves away from it, and end up leaving off their play with the other children to sit in the play structure staring at the screen, despite being often unable to hear the sound. Those children who are able to re-focus their attention away from the screen do so only to have it drawn back at frequent and regular intervals. This is disruptive to the flow of their play and their thoughts.

If you observe the children’s play closely enough you will see that they are doing more than simply enjoying the physical aspects of the climbing structure and slide. They are often engaged in some sort of imaginative, creative, make believe play. They devise their own rules and roles, negotiate and interact with each other, create fantasies. This type of play is extremely beneficial to children, yet sadly something for which there are fewer opportunities today, with the introduction of homework at younger ages, more scheduled activities, fear of allowing children to play out, and of course, screen technology.  I therefore feel opportunities for this type of play are valuable and should be facilitated as much as possible. However, it’s certainly not facilitated by the constant distraction of TV screens.

I have also observed other parents at the facility. Contrary to your assertions, I have not seen any that appear to welcome the presence of the TV. In fact I often see parents struggling to get their children to finish their meals because they are distracted by the TV. On a number of occasions I have asked parents if they object to my turning the TV off. They have always been more than happy for me to do so. However, I find that the staff appear to have been instructed to ensure the TV is on at all times. When I have pointed out that I, and others, do not want it on, they have simply put it on with the sound down – as I have illustrated above, this is not conducive to the social interaction and creative, imaginative play that the children are trying to engage in.

I also wonder if your staff are aware that the CBBC channel is actually intended for children aged 6 to 12. Yet the majority of children using the facility are younger than this, and many of the programmes on this channel unsuitable for them.

As I mentioned in my original correspondence with you, children are unable to self-regulate. If a TV screen is there they will watch it, whether or not they find the content disturbing, and whether or not there are better things to do. There have been many studies that show the negative effects of background TV on children’s play and attention spans.

Childhood today is already encroached upon enough by the existence of screen technology.  Please ask yourself again if the TV screens in the children’s area at your club are really necessary, or indeed wanted by the parents, or beneficial to the children.

Yours sincerely

A long-time club member, concerned parent, and advocate of children’s play.


*After receiving this letter, the manager of the club telephoned me to say that they would be turning the TV off in the children’s play area on a trial basis.

Going with the flow of technology?

July 31, 2012

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television for under twos, and no more than one to two hours a day for older children.

Rather shockingly, after a quick bit of research, there don’t seem to be any such guidelines from any equivalent UK body, although back in 2007 psychologist Dr Aric Sigman made recommendations to the government of zero television for under threes and just thirty minutes to one hour a day for children aged three to seven, increasing after this to up to two hours a day for sixteen year olds. He asked the government to produce guidelines to this effect.

Newspaper articles are always giving us various shocking figures regarding how much TV the average child views every day, every week, in a year or in a lifetime, but these statistics often don’t include time in front of screens other than TVs, something which would surely make for even more sobering reading.

Miranda Sawyer’s recent article in the Guardian struck me as incredibly complacent. That unquestioning, ‘go with the flow’ kind of attitude that I so detest. “He could play computer games before he could read. Now he reaches for his Nintendo DS like I reach for my mobile; he fills in idle moments on Fifa..” she says of her six-year-old. And she just accepts this?! A six-year-old? I must be leading some sort of sheltered existence because I admit this actually shocks me. Not just the idea of a child being so addicted to something at such an age, but that their parent could be so blasé about it.

The thing about these devices is that, unlike TVs, which are bad enough in the way they’re cropping up in more and more public places, kids can take them everywhere, so they can interfere not only with their play at home, but when they’re out and about, on camping trips, at parties, at a friend’s house, on a visit to relatives, picnics, everywhere. Not much good the National Trust and other organisations bleating about getting kids outdoors more and away from screens if they’re just going to take the darned things out with them.

When we went to a barbecue recently, my child, having been told we were going to a party, was a bit taken aback on arrival by the absence of a bouncy castle and face painting. But with plenty of other children there and a large garden to explore he soon became happily occupied with playing hide and seek, ball games, and just being kids.

But there was one child who had brought some hand-held device. He played with the other children for a short while, then sat, squatting on the grass, engrossed in his device for the remainder of the party. I can’t even begin to list all the things this child was missing out on. I kept looking over at him, then at the other children playing, with a mixture of horror and amazement that such a situation has seemingly become acceptable in our society.

There is plenty of evidence of the harm screen time can do to children’s development. After all, this is what the recommendations of psychologists and organisations like the AAP are based on. Short attention span, aggression, obesity, impaired language development, reduced academic performance, poor sleep are just a few of the potential problems, perhaps the ones easiest to dismiss. A more potent warning for me is that of children becoming dependent on screens for entertainment and losing their natural ability to create their own play. But it’s what children are missing out on that really kills me, what they could be doing if they weren’t glued to a screen of some sort.

Many seem to think technology is just something we must accept for our kids as part of our modern society. Things were different when we were kids, things change. Technology will be part of our children’s lives, there’s no escaping from it. We must embrace it.

But somehow I’m just not comfortable with this view. There’s an appropriate time for kids to start engaging with this sort of technology, and I don’t think as soon as they’re able to press buttons or control a mouse is necessarily that time. We all know how easy this stuff is to learn, so what’s the hurry? It’s another erosion of childhood, something else that keeps kids from being kids, and something else that we, as adults, need to protect them from.

TV and computer games are addictive, habit-forming, and kids can’t self-regulate in the way adults do (and we’re bad enough with the frequency we check in with our smartphones) so it’s up to adults to put limits on the amount of time they spend on these things. Every parent will have their own views as to what is and is not an appropriate amount of screen time for their children, and when they do or do not allow it, but if Miranda Sawyer’s article is anything to go by, those government guidelines that Dr Sigman called for five years ago are long overdue.

I know there’s going to be peer pressure and pester power as my child gets older, but if he ever has a DS or similar, and I intend that he will go as long as possible without one, then one of my limits will be that he doesn’t take it out with him to parties.

When I first became a parent someone once warned me never to say ‘My child won’t do that’. But after observing that child at the party, and the contrasting example of the other children’s capacity to make their own entertainment, I’m going to stick my neck out here;

My child won’t do that. I will personally see to it that he doesn’t.

Because I will not be blasé, I won’t go with the flow, and I won’t just accept it.

Free range kids

July 19, 2012

I’ve been noticing a fair bit of stuff in the press lately about how today’s children don’t get outdoors enough, and spend too much time in front of screens or in scheduled activities. There has even been a phrase coined for this phenomenon –  ‘Nature Deficit Disorder‘ –  for which the National Trust blame the increase in gadgets and traffic, and to which they attribute the rise in obesity and mental health problems amongst children.

All very depressing, but what really caught my attention was this article about the Playing Out Project in Bristol, where two mothers sought and gained permission from the local council to close their street to traffic at an agreed time to allow the children to play out on it. The project is now spreading across Bristol and elsewhere. The benefits of this type of play discussed in the article were to me both obvious and a revelation at the same time.

Sure, I remember some great days out, some great family holidays. But the bulk of what really defines my childhood memories are those of just playing out, with my friends, in my village. Favourite hiding places, favourite trees, favourite games. Roaming the village and surrounding woods and fields, unchaperoned by adults. I don’t make this latter point because we took the opportunity to get up to mischief (not that we were perfect either), but because the absence of adults gave us a certain autonomy. We were free to express ourselves, to play games without fear of disapproval or ridicule, to get lost in our own children’s world without the self-consciousness of knowing adults were watching and listening. We climbed trees, made dens, strayed in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, went in search of conkers or blackberries, but most of all played all sorts of make-believe games, sometimes just two of us, sometimes quite complex, organised games with larger groups of mixed ages.

Now, having a child of my own but living in a large city, I’m lucky again to live on a no-through road where the kids play out regularly. My child doesn’t have as much freedom as I did, but reading about the Playing Out Project made me appreciate that the little freedom he does have – being able to step outside his own front door unchaperoned, and play freely on his own street – is an unusually large amount, at least for kids who live in urban areas. And just as I have always taken my own childhood experience for granted, so I have been taking my child’s for granted now. Free range childhoods have become something in danger of extinction, something to be campaigned for and saved.

But what has really dawned on me is that it’s not just about loss of exercise, fresh air, or knowing that apples grow on trees. It’s about the loss of free play. Unsupervised, unorganised, unscheduled free play. It’s not just about getting outdoors, it’s about free range, unobserved, unstructured, spontaneous, creative, imaginative, cooperative play.

A constant source of admiration and wonder for me is just how long the kids can and will play out, with no adult supervision or organised activities, but with just their own initiative and imagination. They make use of whatever materials happen to be available. There have been Saturdays this summer when my child has played out on the street from 10am to 5.30pm, just coming in briefly for lunch. What does he do out there all this time? Sure, the adults facilitate the play to some extent, providing chalk, scooters, balls, and materials to create a messy play area, although even this was not originally intended for the kids, they just made it theirs. But often they’ll just create. Last weekend they spent a good deal of time playing with an empty wheelie bin, for example. Sometimes they come in requesting specific materials to further their ideas. My child came in the other day and asked for a rucksack and an umbrella because he was ‘going camping’. I provided the requested items then watched with interest through the window while he and his friends all trekked with their backpacks 25 metres down the road then stopped to ‘set up camp’ with old blankets, and sat there for some time pretending to read magazines and newspapers under their umbrellas.

This is real play. This is what those kids the National Trust talk about are really missing out on. In real play they learn teamwork, cooperation, negotiation, how to be inclusive, how to share, how to deal with disagreements and fall outs, how to put their ideas forward, how to handle rejection, how to interact with others, how to socialise. The list is endless. And kids need space to do all this. Not just physical space, but space of their own, that they can organise and control themselves, not be subject to the organisation and control of adults.

Kids don’t need to just get out to the park, out on a walk, or some other adult organised and chaperoned activity, but out, on their own, in their own neighbourhoods, on a regular basis. Let’s get behind the campaign for free range childhoods, for reclaiming the streets, for getting kids away from screens and back into the creative, imaginative play that kids do best. The nature of free range play is unique and worth fighting to preserve.

For more on the movement for free range kids, kids play and childhood generally see:

Say Goodbye to Prompts – a guest post by Sarah MacLaughlin

July 9, 2012

Excerpted and adapted from the award-winning Amazon bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

Letting go of prompts is a serious commitment. Offering children cues is a verbal habit that is hard to break. But overuse of prompting usurps kids’ personal power. And it becomes exhausting for the adult too!

Here are three classic prompts that you can avoid with a little practice. I’ve also included Reading Tips because reading books with children that promote courteous behavior and respect for others is an effective way to send these messages without nagging.

What’s the magic word?

Most adults want children to have good manners. We certainly don’t remind and nag at a baby to start crawling, and it isn’t productive for learning other behaviors like manners. Ironically, asking repeatedly for please or thank you can cause a child to overlook these graces. Why should she remember to say the magic words if you always jog her memory?

I have effectively taught children to use polite phrases by simply always using them myself. In social situations where you would feel rude if a child didn’t say the right thing, speak for your child (he will hear you) without sarcasm or a mocking tone: “Thanks, Aunt Trudy. Frankie will love playing with this truck.”

Reading Tip:

Rude Giants by Audrey Wood. Ages two and up. These unruly giants get some etiquette help.

You have to share.

During their first five years, kids struggle with sharing sometimes. (If not most times!) Children near age two have particular difficulty with sharing. (Have you read The Toddlers Creed?) This is normal and to be expected.

You might have heard a child scream “No! Mine!” at the top of her lungs if another child makes even a slight move toward a toy or cookie she is holding. Experts claim that at the peak of the “mine” stage, a toddler’s perception of a toy she possesses is that it is an actual part of her. When someone takes away that toy, she feels the same as if an arm or leg has been taken. This certainly explains all that wailing, doesn’t it?

Reading Tips:

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems. Ages six months and up. A pigeon wants to eat the hot dog himself but decides to share in the end.

Sheila Rae’s Peppermint Stick by Kevin Henkes. Ages one and up. Sheila Rae doesn’t want to share at first, but then something happens that changes her mind.

Go say you’re sorry.

Forcing a child to apologize is usually frustrating for someone—the child who has been given no choice in the matter, or the adult if the child refuses (Most likely, both.) I’ve seen moms and dads have major “say you’re sorry” showdowns with children who have just begun to speak: “We will stand right here until you say you are sorry for hitting your friend!” It is upsetting to watch one child hurt another, but trying to save face in this situation is a trap.

Children under five are still developing empathy and don’t benefit from a forced apology. The best response is to describe what occurred. It helps the child understand the connection between cause and effect—you did this, and it caused that. A great example for toddlers is for an adult to handle the wrongdoing and apologize to the affronted child or grown-up: “I’m sorry Helen pushed you and took that toy. Are you okay?” At a later stage in development (around age three-and-a-half), ask the child to check in with the friend she has offended or injured. This works like a scaffold to help the apology be included, which it usually will if it has been demonstrated often enough.

Reading Tips:

I’m Sorry by Sam McBratney. Ages one and up. Two young friends want to play together, but first they must mend hurt feelings.

How to Lose All Your Friends by Nancy Carlson. Ages two and up. This “how to” tells you exactly what not to do if you want friends.

A realization that might help you give up prompting entirely is that kids are wise and capable and they will figure it out. Sometimes it takes a few reminders to trust our children, to remember that they are inherently good and smart. We are all capable of both “good” and bad” behavior—read here about the internal battle we all have involving two wolves. In my line of work it is often said that you grow what you measure. Let’s assume the best and measure the good stuff.

Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about prompts you notice. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog.

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Click here to enter.

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site and her blog.