Yes, children do need a six week break. At least.

August 2, 2016

I haven’t blogged for a while, so I must start by congratulating the Telegraph’s Angela Epstein on writing an article last week that is so ridiculous, irritating and poorly researched that I am quite certain a response to it, pointing out these deficiencies, should be a fairly straight forward task.

Basically, she’s moaning about the length of the school summer holidays, a shocking 6 weeks here in the UK. Personally, I’m more shocked about how short they are. But every year we have to listen to this ‘it’s so inconvenient for working parents’ type of whinging, and Ms Epstein seems to have taken this to a new level.

Her attitude towards the teaching profession shines through beautifully – from begrudging teachers a family holiday over the summer (they should be marking and lesson planning apparently), to throwing in a little snipe about teacher’s strike action – it’s clear how supportive and understanding she is of all the challenges teachers currently face.

children-playing-outdoorsThen there’s her attitude towards how children might spend their time out of school. She seems to think that learning can only take place either in school or during organised activities, otherwise kids are simply ‘stupefying and incubating’ in front of screens. Well yours might be. But here’s an idea; How about you step up and try actually being a parent? How about you limit screen time? Force the kids to find something else to do. (You’d be amazed how imaginative they can be, even if you can’t be). Take them out to the park or the woods.

“Long gone are the days when children just played out” she observes. Sadly, this is true for many. But why? How about trying to buck this trend? Two major contributors to this decline are paranoid parents, and screen technology. Both of these factors are within Ms Epstein’s control.

She claims that “children thrive when engaged in organised activities”. I wonder where her evidence for this claim comes from. I’m sure there are indeed plenty of excellent, very stimulating organised activities that we can pay for our kids to participate in, if we have the money. However, these are not essential. Child-led free play, however, is. Failing to recognise this shows a sorry lack of understanding as to the many different ways in which children learn and develop.

But no, Ms Epstein goes on to state that “School is a place where our children’s minds are stretched and their imaginations are given flight.” I laughed out loud at this one. Did she make this up herself or copy and paste it from some school website? If only it were true, and if you really believe this then I can see why a 6 week break might not be seen as a good thing. But me, I’m glad to see my child have a break from an education system that is so preoccupied with standards and testing that it leaves no room for any imaginations to breath, let alone take flight. Hasn’t Ms E been aware of all the furore surrounding SATs and new national standards, and the serious concerns about these raised by the teaching profession?

She does, however, rightly point out that our literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low compared to the rest of the developed world. But then her answer to this, like that of many misguided education secretaries, is to shorten the school holidays. The system is failing, so let’s get kids to spend more time in said system. Hmm. Let’s have another look at the rest of the developed world, with which we compare so unfavourably. I wonder how long school holidays are in the countries with the most successful education systems. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – they’re longer.

Finally, if we’re going to talk about how the reasons for the length of the UK’s school summer holidays are historical and out of date, let’s look at the reason for the early school starting age in the UK, also out of kilter with other, more successful countries. The sooner kids started school, the sooner they finished, making them available to enter the workforce as cheap labourers. This, too, is no longer relevant. But I doubt Ms E would have wanted to wait another year or two for school to provide her children with a reason to put down their mobile devices.

So, if you must whine about the length of the school summer holidays, at least be honest about it. It’s inconvenient for working parents, and can be a challenge when you’re not used to having so much time in which to find things to keep the children occupied. Fine. Don’t try to make out that a shorter break would be better for the kids. All the evidence suggests otherwise. If your children’s minds can’t be stretched and their imaginations allowed to take flight during the summer break, then something is indeed seriously wrong. But it’s not with the length of the holidays.

The Stranger Danger myth

May 14, 2015

Since my child started year 3 he is in a different school building, meaning we now take a different route on our walk to school to enter the grounds at a different point. We walk up a cul-de-sac, at the end of which is a path with some green space on one side, and the school perimeter fence on the other. My child likes to say goodbye to me at the end of the cul-de-sac, then go the rest of the way, along the path, by himself.

As this is away from any roads, and my child is now a little older, this feels safe enough to me, and I allow it. However, early in the school year I used to follow at some distance behind until I could see into the playground, then watch over the fence until I saw him enter the school building. Eventually I stopped doing this, but still stood and watched until he entered the gate into the school grounds.

And yet I realise these ‘precautions’ were entirely for my own benefit, my own piece of mind. What could possibly happen to my child in the hundred or so yards between the end of the cul-de-sac and the school gate? Where did I think he could or would go, other than into school? It was just about me letting go. Watching him into the playground was entirely unnecessary. The chances of something happening, and I’m not even sure what, are so remote.

keep-calm-and-avoid-stranger-danger-3But the extent to which we allow our judgement to be clouded in this department is very much apparent. Despite solid evidence that children are in fact safer playing out now than they were thirty years ago, the number of children playing out has steadily declined to alarmingly low proportions. The National Trust report, “Natural Childhood” tells us,

“In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%.”

The increase in traffic plays its part, but the research points to parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ as the real culprit to blame for this phenomenon, and its accompanying growth in the concern for what this means for children’s happiness, development and well-being. The report goes on to say that,

“There can be no doubt that most parents’ greatest fear is stranger danger.”

and quoting Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods,

“Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young.”

What kids are missing out on here is huge, and it’s not just about the outdoors, it’s opportunities for free-play, along with the opportunity to learn to manage some risk, and develop some independence, all essential to the developing child. Awareness of the immense value of free play is perhaps lacking as much as awareness of the real facts relating to stranger danger. Campaigns and organisations, besides the efforts of the National Trust, have sprung up, trying to tackle this issue, and yet still the majority of children continue to be denied the free-range childhoods that so many of us enjoyed ourselves.

So why do we ignore the facts? The National Trust report calls it “availability heuristic: a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or how many people it will affect within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. In other words, as a result of news coverage of attacks on children, it is easy for people to recall horrendous, tragic examples – Madeleine McCann, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and so on. And as a result of that, they significantly and systematically overestimate the likelihood of something happening to their own children.”

Of course, as with many aspects of parenting, we are also apt to take our lead from other parents around us. I often hear people say things like, “That’s how things are these days”. But why are things like that these days, when they don’t need to be? It’s as if the irrational and illogical thinking of those around us validates our own lack of true judgement.

But if no other kids are walking to school on their own or playing out on the street, we’re not very much inclined to let ours do these things. Not only does it influence our own judgement of what is and isn’t acceptable or ‘normal’, but we can’t rely on ‘safety in numbers’ when there are no numbers out there.

It seems there are no easy answers. It’s another case of needing to separate our own stuff from what is really best for our children, but when something becomes normalised in our society, changing attitudes is never easy.

Adults behaving badly

April 11, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up with one of those free-range childhoods we now only reminisce or campaign about. Outdoors playing with the neighbouring children, in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, or mostly playing out in the surrounding common areas.

So it is with satisfaction that I see my child often enjoying a miniature version of this childhood, with spontaneous play occurring regularly at the end of our little cul-de-sac in the city suburbs, with the mixed genders and ages a fascinating reminder of the scope and range of possibilities in children’s play and their natural capacity to get along with each other.

One thing I was always taught, and that seemed a universal rule held by all parents, was that it is never OK to exclude other children from play. It was a free-for-all, everyone on neutral ground. If I was playing with Becky, and her younger sister Catherine wanted to join us, it was not acceptable for us to say no. We had to find a way to include her. Back gardens were not fenced off areas awaiting exclusive invitation, but merely an extension and diversion of the general territory. If parents decided they didn’t want children in their back garden at a given time, all children were told to go play elsewhere. And there were always plenty of other places, so that was fine.

So you can imagine my surprise last summer when my child, playing happily outside with his friends from next door, with whom he has played since toddlerhood, is sent running inside in tears to inform me that another child and his mother have come out and invited his friends round to play in their back garden, but have told him he is not invited.

Assuming, in my naive innocence, that my child must have made a mistake (for what sort of adult would behave like this towards a 7 year old child, or condone this behaviour in their own child?) I go outside to see what has happened and am immediately set upon by the mother in question, who has not been quick enough in her retreat, with the most offensive and abusive verbal attack I can ever remember having experienced. This was swiftly followed up by the Dad, standing shouting abuse at my husband and I on our drive, in front of our child, deaf to anything we had to say, including our civil invitation to come inside and discuss things quietly and calmly.

Our child has shouted at their younger child on a couple of occasions. This was their response, and woe betide anyone who dared to question or challenge it. Our gentle parenting methods, as alien to them as their naughty steps and rewards charts are to us, must, in their minds, surely be to blame. Have you noticed that when a child doesn’t behave well, the automatic assumption is always that it must be the parent’s fault? I find that curious, but more of that in another post…..

Now I have long since resigned myself to the extremely depressing fact that there are a lot of very unpleasant people in the world, and have found my own way to live with this. But when such a glaring example of this unpleasantness affects my child, extremely sensitive to any hint of rejection and exclusion, it is very difficult to live with, especially when it is right on my doorstep.

child alone hopskotchI know things are not quite how they were when I was a child, although there’s not really any need for them to be any different that I can see, but in what universe is this acceptable? It simply isn’t. There can be no possible justification for it. Never and nowhere is it acceptable to take a child’s friends out from under his nose in such a way, and in doing so, to teach children that this behaviour is acceptable. The example set, the role-modelling here, is appalling.

Naturally, I have observed my child’s behaviour around this younger child very closely since this incident. They play very happily together, always pleased to encounter each other on the street, as well as in the school playground, or out and about. They have forgotten and forgiven and moved on you see, as kids do when left to their own devices and not interfered with by adults with their grudges and their judgements.  They’d make very good role-models for some of the adults on our street – oh the irony – if those adults would just pay attention and give the matter some thought.

But sadly all this seems to be lost on them. Further attempts at exclusion have since been made, some successful, some not. Just yesterday our child was left alone on the street, one minute with friends to play with, the next excluded, left only to listen to the sounds of laughter and play on the other side of a fence.

Perhaps I’m out of date with play etiquette? It seems it’s not just common courtesy that’s a thing of the past, but common decency, respect and consideration for the feelings of others.

I can only try to explain to my child the truth that I had hoped to keep longer from him; that not all adults have learnt to behave well or do the right thing. Sadly some people are just “not very nice”.

I tone it down for him of course, but in my own mind I find their behaviour utterly despicable and at times feel physically sick at the prospect of having to share the end of our once happy little street with them, and the world with such truly horrible people.

The Health and Safety Excuse; another restriction to children’s play

May 14, 2013

There is a care home on our route home from school. They have large gardens, and a pair of gardeners visit every week. On the very edge of the garden, against the low wall, they have created a heap of leaves, grass and hedge cuttings.

queen of the worldMy child has found that by climbing onto the wall, which is about two feet high, he can then step onto this pile of cuttings and climb to the top of it. It has become one of his rituals on the route home from school, along with climbing on another higher wall to get behind a large cable box and sell imaginary ice creams.

With Spring finally upon us, he has been delighted to find his ‘mountain’ of cuttings has grown considerably, and continues to do so each week. Not a naturally confident climber, he is very pleased with himself when he reaches the top.

“Look at me Mummy, I’m a mountain climber”.

On a recent occasion, he had just descended from his mountain and was standing on the wall next to me, when two workers from the care home approached us.

“You alright?” one of them asked.

I interpreted this as a polite way of saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” but responded literally,

“We’re fine thanks. He likes climbing up this pile of cuttings.”

“Well be careful because we can get in trouble with Health & Safety” she responded.


“It’s OK, I’m watching him”. Hopefully they interpreted this as it was meant; a polite way of saying, “Piss off and stop making a fuss, I’m his mother and have decided the risk is minimal, he’s just a child playing, and I have no intention of asking him to climb down”.

Now technically, it’s their wall, and the pile of cuttings is on their property, so they could quite legitimately ask me to prevent my child climbing on either, on these grounds. This, I think, would be pretty mean-spirited of them, and perhaps it was a consciousness of this that led them to try to hide behind ‘Health & Safety”. Or was their response just typical of the wider attitude these days? And that’s what really bugged me about the incident.

Would everyone please stop using Health and Safety as an excuse for placing unnecessary restrictions on children’s freedom to play?

My childhood was spent climbing goodness knows how many walls, trees, piles of cuttings, sand, gravel. Everything was a playground; I can’t recall any incidents of being reprimanded for climbing on someone else’s wall or pile. Such pettiness didn’t seem to exist then. So where is it coming from?

Is it because the norm is now for children to be protected from the tiniest risk, so it’s no longer common place for them to be seen climbing on walls or piles of cuttings? Because it’s not just organisations themselves waving the Health and Safety banner; parents seem to have picked up on this drift and are saying no to anything that might lead to the tiniest bump or scratch. Yet, in doing so, we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn about risk, to test their abilities, to use their imaginations, to have fun, to play, to be children.

Here’s an extract from a statement issued by the Health and Safety Executive last September,

Key message: ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’.

HSE fully recognises that play brings the world to life for children. It provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever-present. The opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.

….Key message: ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’”

Yes, that’s right. This is from the HSE. So there’s really no excuse for hiding behind Health and Safety.

I wonder if those workers from the care home have asked the gardeners not to block the pavement with their car, causing my child and I, and others walking home from school with small children, to have to walk on the road; a considerably more prominent risk to safety and breach of the law than a child climbing up a pile of leaves and twigs? But no, of course they haven’t. Because they’re not really concerned with Health and Safety. Their response was just a response to today’s trend – children are no longer permitted to climb on walls or anything else. It’s just not the done thing anymore, except, it seems, by radicals like me. And that’s very sad.

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.

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: