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.


More reasons to unplug kids from technology

May 3, 2013

An article appeared in The Guardian this week with a nice picture of two kids cooking together in a kitchen. But the picture belies the content of the article, which is all about the dangers of hidden advertising on children’s apps. What struck me about the article was the way the author talked quite unconcernedly about children’s apps and the scale of their popularity. Her sole concern was with the advertising, not with the apps themselves.

The way she described some of the apps seemed quite illuminating too;

“Dirtgirlworld, a game played on smartphones and tablets, teaches children how to grow food from scratch and cook up tasty meals”

Really? How? I’ve never looked at this app, but I very much doubt it does anything of the sort. Where does a child’s experience of the texture, smell, weight or taste of the food come in? (I was particularly amused that she actually used the word ‘tasty’) The sense of passing time in learning how long it takes to grow things from seed, the anticipation, the sense of responsibility for daily care, the sense of achievement at creating something, and the satisfaction of eating it and sharing it? Where’s the social interaction in the kitchen with parents or siblings? The opportunity to connect with parents?

I confess I’m a little out of touch with these things. Perhaps there’s a tree climbing app? A den building app? When it snows I expect there’s a sledging and snowman-making app. There must be so many things my child could do without ever having to leave the house.

Recent grumblings in the press about in app purchases, where children left unattended with tablets and smartphones are prone to inadvertently spending lots of their parents’ money, are another example of how we’re happy to complain about problems associated with our children using these apps, but not about the apps themselves. Something must be done to prevent this happening, everyone says. Game manufacturers must be stopped from manipulating our children and conning us out of our cash. I agree. Here’s my answer: unplug the whole bloody lot and send the kids outside.

The simple fact is that computer games cannot replace real life experiences.  As with TV, parents kid themselves that these things are educational and beneficial. But time spent in front of screens is time wasted. There are a myriad of better things for kids to be doing in this short, precious time in their lives.

If the dangers of in app purchases, advertising and addiction aren’t enough for you, not to mention the small matter of the compromising of normal child development and emotional well-being, have a think about this one:

Children are safer playing out than on the internet, according to a new report by the NSPCC. In an article in the Telegraph last month, the author of the report, Lisa Hawker, is reported to have said,

“Parents are perhaps unaware that when your child is using a computer or mobile phone they may be at greater risk of being hurt or harmed in some way than if they are out and about in their local park. The changing nature of the way we live our lives means that actually your chances of meeting someone who can harm you is now much greater through the internet or your mobile phone than through a stranger you might come across in the street or the local park.”

The report talks about online dangers such as sexting, cyberbullying, and exposure to sexual and other inappropriate images.

How many reasons do we need to persuade us to keep our children from becoming screen zombies?

Child-iPhone-300x168Emma Cook’s article in The Guardian is at least honest in questioning how healthy it might be for her kids to be glued to these devices for so many hours of their leisure time, and admitting to her own responsibility for this as a parent. The article concludes with some fairly sensible suggestions around how parents might manage their kids’ relationship with technology, but the part I didn’t go for was the idea that because we have to accept that kids are growing up in a world full of technology, we need to embrace it; somehow meaning we just allow it and don’t worry about it as long as we engage with it with them and set a few limits. As I’ve said before; I don’t subscribe to this argument.

It’s easy to learn how to use this stuff. Really easy. 2 year olds like Emma Cook’s daughter can tell us that. So what’s the hurry? Children are not going to be somehow disabled or left behind if they start using it later. I didn’t use a mouse or keyboard until I was pushing 30 and I seem to be doing just fine now. And it’s all changing so fast anyway. By the time our children are adults, who knows what all these devices will look like or what they’ll be able to do? So having learnt to use something at age 2 isn’t going to give you any advantage later on. But on the flip side, all the things you missed out on which you could have been doing instead could be a disadvantage.

Everything in moderation? I agree. But I’m not seeing a great deal of moderation reported in the media right now, and quite simply, this is not how childhood should be spent.


Is child’s play just for children?

October 26, 2012

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested in the issue of the loss of freedom in childhood today;  the lack of free play children engage in due to the rise of screen technology, the trend towards over-scheduling children into organised classes and activities, the introduction of homework in primary schools, an increase in traffic, and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’. By free play, I mean children playing imaginatively and creatively, without adult supervision and direction, with each other or independently, and without the use of screens. I have written more about this here and here.

My conclusion is that this type of play is of vital importance to children and needs to be promoted, facilitated, and preserved. This is something I’ve started to feel increasingly strongly about.

Also of vital importance, however, is spending time with our children. Yes, we need to give them space, but there’s a balance to be struck here. A recent study reports shocking numbers of children saying that they wished they could spend more time with their parents, and shocking numbers of parents admitting to spending shockingly little time giving their children their full attention, and somehow I suspect that this is not due to the children spending too much time engaged in free play.

There are many different ways to spend time with our children. We can engage in activities like baking or cooking together, reading, or playing board games. But whilst these things all have their value, they can be quite restrictive, controlled and adult led. A more free, child-led play, however, has a special quality. When we play with children we are joining them in their world, meeting them at their level, on their territory. The value and benefits of simply playing together cannot be over-estimated.

Get to know you

One of the many ways I feel play benefits my relationship with my child is that it enables me to learn more about him, especially now that he’s at school and spending more hours away from me, but even before a child begins school, there is a lot going on in their heads that may surprise us, and playing can give us some real insight.

Imaginative, make-believe, role-play based games can be really fascinating. If I let my child come up with the ideas and lead the way I can learn what has made an impression on him, what has been going on at school, and what he is needing to process and is trying to understand. Play is a great way for me to help him do this. Play can help him work through issues, things that might have upset him, that he’s struggling to come to terms with. We can re-enact things like going to the doctor, or getting hurt in the playground.

Get rough

Rough and tumble is important play particularly for boys who use this type of play to bond with each other and play out aggression. For parents who find this type of play worrying, what better solution than to practice with your child? We can help teach them some basic rules and to figure out their own strength, and when they need to hold back or stop. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D, author of the fantastic book, Playful Parenting, has also co-authored a whole book on this one topic, The Art of Roughhousing.  In it he writes;

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination.”

Get some therapy

Play can even be used to help children with particular problems they might be having, as play therapists around the world will attest. Maybe your child needs a little bit of extra nurture, reassurance of their value and your love. Maybe they need some help giving up a little control, or practice following instructions or taking turns.

For more on this, see my previous post on Theraplay.

The single most valuable aspect of playing with our children though is simply bonding and connecting. Staying connected with our children is essential for successful parenting, and playing with them is one of the best ways to achieve this. Putting the household chores and everything else aside and giving a child our undivided attention also tells them how special and important they are to us. Just half an hour a day can make a world of difference.  Sure, kids need space, they need free play without adults muscling in or hovering, and they need to be able to play independently too, but the value and benefit, indeed, in my opinion, the necessity of playing with our children should not be forgotten.