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.


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.


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.