This blog continues my reflections on things that retirement has given me time to read and think about. My thinking is inspired by my reading and this blog is influenced by a wonderful book by psychologist Peter Gray (2013) “Free to Learn” published by Basic Books. The book made me think a lot about children and play and in this blog I reflect on my own childhood and that of my children and grandchildren and the different attitudes to play and learning that have taken place over the last 60 years.
It is a joy to watch my two grandchildren, now aged 5 and 3 explore the world. My daughter is not afraid of allowing them to experiment and to take risks. When they were down on holiday last week the eldest climbed quite a difficult rocky cliff and with encouragement and some guidance negotiated his way safely back down. He ran into the quite large waves in the sea and I loved it when he raised his little fists and cried, “I’m not afraid of you!” When the waves knocked him down he jumped up laughing. Of course I was standing right beside him and he was only in up to his knees.
Later this week I met up with a young friend who had been to visit Sweden as part of her education degree and was amazed at the freedom the children were given. She commented that her and her fellow students looked at the environments in which the children were being educated and what did they see? “loads of health and safety issues – we all wanted to do risk assessments!” She was shocked that 18 month old children were allowed to serve their own food, that they could choose when to have their snacks, that two year olds were climbing trees without adult supervision. We sat and talked about her visit and she wondered how two countries in Europe could have such different attitudes.
Of course attitudes are not only different across cultures, they have also changed over time. I am now 65 and when I was a child I lived in a suburban area on a busy main road. Across that road there was a lane that led to the ‘rec’, or recreation ground. There were fields and hedgerows, some trees, swings and slides and when I was eight I was allowed to go and play there on my own or with my friends and inevitably we would interact with other children who made a beeline for the ‘rec’ to play. We played on the swings and made dens in the hedgerows, we played hide and seek, ‘tag’, British bulldog, all sorts of games with balls or just laid on the grass and talked. We were different ages, boys and girls played together, we competed to see how high we could go on the swings – standing and sitting. When it was time to go home for lunch I made my way back to the main road and waited until a woman pedestrian came along that I could ask to see me across the road. The only stipulation my parents made was that if I needed help I asked a woman, and I didn’t talk to strangers. Straight after lunch I would head back to the ‘rec’ to resume my games. Many of my contemporaries look back on childhood and recount similar experiences. We were so independent. Today parents who allow unsupervised play of this kind would likely be labeled ‘bad parents’. Fear of abduction or child abuse by a stranger is out of all proportion to the actual likelihood of such things happening. The number of children who are the victims of strangers has not changed annually over the years and is a very small figure, yet this or the more realistic fear of traffic is the main reason parents give for not allowing their children to play outdoors.
When I had my first child I lived in an urban area but knew I wanted her to have the experience of being outdoors. Every day I would take her to the park, at weekends we would go to country parks or just into the countryside. I encouraged her to play outdoors in the garden, but it wasn’t enough she didn't have the experiences I had had as a child to freely roam and play. When my second child was two and I was pregnant with my third child I wanted to find a way for them to experience some of the freedom to play that I had as a child. To cut a long story short my husband and I moved to the countryside where we purchased a small-holding. Now my children had five acres to play in and my three year-old son was always outside with his wellingtons, wheel barrow, sand, buckets, spades, cars and created his own play. Soon we had friends whose children came to play. I was able to watch unfold what I instinctively knew – that children are designed to play and explore on their own without constant adult supervision.
When I was in school I remember the lessons being very formal, but in the playtimes we played in the playground and on the extensive grassy areas. Our games included skipping games, clapping games, ‘tag’ and hopscotch. We played ‘jacks’ and marbles and sticks. Friendships were made and broken. We ran around, grazed our knees and I don’t remember being observed or surveyed the way children in the playground are today. We were trusted to sort out any disagreements.
I don’t remember being given homework in primary school. Time after school was a time for playing not for being coerced into completing homework. Today, as Peter Gray reminds us, we seem to think that, “children can only learn and progress if they are doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.” I can’t remember my parents ever being asked to track our homework or help us with projects. This was quite a contrast to my own children’s experience. We will never get back the time I spent trying to cajole, threaten or bribe my children to do their homework. As a teacher as well as a parent I tried hard to make the projects they were set interesting, but it was like pulling teeth. After a long, tedious and frequently mind-numbingly boring days sat at desks they just wanted to let off steam – to play.
When I was in school the dreaded 11+ hung over us and the final year in primary school was devoted to preparation for the test – which incidently I failed. The abolition of the 11+ freed up primary schools to make that final year far more pleasurable, but it was short lived. In 1991, when my youngest daughter was 6 national standardised tests were introduced and she was part of the first cohort to sit the SATs. Since then tests have come to dominate the lives of children from four years onwards. Tests of all kinds have been introduced with one spin-off being competition between children, their parents, between schools and even nations which has become all-pervasive. Preparation for performance on the tests is all that seems to matter and everything else shrinks back in the face of it. It means that more and more children are spending most of their time sitting still, listening to teachers, taking tests, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write and probably daydreaming about what they would prefer to be doing.
Peter Gray’s book confirms my belief that the opportunity to play is necessary for children. It is through play that I learnt how to make friends, feel and overcome fear, solve problems creatively and feel as if I had some control over my life. I wanted my children to have the same opportunities and I want my grandchildren to have those opportunities as well. As Gray says, the things children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.
Autonomy is very important for healthy mental growth, yet In schools children spend large portions of their day amongst children of their own age, directed by teachers and sitting at desks preparing for tests. The so-called ‘wrap-around’ school day provides the necessary extended child care in our society where both parents working is the norm not the exception it was when I was a child. Breakfast club and after-school clubs are again organized and directed by adults, there is little freedom to learn through play here. At weekends the children of middle class parents may be ferried from one activity to another: swimming lessons, piano lessons, football, ballet, karate, birthday parties, etc. It sometimes feels as if they are on a never-ending merry-go-round of activity and what gets lost is time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.
The change in adult working practices has been accompanied by a growth in child-care facilities. This means that many children enter education at ever-younger ages as they attend nurseries from a few months old. Unlike Sweden that has a longer tradition of kindergartens, the trend in our child-care facilities has been to become structured more and more like schools – with adult-assigned tasks replacing play. I was dismayed when I visited my grandson’s nursery two years ago to find the list of activities he would have engaged with that day pinned outside the door with a list of the learning outcomes from each activity. Opportunities for free play in the nursery school seems to have been drastically reduced as each task the child engages in is linked to formal learning, not to fulfill the child’s desire for exploration and discovery. Learning outcomes are pre-specified and the assumption is that the tasks directed by the adults will facilitate the child’s development and promote a range of skills and intellectual outcomes. Children who are not compliant and want to follow their own pathways will be gently coerced into completing the designated tasks.
In such organized environments Peter Gray asks when do children acquire the skills and confidence to meet life’s challenges. He uses the metaphor of prison to describe schools today. In prison you are involuntarily confined, your liberty is restricted, you are told exactly what to do, failure to comply results in punishment.
The dominant assumptions I find in schools today is that children are incompetent, untrustworthy, and in need of the coercive, corrective forces of schooling to shape them into the kinds of human beings that the elites of society think they should become. Furthermore, children are told that if they comply in school everything will work out well. Gray argues that the forced nature of schooling turns learning into work suggesting that anything a person is forced to do, according to someone else’s schedule, using procedures that someone else dictates, is work. The very act of taking control of children’s learning in these ways is turning joy in learning into work. This combined with the constant evaluation of children and comparison with other children causes anxiety for children. Tests and fear of failure create more anxiety and this in turn inhibits learning, which occurs best in a playful state of mind.
Increasing numbers of children are rebelling and refusing to conform and unfortunately many of these children are labeled as having ADHD (attention-deficity/hyperactivity disorder) – the incidence of which has risen steadily as the opportunities for real play has declined. Many of these children are treated with drugs, the long-term effects of which we don’t know.
We know that rates of stress-related mental disorders in children and young people are on the increase, particularly in the last thirty years. The office for National Statistics for mental health in children and young people in Great Britain say one in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder and research suggests that 20% of children have a mental health problem in any year. Mental health problems among children increase as they reach adolescence.
Yet politicians continue to call for more restrictive schooling, not less. More standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking time off for a family holiday.
Peter Gray claims that children do not need more schooling, quite the opposite, they need less schooling and more freedom. They also need safe enough environments in which to play and explore, and they need free access to the tools, ideas, and people (including playmates) that can help them along their own chosen paths.
As parents and grandparents and concerned adults it is time to call a halt to these practices which I believe are damaging our children. I recommend Peter Gray’s book to anyone who wants to know more about the value of letting children direct their own play and learning.