‘Great news!’ I said to my chum. ‘2021 has been declared The Year of Childhood in Scotland.’
She looked underwhelmed. Then thought for a bit and asked: ‘Hang on, haven’t we already had a Year of Childhood?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That was the Year of Young People.’
‘Ah! I see…’ Her eyes glazed over. ‘So when do we get the Year of Disgruntled, Disillusioned 45-Year-Olds?’
Happy new 2021?
I couldn’t blame her. The last year’s been pretty miserable for everyone. But, like everyone, I was hoping that, as the New Year dawned, we could start looking forward to a COVID-free future and folk might be interested in a Year of Childhood – and in particular at reforms to universal state services during the early years of childhood.
And then came new-variant COVID and we all went into lockdown again…
Little children all over the country are once again banged up indoors, staring glassily at screens, either as part of their ‘online learning’ or because screen-based entertainment is the only form of ‘play’ available. We already know how seriously the lockdown of spring 2020 impacted on children’s mental health, especially those in disadvantaged families. For people living in cramped, uncertain conditions, everyday stresses were hugely magnified, and many children spent the entire three months trapped indoors, witnessing unimaginable family traumas.
Of course, lockdown also gave some lucky parents in wealthier areas the chance to enjoy spending time with their offspring (who could run off steam in the garden and accompany them on family walks in parks and local wild places). But I think they were in the minority. Most ‘advantaged’ mums and dads suddenly found themselves juggling home-working with home-schooling, which often put them under enormous pressure.
So the new lockdown announced on 4th January has been seriously deflating. Once again there are so many pressing grown-up problems to deal with that disgruntled, disillusioned adults of any age can be excused from feeling excited by a Year of Childhood, announced to celebrate the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.
21st Century childhood: state of play
Nevertheless, we weary advocates for a ‘good childhood’ must carry on screaming the message we’ve been trying to convey over the last few decades because it’s not just for the immediate benefit of children. If children don’t flourish during their early formative years, there are long-term consequences for their physical and mental health, with damaging socio-economic implications for society. We’ll therefore keep explaining that – even before COVID – everything in the garden wasn’t exactly lovely for our weans.
That’s not just the 25% of children who live in poverty (although they, of course, have a very tough time indeed) but all children. The under-eighteens may generally be richer in material goods and services than previous generations, but they’re universally poorer as far as support for their physical, emotional and social development goes.
From an increasingly early age, modern youngsters are directly subjected to far more psychological pressures than their 20th century peers. There’s pressure from a competitive consumer culture to think they need more and more stuff, pressure from social media to look and behave in ways considered ‘cool’, and pressure from politicians and the educational establishment to continually raise their ‘attainment’ in school.
Yet the two key developmental ingredients that develop the resilience needed to cope with all this goading and browbeating are nowadays often lacking during early childhood. This is defined by the UNCRC as birth to eight, ‘a period of rapid growth, when brain development is at its peak’, when children develop essential skills and capacities for lifelong learning and well-being.
The first of these ingredients, which lucky children have enjoyed since time immemorial, is active, social, outdoor play – with minimal interference from adults. For a host of reasons, young children no longer have the freedom to play and explore outdoors, developing a sense of control of their own lives and learning how to socialise with their pals.
The second ingredient – also available to lucky children throughout human history – is secure attachment. Young children’s freedom to play has to be balanced by knowledge that there’s a ‘safe haven’ to which they can return at any time. The founder of attachment theory, John Bowlby, described this attachment/play cycle as ‘a series of daring adventures from a secure base’. But now that both parents tend to work long hours (or, possibly, have no paid work and are desperately trying to put food on the table), it’s far less likely that children feel they have constant access to adult carers who are loving, supportive and non-judgemental.
If children are under pressure during such a critical stage of development (without the protective factors of play and secure attachment) it can impact on the rest of their lives. So it’s not surprising that Scotland – like the rest of the UK – is experiencing an epidemic of mental health problems among children and young people. An epidemic that, thanks to COVID-19, is now a terrifying threat to the long-term health of the nation.
Why isn’t Scotland the best place in the world to grow up?
Upstart Scotland – the childhood campaign of which I’m Chair – has just published a book called Play is the Way: child development, early years and the future of Scottish education. In it, eighteen writers from a wide range of professional backgrounds argue the case for a rights-centred, relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven (similar to the early years provision in the Nordic countries). All the evidence suggests that, in a 21st century context, this is the most effective way to provide the love and play young children need.
One theme that keeps cropping up in the book is the problem of cultural expectations and assumptions, which act as barriers to changing the way our universal state services work. In the film of Play is the Way’s official launch, developmental neuroscientist Suzanne Zeedyk concludes that these cultural factors are so deep-rooted that “people do things [that may be harmful to children] with the best of intentions because they feel ‘normal’.”
For instance, we take it for granted that children should start work on the three Rs (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) at age four or five because that’s been the school starting age for 150 years. Yet in the overwhelming majority of countries worldwide – including all those that do better than Scotland in the international charts of education success – formal schooling doesn’t begin till children are six or seven. Levels of childhood wellbeing tend to be higher too (especially in the Nordic countries).
We in Scotland are also so accustomed to valuing ‘education’ over ‘just playing’ that we simply don’t recognise the enormous value of play for children’s long-term health and well-being. Yet there’s now an enormous body of scientific evidence that it’s an essential element in every area of child development – not just the more obvious aspects like resilience, self-regulation, creativity and social skills, but also intellectual development, depth of learning and motivation to learn.
Another example of embedded cultural attitudes is that we’re so used to thinking of life as a competitive struggle for economic success childhood has turned into a sort of race, with parents terrified that their children might be ‘left behind’. Yet childhood isn’t a race. It’s a biological stage in human development. All children need time and space to grow and – especially in the early years – attempts to accelerate progress usually do more harm than good in the long run.
Realising the ambition for Scotland’s children
There is however, some good news. In February 2020, Education Scotland published new practice guidance for early years practitioners (Realising the Ambition: Being Me), covering the period from birth to age six or seven. It is a brilliant document, based on sound developmental science and successful practice – and, despite COVID distractions – the Scottish early years sector has been absolutely buzzing about it.
The bad news is that, unless Scotland as a whole becomes aware of the importance of the early years (including the central role of play in the care and education of the under-sevens) early years practitioners and teachers are unlikely to get the support they need from parents and policy-makers, so the ambition is unlikely to be realised. This has happened in other parts of the UK, where high hopes were eroded within a few years.
Upstart Scotland commissioned Play is the Way (published on 31-10-20) to help spread the word about Realising the Ambition and the science behind it. We’ve been thrilled at how well it’s been received and the enthusiasm of its readers. Indeed, some were so enthusiastic that they raised enough money (through crowdfunding) for us to give a copy of the book to every MSP and Director of Education in Scotland. I wish we could give one to everybody in the country, but that’s definitely too ambitious….
So, we’re relying on the Year of Childhood to carry on getting the word out. And hoping that – once the COVID vaccine allows us to look forward to a brighter future – people will no longer feel too disgruntled and disillusioned to listen.
Play is the Way is published by Postcards from Scotland