Why are we STILL stealing childhood?

As one of Australia’s leading parenting educators I regularly travel the length and breadth of this country including cities, remote communities, rural communities and of course the digital world.

Everywhere I go I hear about the distress of many young children who are struggling — kids struggling with anxiety, serious behavioural concerns, developmental challenges, mental illness including depression in children as young as four, aggressive and violent behaviour, increases in ADHD and ODD diagnoses— in our beautiful country it makes no sense!

In 2013 I took a submission to the then Federal Minister of Education called Stop Stealing Childhood in the Name of Education. This was my request for a serious conversation about the changes that were concerning parents, educators and allied health professionals. Absolutely nothing happened except I felt I had tried to do something to build awareness of the concerns.

It staggers me to see the continued push down towards formalised learning in early years that is still happening across Australia, both within the education system and in other commercial businesses.

It has set up an unrealistic and unhealthy competitive perception that the earlier children start formal learning (especially around reading) the better for all children. In short, there is little or no evidence that pressuring children to read at five rather than seven improves their later reading; in fact there is much concern that it is damaging.

Fortunately, I do not feel like a lone voice in my call for change.

My dear friend and wise parenting guru Steve Biddulph has long expressed his concerns that Australia is out of step with many countries in the world on this.

One of the main impacts of the increased academic pressure has been a weakening and diminishing of the importance of play in all its forms.

Early childhood educators across Australia are becoming increasingly disillusioned about this change and pressure to perform academically.

A concerned group of educators and academics in WA have written an excellent paper exploring what is happening and why it is very concerning. As Sandra Hesterman (Murdoch University), Anna Targowska (Edith Cowan University) and Christine Howitt (University of Western Australia) write:

“Many educators share a vision that Australia should provide the best possible opportunities to support children’s optimal development and learning. Valuing play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all children in their homes, early education and care centres, pre-schools, schools and communities will achieve this goal.”

The Protecting Childhood advocacy group is another group fighting to correct incorrect perceptions around “the earlier the better”.

From a parents’ perspective, wise parent Sara, who is from Queensland and has a masters in psychology, advocates ‘unschooling’, respectful parenting and care of young children in her blog: http://happinessishereblog.com/

The concerns about the loss of play are shared around the world.

It was more 10 years ago that former UK teacher Sue Palmer published her book Toxic Childhood, exploring how the modern world is damaging our children and the push-down is a major part of that.

Cambridge University psychology and education researcher Dr David Whitebread is one of the signatories of the UK campaign “Too much Too soon” against early formalised learning. He is an expert in the cognitive development of young children and in early childhood education and his research documents the damage that lack of play has on young children — the ‘push down’ into early childhood of formal schooling at the cost of play is well documented.

Dr Whitebread writes:

“Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to sign up to growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for the uniquely human higher mental functions. In my research in the area of experimental and developmental psychology, studies consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children. Pretence play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-­regulation’, skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development. Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities to children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.” — Dr David Whitebread, School Starting Age: The Evidence. University of Cambridge. 2013.

Sadly this trend has continued to gain speed in the Western world in the last 10 years at an accelerated rate. This is despite the UN’s acceptance of ARTICLE 31 – UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHT OF THE CHILD.

Developmental psychologist Dr Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, is another whose work is excellent to explore in this area.

Independent scholar, advocate and consultant on childhood Tim Gill in the UK, is also a great advocate for prioritising play and risk in our children’s lives. He writes about the changing nature of childhood at https://rethinkingchildhood.com/

The diminution of play as a priority in kindergarten and preschool can be damaging to our children’s ability to function as social beings – which is still our key biological drive.

If children are not calm and coping, they are not learning

The rise in aggressive behaviour being exhibited by many younger children, mainly boys, may be a sign they are unable to cope with environments with no opportunity to play, no fun, little movement and developmentally inappropriate tasks – and we then penalise these children by suspending or expelling them! We are failing them – they are not failing preschool or kindergarten!

Our children must not be seen as sources of data or brains on a seat to become test monkeys to serve politicians or educational bureaucrats.

Our children, especially our young children, are developing on all levels in those early years. The emotional, social, psychological, physical and cognitive development are all impeded negatively for the vast majority of children by this push down in the early years.

Daniel Goleman writes in his book, Emotional Intelligence, that ‘happy, calm children learn best’ and in some early years’ centres, kindergartens and preschools you will not see happy, calm children at all. Bored or stressed children don’t learn.

Before I continue my exploration of my concerns about what is happening in Australia at the moment with a very heavy heart, I need to put forward two key premises:

  1. Humans are biologically wired to be social beings living within units called families within larger units called communities.
  2. Humans are biologically wired to survive first, to seek being smart and happy second. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy – ensure children feel safe and cared for before we can work on making them grow cognitively, creatively and physically. For many children in Australian schools their beginning years of school are full of fear and boredom. So the first five years of a child’s life is when so much of this primary biological wiring and processing takes place. A child’s capacity to pick up language, culture, social norms, emotional capacity and self-­regulation, creative thinking, self­preservation and a healthy sense of self takes place in the first five years of their life. So many of today’s children struggle due to a chaotic, busy modern society that forgets that young children need time, endless hours of caring connection with significant adults — and even more endless hours being an explorer and an adventurer working out how the world works — to build a brain that allows them to grow into being an independent, capable, resilient caring human being in adulthood.

The ridiculous pressure to make our kids smart before we ensure they are able to get on with others, communicate and be understood, have hours of joy and delight as kids, learn to cope with disappointment and setbacks and enjoy the freedom of being a magical child under seven is making our children sadder, sicker, fatter and more disconnected than any other generation of children.

Professor Margot Sunderland in her book, The Science of Parenting, writes that the stress ­regulating systems of children that are set up in the first five years become the stress ­regulating systems of us as adults. So children who are pushed too much, too soon, have a much higher chance of struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, poor health and poor relationships throughout their lives because they become wired to be hyper sensitive to stress.

Speech pathologist Amanda Styles wrote to me with her concerns for the children she has predominantly worked with over 20 years who have “developmental difficulties, ranging from speech and language difficulties, learning disorders, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders and emotional and behavioural problems”.

“Now, with the push for early formalised learning, these children are even more at risk for developing behavioural, learning, social and emotional difficulties. They will lag ever further behind their peers and as we are already seeing, there will be significant increases in concurrent problems (e.g. behavioural issues within the classrooms).

“Instead of having the much needed time to further develop their oral language development, self­-regulatory skills and social ­emotional maturity through the much needed play experiences that pre­ schooling has previously provided, their attention is pushed towards formal literacy and numeracy training. They do not have the verbal and social prerequisites to cope with this level of teaching. It is like asking a child with a physical disability to run a race they are not yet physically able to run. They cannot run that race.

“Similarly, these children with developmental difficulties are cognitively not ready to cope with the demands of formal learning… In my professional opinion, I have grave concerns in where our educational system is heading, namely with the focus on formalised learning before children are developmentally ready for it. In this case, it’s too much, too soon and for the more vulnerable students, there will be great risk of more dire consequences. Thankfully, there are educational systems we can model ourselves on. The success of the Finnish system is well documented and serves as a great example of how focus on building up the prerequisites of learning (problem solving, creativity, developmental skills), reaps great benefits further down the track. Finnish students are not exposed to more formal learning until after the age of 7 (not 3­-4 as our educational system requires). For over a decade, Finland’s education system has continually featured in the top countries in the world and in 2012, based on 2006-­2010 results, was rated as the best educational system (Australia was 13th).”

David Whitebread writes that there is now “powerful evidence” of the value and importance of play in young children’s development, especially the value with extended periods of playful learning before the start of formal schooling.

Creative, emotional, and social intelligences are, in the early years, the most important areas for an educator to support and facilitate, but when teachers feel they are required to “produce” high scores for assessments, then their needs as professionals are not being met either.

Erik Jensen, one of the world’s leading brain experts in terms of education, would argue that unless children are engaged in novel, challenging and meaningful learning that includes physical activity and a degree of “coherent complexity” – which means there’s no boredom or chaos, and there is a healthy level of stress – then it’s impossible for the brain to learn, to remember, and to repair and maintain neural circuits.

We are expecting today’s young children to learn in brain antagonistic environments. For Indigenous children, for the vast majority of our boys, for children who have English as a second language and for children who have additional needs, we are creating environments that make it impossible for them to do well.

Australian statistics from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LDAC) both show that our boys do struggle at a much higher rate than girls. The forced starting of all 5 year olds in WA is of enormous concern given this data especially for our littler boys and must be changed as soon as possible to put it in line with all other Australian states. Flexibility shows respect.

It is not just what age our children start school – it is more about what they do when they start school.

Play-based learning can coexist with increased academic standards but our powers that be need to agree. I have visited schools that are still very child friendly with lots of play especially nature-based play, nature time, music and art and their students are doing well academically. Yes, they even have children with phonemic awareness without doing phonics in isolation, repetitively and out of context. I have had primary teachers tell me they have children reading however with no comprehension of what they are reading and I would argue that never happened before the ‘push down.’

The return to nature-based play especially in WA that allows children to get dirty, take risks, be creative and engage deeply in nature with its well-researched restorative qualities is a sure sign that things can be changed.

Schools like Bold Park Community School in Perth, which has been leading the model of engaged learning using a nature-based pedagog, are incredibly heartening. Primary schools that have made the change report many benefits of nature play: they have noticed a drop in bullying, truancy as well as an increase in cooperative play with improved conversation and a shift in self-regulation and concentration in class.

So on behalf of concerned families, educators and allied health professionals who work with children – please question – what is the hurry?

Please stop stealing our kids’ childhoods and allow concerned parents to have a voice and our experienced ECEC educators to make the professional decisions that will enable and enhance all levels of children’s development not just those that can be measured by a test.

A serious conversation needs to occur to reduce the stress in our children’s lives especially in the formative early years.

It would be beneficial for Australian educators to explore the advantages of a ‘push up’ for our young children rather than the push down. Scandinavian countries (who perform excellently on literacy and numeracy rankings) start formal learning when children turn seven.

To be honest part of the conversation needs to be questioning – whether we should not be preparing our children for school but rather schools should be preparing for our children, our precious and sacred children who have an authentic right to play.

The early childhood years are a time to explore every aspect of who our children are, not to be stuck in a unimaginative space where they are forced into synthetic phonics, interactive whiteboards and computer labs.

Please let our kids be kids!


Image credit: ©️ Igor Stepovik /Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com