Why children need to have more fun

26 March 2008

Joyfulness is being squeezed out of children’s lives: the Church should help to restore it, says Geoff Pearson

What a pleasant surprise to read a small primary school’s mission statement: “We Work Together, We Worship Together and We Play Together.” On a visit there, I was delighted to see children doing all three, especially in an age where there are no boxes to tick for happiness or fun in a busy school life.

Another week, and there is yet another report about how unhappy our children are. This time, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers “note with deep concern that many children in our schools appear unhappy and anxious”.

It seems that more and more children are unable to learn because their lives are disrupted, and they are under stress. The latest concerns are about homework and the boredom of lessons that focus constantly on tests. The National Association of Headteachers has also commented, saying that government ministers had presided over the death of fun and play in the primary-school curriculum.

All this follows the Global Report on Child Welfare and Happiness by UNICEF (News, 16 February 2007), which suggested that British schoolchildren were the unhappiest in 21 countries surveyed in the Western world. The excellent research of the Children’s Society is also alerting us to this phenomenon, and urging action (News, Comment, 29 February).

AS A PEOPLE of good news, who say that love, joy, and security are to be found in Jesus, we should have something to offer this growing sense of lost happiness. Sadly, though, the children’s agenda has largely been ignored in many of our churches. If the incumbent does not include children as one of the top priorities, the chance that this ministry will have a significant impact on the lives of children in that community is severely reduced.

For me, the crisis in children’s evangelism on a national scale was revealed when I was part of the working party that produced All God’s Children (Chuch House Publishing, 2001). Although the report received much verbal support, its recommendations were far too modest, and little action took place.

The picture has not improved. Lone voices have called for some passion for a lost generation, and more energy and resources to be given for serious effort to engage with our children.

Along the way, however, there have been some glimmers of light. In 1998, I visited amazing Sunday-school work in New York, started by a great pioneer, Bill Wilson. Later, I wrote with Captain Philip Clark Kidz Klubz: The Alpha of children’s evangelism (Grove Books, 1999).

We described a model that is proving an effective means of communicating God’s love and truth to children who are normally beyond the Church’s reach. If you can cope with loud music, raucous songs, messy games, and lots of laughter, as well as Christian teaching — all similar to Saturday-morning TV — then it is worth exploring.

A second glimmer of light was the appointment in 2001 of an Archbishops’ Officer for Evangelism among Children. The post lasted five years, and, though it no longer exists, a new strategy was put in place. Many of the key tasks and outcomes it identified, however, will take time to bear fruit. We are in for the long haul.

As I look back, there have been plenty of battles along the way, and a fair share of disappointments. The report Mission-shaped Church (CHP, 2004) was strategic for the direction of the adult Church, but neglected the children’s agenda.

I now regret losing the little skirmishes. I remember trying at a governors’ meeting to include the word “fun” in a school’s mission statement. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I did not press it too hard. Not surprisingly, it was totally unacceptable.

On another occasion, I fought for a more traditional approach to sports day, challenging the anti-competitive culture that said: “We must protect our children from losing.” I spoke to one mother, who told me that in her small school she was always bottom of the class, except on sports day. That was her day in the sun, and she loved it.

Recently, one of the curates in our diocese spent a day’s shift at a fish-and-chip shop. What started as a good way of getting into the community also became a fund-raiser for the local school, which used some of the money to give its children a free pantomime experience. The children had a great time with Alice in Wonderland, and the curate’s stock has risen immeasurably with staff and pupils.

We are meant to be people who enjoy life in all its fullness — people ready to appreciate the celebrations of the coming Kingdom. We should not dismiss an energetic praise time as just “happy-clappy”. Employing good leadership, we can encourage children to praise God with enthusiasm. Clapping, lifting hands, praising, shouting, and dancing are all biblical expressions of worship. Such joy-filled expressiveness should not be mistaken for shallow emotionalism or meaningless activity.

Too many adults have forgotten how to have fun. They have become too sophisticated and too busy. Humour and fun can be a subversive influence on all forms of piety that prevent our becoming like little children — humble and ready to laugh.

When I ask children in schools about having fun, they usually mention playtime or after-school clubs. Those of us who are school governors need to add our voices to improving these experiences.

Smaller areas should not be neglected in our efforts to make children a top priority for the Church. “Holy living”, said Mother Teresa, “consists in doing God’s work with a smile.” Researchers report that the average child laughs 150 times a day, compared with the average adult, who laughs only 15 times. Our adult-centred churches have much to gain from learning how to welcome Christ through our children.

The Rt Revd Geoff Pearson is the Bishop of Lancaster.

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