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Children cannot live by bread alone

12 October 2012

They need their own more creative approaches in order to flourish, says Wendy Ellyatt


Physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth are inter­related, and the optimal educa­tional en­viron­ment stimulates and nurtures the intuitive as well as the rational, the imagin­ative as well as the prac­tical, and the creative as well as the receptive functions of each in­dividual.
The Transpersonal Education Association

THERE is widespread consensus that our experiences in the early years of life set the foundation for all that is to come. This is a time when most of us learn that the world is a great place to explore, and we start to form the value systems that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. It is a time of extraordinary potential, but also one of enormous sensitivity, when nega­tive feedback can affect the ways in which we then see the world.

Over the past few years, some alarming statistics have been pub­lished about the decline in child health and well-being in the UK. The evidence seems to be mounting that children are unhappy, alienated from the natural world, and suffering from a range of increasing physical, mental, and emotional problems.

In 2007, UNICEF published its report An overview of child well-being in rich countries, which put the UK at the bottom of the league-table of 20 OECD countries - and this was despite the fact that many of the other countries were eco­nomically poorer.

In 2009, this was followed by both the UNICEF/IPSOS report (which looked at the commercialisation of children in Sweden, Spain, and the UK, and how UK children were profoundly more affected), and the Good Childhood Inquiry from the Children's Society, which reported that children in the UK were suf­fering an "epidemic of mental ill­ness" ( News, 13 January).

CHILDREN in the modern world are currently subject to cultural and environmental tensions that are effectively unknown in the history of humankind. From the changing nature of family life to the erosion of local streetscapes, an increasing dis­sociation from the natural world, the downward pressures of the schooling system, commercial­isation, and the advancement of digital technology, their freedoms have been substan­tially eroded. Even the most aware families are strug­gling with the stresses of modern living and the diverse ways in which children are now communicating.

Children are also living in­creasingly sedentary lives, with dis­turbingly high levels of interaction with screen technology. They now spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with some of our commonest wild creatures. Accord­ing to a 2008 National Trust survey, half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp; yet nine out of ten could recognise a Dalek.

In a single generation since the 1970s, children's "radius of activity" - the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsuper­vised - has declined by almost 90 per cent. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and eight-year-olds walked to school, often alone or with their friends, whereas two decades later, fewer than ten per cent did so - almost all accompanied by their parents. Parents are worried about traffic and stranger-danger, and yet statistically the most dangerous place for children to be is in their own homes, particularly with unsuper­vised access to digital technology.

If we look at what matters most to children, it is being able to grow up according to their natural develop­mental biology. They are designed to be questing learners, and need only appropriately supportive environ­ments to blossom. Above all, they need to feel a sense of relationship and belonging; that they are listened to and matter; and that the world is a safe and fascinating place to ex­plore.

It is the real world that they need to experience, loving adults whom they need to interact with, and de­velopmentally appropriate activities that they need to have access to. They also need the time and space to be reflective and to connect to their innate disposition in ways that have meaning for them.

YOUNG children live in worlds that are full of wonder and awe. They have a curiosity about, and connec­tion with, the natural world, and are drawn to explore it. Long before they have absorbed the belief systems of the cultures in which they live, they have their own spiritual aware­ness.

They are highly social beings, learning most from their interaction with others, and yet this innate relational spirituality has become a neglected area in our understanding of child development. This issue is something that was clearly recog­nised by the early childhood pioneers Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori, and which is now being explored in a more contemporary way by researchers and authors such as David Hay and Rebecca Nye.

As parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens, we should there­fore be doing everything possible to nurture children's potential. We need to support the move away from systems that are based on rigidity, control, and reliance to those that are based on flexibility, creativity, and empowerment. Steiner and Montes­sori Schools have always stood out as championing the rights of the child, but we are now seeing the rapid growth of Forest schools and Free schools, which are exploring more child-centred ways of working.

We need to give children the space to experience themselves as con­nected to others and the wider world rather than as isolated individuals in a competitive world of facts. Chil­dren's spirituality and its related fields are areas of child development which need to be given more promin­ence in the call to halt the current erosion of natural child­hood.

Wendy Ellyatt is the co-founder and director of the new Save Childhood Movement (www.savechildhood.net). She is planning a launch summit next April.

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