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
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
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
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
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
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
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.