What makes a real impact on children’s lives: whether at home or at school, when playing with friends or spending time alone? How can we set the scene to give children the best experiences for a happy childhood and to become mature and fulfilled adults? I have gathered together some insights from my work as a child psychologist on the evidence to date.
B is for Brain Development: The fact that humans are clever, creative and immensely adaptable is the result of having a big brain. The human brain is so big that babies have to come into the world with a less mature brain than animals. All the brain cells are in place but are largely unconnected. However, this is an advantage as it makes learning from experience more important than the built in behaviour patterns animals rely on. As we learn from experience the nerve connections grow between cells to create knowledge, skills and memory. It takes over 20 years for the brain to mature; we gain the capacity to learn at the expense of speed. Childhood is the price we pay for such potential. Nature was also ready with an answer to getting those brain connections going. No it isn’t formal education, it is play and observing and imitating others. Child development is a highly social process, children learn together and from adults. Education plays a part but we need to understand the delicate balance between helping children to grow healthily and happily or creating too many demands and too much pressure.
As a child psychologist I’m surprised by how little regard is paid to scientific evidence about what happens in childhood, particularly what we know about the importance of practical experience for learning. We overestimate the importance of formal education and neglect the importance of giving children room to experiment and process their experience in order to assimilate it. Play is nature’s biological system which motivates children to explore the world, process that experience and practice new skills. All animals play too and the more able the animal the longer the period of play takes when they are young. The drive to play is so powerful that children find it hard to sit still; there is a hunger for self-driven learning which is as powerful as our appetite for food. The appetite to learn is also sensitive to stress especially if the adult world continually constrains or undermines children’s efforts.
We live in a world which has speeded up in recent years. People are in a hurry and that impatience has extended into childhood. How to go faster is a question which exercises the government, they have recently started talking about the Global Race. In their haste to get ahead of other economies and accumulate more wealth there have been many assumptions made about how to improve education and to give children a head start. It is assumed that driving children harder and faster is the key to success.
We are not alone in this hurried world. In the US this has been dubbed The Race to Nowhere and there is a powerful film about the dangers to health and wellbeing of this relentless drive to identify the high fliers. There are serious dangers in allowing education to be something adults do to children rather than a sensitive partnership between the developing child and the well informed adult who is there to guide and manage the pace in the child’s best interests.
When we have the child at the centre of our thinking we are informed by their needs and pace of development. We do not see a child’s mind as an empty vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit. We need to keep various principles in mind about how children learn and what practical hands on experience they need to make sense of the world and assimilate learning.
- We have a unique ability to think and reflect which drives us to explore and make sense of the world in our own way and at our own pace. Children need that opportunity to follow their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them. They need to ask questions and search out the answers. Even small children show the emerging signs of a scientific mind which tests and experiments. If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs
- The ability for focused concentration is at the heart of learning but emerges from experience. Motivation and concentration go hand in hand and skilled educators know the importance of engaging children’s interest. Playful experimentation which is under the child’s control is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration. Limiting play is likely to create children who struggle to focus in or maintain concentration
- 3. Communication skills: a child’s language development is hugely influenced by the quality of adult responsiveness. Research shows us that the ideal conditions for language development are when the child’s interests are followed and an attuned adult responds quickly and appropriately. Whether at home or at pre-school/school children need a lively 2 way interaction throughout childhood. The bare bones should be in place by age 5 but the complexity of language which predicts educational success continues right through adolescence.
- Effective learning requires a high level of self-discipline and practical management. Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. This important cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning and children who lack opportunities to practise this skill because they are over regulated will struggle in school. Independent free play offers the ideal conditions to learn to organise and manage what you are doing in a pleasant and fun filled way.
- Self-motivation is vitally important as children make their way through school. Children who have learnt this skill through independent play can transfer it to their classroom learning.
- Discovering and using your strengths: children will naturally gravitate to what appeals to them. They discover through the freedom to experiment what works well for them at a practical level and what gives them emotional satisfaction.
- Being creative: relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something. We often narrowly define creativity but I prefer the broader interpretation. The ability to be creative is the ability to adapt or change something from its original form. This is essential to human survival and something we all need. Interesting research evidence shows that this comes naturally to young children but can diminish if children have more limited opportunities for independent play. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way. Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity.
In summary children need education in the full sense of the word from the root educare to draw out or to allow the child’s potential to blossom. We are in danger of developing a training system not a world class education system unless we pay full heed to the evidence from science.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0