“Children have never had it so good”, says Paul Flatters, Managing Partner of Trajectory, in his viewpoint piece for the BBC news magazine this week. Paul’s article appeared just as I was reflecting on how much media coverage there had been recently on the apparently appalling state of childhood in the UK. And I wasn’t looking back a few months or years, but just a few days. Less than a week into 2012 I had already picked up that:
- children are underperforming in their studies due to lack of physical activity;
- a lack of routine at home jeopardises chances of achievement;
- children are becoming obese because they’re not spending enough time playing outdoors;
- they’re plunging ever deeper into poverty as families will be worse off financially in three years time due to austerity measures.
What message does this send to our children?
This all sounds pretty bleak, so it was refreshing to hear someone saying hang on, things aren’t that bad – in fact, childhood experiences are much better, in many ways, than in the past. There is a danger, as Mr Flatters rightly points out, backed up by Barnardo’s research published in November 2011, that we read the recent research and find ourselves concluding that childhood is in a terrible state of decline, and that life was far better when we were children. Surely this is not the message we want to pass on to our children; should we not be sharing with them a sense of joy, aspiration and hopefulness each and every day?
I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand. There are some undeniable inequities in society that mean children from less affluent backgrounds and difficult circumstances have very different experiences of growing up in the UK. That’s why it’s vital that research is undertaken to better understand the issues affecting these disadvantaged children, and that charities, government initiatives and the media focus their energies there. It is only through increased profile, strong advocacy and proactive planning that positive change can and will occur.
Positive steps taken towards happy childhood
We mustn’t lose sight though, of the many positive things that have improved children’s lives in recent years. I’ve lived in the UK for just over a decade, and in that time have seen a significant, and mainly positive, change in the overall attitude towards children and their place in society.
One of the most notable steps forward has been the increasing recognition of the importance of listening to what children have to say, and incorporating their voice into decisions around the policy and practice that affect them. There is still a tendency to defer to the so-called (and inevitably adult) expert opinion, but children’s views are increasingly being considered and this input is being taken very seriously.
Kids put family time at the top of their list
One interesting and encouraging piece of research over the festive season found that more than 40% of the children would rather spend time with their family than receive gifts. This research, undertaken by OnePoll on behalf of Butlins, was based on a sample of 1000 young people aged 6 to 16. What struck me most about this finding is that:
- it reinforces the fact that spending time together as a family is extremely important to children;
- it contradicts the impression we have that our children are growing up with a consumerist attitude, believing that possessions are far more important than anything else;
- it applies to children and families from all walks of life.
This is a powerful message from our children, and it is an easy one to act upon. One of the simplest and most effective ways of improving childhood is for all of us to spend more time with the children in our lives. This is something that we reinforce every day at Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, where we encourage families to spend time playing and learning together, in an environment designed just for that purpose. The joyfulness of the Eureka! experience can really take hold, inspiring an increased interest in playing together, regularly, once our visitors return home.
Playtime can be anytime, and benefits everyone
As we enter our 20th year at Eureka!, we’re going to focus on the principle that playtime really can be anytime, and doesn’t have to cost the earth with the latest toys and gadgets. We know that finding the time, resources, energy and ideas for play can sometimes be challenging, but we also know that the benefits for everyone, adult and child alike, are huge and far-reaching.
Our children are doing just fine, in fact they have many more opportunities to be heard and influence than we did as children. They are using that influence to tell us exactly what they want – which is to play and spend time with us: the adults in their lives. Throughout 2012 we’ll do our best here at Eureka! to help our children get just what they want!