What now for Childhood?

What now for Childhood?

Following the first period of Covid-19 lockdown in the UK and the general soul-searching that has followed, maybe the time has come to reflect very honestly about issues of school, curriculum, pedagogy and ‘not school’ in children’s lives, and come to a conclusion on what patterns of provision will best serve children and families’ needs, going forward. Hopefully, parents and older children’s voices will be strongly heard in such a discussion. It is after all, the parents’ tax money that is being used for state funded children’s services, and the children’s future that is at stake in terms of the way that they are cared for and educated.

I have written many referenced pieces around this topic, most recently about the nature of and history of pedagogy and issues emergent from the ways in which children’s behaviour is dealt with in schools. I’ve written a blog about some feedback I received from parents relating to their children’s engagement in learning activities on lockdown, and another about my acute concerns about the ways in which a curriculum for older children is now being used to remould the current early years framework. This is not going to be a blog of this nature. It is going to be a short commentary on a key issue for children’s services in England in a post-COVID-19 world, and an invitation to discuss.

There have been endless discussions about the nature of pedagogy dating back into antiquity. On social media, these have evolved, like many other fundamental questions about human life, into a format in which individuals take entrenched positions and use it as a topic around which to rage, and through which to evoke political rhetoric.

Perhaps then, we could take a step back and consider that ‘school’ was only a feature in a few highly privileged children’s lives prior to the industrial revolution, just over 200 years ago. This is not to say that school is notnecessary in a modern rapidly advancing technological society; it most certainly is. But all our discussions about what children do from day to day seem to have become fixated upon what they do at school. This seems quite dysfunctional when we consider what human beings actually are: linguistic primates who have evolved to learn, particularly in early childhood, largely through play.

The out-of-school elements of children’s lives in the UK prior to the last two decades of the twentieth century were very different to the lives of contemporary children. Whilst the schooling of the past was frequently boring, mechanical and encased within harsh disciplinary regimes, children had another arena that they inhabited during their everyday lives which was at least as important to them as school, and sometimes more so. The vast majority of them engaged in many hours of collaborative free play in streets, wooded areas, beaches and etc around the area in which they lived, using features of the environment as ‘loose parts’. The folklore of children’s play in the past has been extensively studied, notably by Iona and Peter Opie who, during the mid-twentieth century, wrote many books about children’s free play and folklore.

But things gradually changed over the 1980s and 90s. As Upstart Scotland proposes:

There isn’t one simple reason that children don’t play out anymore. The build-up of road traffic, break-down of local communities and changes in parents’ working patterns are all implicated, as are the ready availability of indoor sedentary entertainment and a generally more fearful climate (probably related to occasional horrifying media stories about abduction).

The emphasis on adult directed behaviour and learning that grew slowly since the advent of the National Curriculum in England in 1988, and gathered speed under the post-2010 Department for Education in England also had the result of reducing breaks in the school day in which children could play in relative freedom within their school playgrounds. This is a phenomenon also seen in the United States, in response to similar initiatives.

In 2007, American educational researchers Henley, McBride, Milligan, and Nichols from Arkansas State University commented:

The playground at Maple Street Elementary School is quiet these days. The only movements on the swing sets are a result of a strong west wind edging the swings back and forth. The long lines that once formed for trips down the sliding boards are empty. There are no softball or kickball games nor are there any games of tag or duck-duck- goose being played…. No, Maple Street Elementary School is not closing. It is squeezing every minute of the school day to meet the mandates of the [2001] No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)... Maple Street Elementary School is a metaphor for elementary schools across the nation.... With all the diversity among Maple Street’s student body, the one commonality is that each student has affective and social needs that, according to some, are being compromised.

The collective result has been that, even prior to Covid-19 lockdown, contemporary children in these societies are far more inclined than their ancestors to move from one adult organised activity to another, and particularly in the current pandemic situation, spend many hours online, associating with each other in artificial, programmed environments in which a lot of human signalling in communication is missing. This is problematic for both social and physical development, and of great concern when it comes to increasing obesity amongst children.

The emergent question is therefore whether the holistic development of modern children is far more constricted by ‘exam factory’ schooling than that of children from previous generations. This is a crucial issue that is seldom raised in the endless discussions about what schooling should and should not be. Perhaps then, our most important consideration is more fundamental: the possibility that the pursuit of a healthy human life should not make school the entire focus of children’s lives, anymore than it should make working life the entire focus for adults.

It may be because ‘school’ has increasingly filled the frame within which we discuss children and childhood that we are not looking at all potential answers to the increasingly polarised debate in which we find ourselves. A way out of this deadlock would be not to begin with the concept of school, but with the concept of childhood. From that point, we would gain a wider perspective from which to discuss what parts school and other pursuits might play in producing adults who have a highly fluid, problem solving approach, an ability to think ‘in the moment’, to work well both independently and in collaboration with other people, and to remain calm, courteous yet robust in competitive situations.

It is important to understand that children’s peer interaction experiences must include opportunities to develop the ability to decipher primate signalling such as facial expression and ‘body language’. We need to be mindful that many of these abilities are emergent from independent participation in collaborative free activity; they do not emerge from sitting in a classroom, closely tracking a teacher and memorising ‘facts’, or through adult social ‘training’ initiatives or harsh disciplinary interventions. One of the most important lessons we need to learn as human beings is how to flexibly collaborate, cooperate and compete with each other in fast moving, organic situations. These can only emerge from independent interactions with other human beings in childhood, in which learning how to regulate our own behaviour amongst peers plays a very important part in the development of essential social skills.

If we could fully recognised our own humanity in this way, we would be able to consider services for children and families with a greater degree of clarity. While school- and teachers-are inevitably an important piece of the jigsaw of childhood development and learning, there is far more to holistic child development. Mass schooling is only a few centuries old. And while it must clearly be a significant part of a modern childhood in a rapidly technologically advancing society, it will never be able to supply everything that developing human beings need. We need to look back to our roots as linguistic primates who heavily rely upon complex social skills to thrive within our societies. From this perspective we will be more able to realise that a childhood spent being closely directed by adults whilst sitting at a school desk and communicating with peers remotely in online environments where all but word-based signalling clues are missing simply cannot address the full spectrum of children’s developmental needs.

Once this point is clear within our collective consciousness, we will be more able to effectively discuss how to facilitate the best possible childhood for the nation’s youngest citizens, and through this, to nurture mentally and physically robust adults to optimise the nation’s future in a complex globally networked society.