UK Study Centre

Interview: Sue Palmer, literary specialist and author of 'Toxic Childhood' and 'Upstart'

7 July 2017

In our latest interview we speak with Sue Palmer, chair of the 'Upstart' project and author of over 250 books and TV programmes on education and child development.

For the next of our interview series, UK Study Centre have been speaking with Sue Palmer, author of books such as Toxic Childhood, 21st Century Boys and, most recently, Upstart. For over fifteen years Sue has been a popular speaker on the subject of literacy and child development in schools, colleges and universities in the UK and across the world, and is a frequent contributor to educational publications such as the Times Educational Supplement and Child Education. She has worked as a consultant on childhood issues to the Conservative Party in England, the Labour Party in Scotland and the National Childcare Committee in Ireland, and has twice been listed by the Evening Standard amongst the 1000 most influential people in London.

We sat down with Sue to discuss the importance of play in child development, the case for raising the age at which children start school, and how parents can help encourage their children to enjoy reading and learning.

So, Sue, I thought I’d begin by asking something quite general. You’ve written a great deal about the problems that the modern world is creating for children; what would you say are the greatest threats to the happiness of children today?

I would say two things: the phenomenal change in the nature of play is the first, and the second is the increasing pressure that we’re putting on children at a very young age. Let’s look at the play issue first, and recognise that throughout the whole of history children’s play has been something that children just did. They did it outdoors, they did it with each other socially, there wasn’t a particularly great deal of adult supervision (the older kids tended to look after the younger ones) and they didn’t need any particular equipment. Play isn’t culturally specific, it’s actually a biological drive. It’s creative, imaginative, involves problem solving, it involves developing social skills, it involves developing physical coordination, control and fitness and general elements of self-efficacy and resilience. All of these things are natural to human beings given the right sorts of experiences. One thing they need is, of course, the care of the adults that look after them, but the other thing is this play, which is absolutely essential to our health and well-being, and that is no longer happening for most children. Most of our children’s time now is highly supervised by adults, a lot of it is spent indoors, and they no longer are using their imagination very much in play because they’re assuming they have to play with something that’s bought in a shop. Very often it’s electronic though not necessarily. So there’s been a huge, huge change over the course of three decades from something that was completely consistent in every time and culture until then. I think it’s chilling, actually, and it really worries me.

I suppose the logical next question, then, is what can parents do to encourage that kind of independent play?

Well, its very difficult these days with young children because of traffic, the breakdown of community, changes in parent working habits and so on. It used to be that there were a lot of grannies and aunties hanging about locally and keeping an eye on kids, and that’s just not happening anymore — it’s a totally different world. Really we’ve got to find ways of ensuring that children get as much opportunity as possible in other ways, and that’s why my latest book, called ‘Upstart’, is a case for instituting in the UK a kindergarten, play-based stage with an awful lot of outdoor activity, for children between 3 and 7. This is similar to what they have in Nordic nations, and which actually is not only good for children’s well-being and development, it’s also extremely important for their overall education. You can see this in the success of the Finnish education system, where Finland is consistently one of the best-scoring education cultures in the PISA tests.

Just to take up that point, the Finns are famously anti-competition, whereas we have an approach which puts a lot of emphasis on passing exams and jumping through educational hoops. Do you think that competition to a degree is necessary or do you feel that we need to reform how we think about competition in education?

I think we need to think very seriously about how we’re approaching ideas of competition in the early stages. Competition is just human, and children bring it into their own play. Obviously with sports competition is part of the business, and I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m opposed to there being standards in education or there being some degree of testing. However, I think we’ve taken it too far into early childhood. When we first had the national curriculum the first test was at the end of Key Stage 1 (for children aged 7). It’s gradually moved down, so now there’s a baseline at 5, and then there’s a phonics test at 6, and then another test at 7. Very young children are being tested, and we are assessing them against outcomes and goals which are far more demanding than they used to be in the past.

So the change in the nature of play, along with the fact that children are not playing as much as they did in the past (very young children are nowhere near as active – there are huge issues with children’s physical competence on arrival at school now – and they’re not engaging as much with other people because they, pre-schoolers, are spending four hours a day on screens. There are all sorts of things missing from their early lives because they’re no longer playing) in combination with a competitive regime from the very beginning at school, is going to have a long-term effect on resilience. We are seeing that now: if you go on the Harvard website and look at what creates resilience in children, three factors are suggested. The first is adults are being supportive and kind, not asking children to jump through hoops, and the second relates to self-regulation, a sense of mastery, and to all of the things that children develop through a sense of play. The final one is a supportive cultural context, which I think is completely absent. So all the things that we know are important for children to develop resilience are being eroded.

I don’t think it’s surprising that our young people are finding it difficult to cope with their lives, and I have to say that while I think it’s very stressful living your adolescence through social media, and I think that children nowadays have a very stressful exam system, there have always been stresses of one kind or another. Previous generations have lived through wars and famines, and we have to be able to cope with stress. I think one of the problems for our kids at the moment is that we are not giving them the important conditions in early childhood that will help them deal with stress.

A way of approaching this issue is from a government, policy level. Education policy tends to focus on schooling, do you think to an extent it should focus as well on educating parents?

I think parents need to know a lot more about child development, and this is another thing that has changed over the course of my lifetime. When I was born most of the women had spent a lot of their lives looking after kids. There was a great deal of ‘women’s wisdom’ that was passed around about what to expect from children and what works and what doesn’t. As we became dual-earning families over the course of the past fifty and sixty years, that common-sense wisdom that used to get passed around is no longer there. So we need to find some other way to inform parents, and that’s why I’m interested in the science, it’s why I wrote Toxic Childhood and other books, because I wanted to find out what the science was. Interestingly the science did support almost everything my granny knew, and I think that’s one of the things you see in countries with a well-established kindergarten system. It seems to be that because they have kindergarten right at the heart of the community, it becomes that fount of wisdom that used to be the grannies. I think we need much more understanding among parents that play actually is important for itself, up to the age of about 7 it’s much more important than pursuing educational targets, and that actually we’ve got to lay off our kids. There’s research showing that it doesn’t really make much difference with reading whether you start them at 5 or whether you start them at 7. By the time they’re about 10 it’s evened out, but the ones who were started at 5 tend to be slightly less keen on reading. On the whole, the ones who are having the pressure for academic achievement put on them at an early age – and it’s now much younger than 5 very often – they’re the ones who are going to lack resilience.

On the topic of reading, parents often struggle to help their kids to read, or to get their kids interested in reading. What advice could you give to parents when it comes to reading.

I would say this: Your children will be interested in what you’re interested in. If you’re constantly glued to your phone and your tablet, that is what they will want to be glued to. If you really want your kids to love books, you need to spend some time looking at books. Looking at books with your kids, but also reading for yourself. Imitative behaviour is the essence of everything that little children learn; they want to be like grown-ups. From the moment they are born children are looking at grown-ups holding phones in their hands, so I would definitely advise parents to have a ‘technology basket’ in their house where everyone puts their handhelds at bedtime and at mealtimes, and at other times when you’re just being a family, because as long as it’s there, you are going to be drawn to it, and the child is going to think that that’s what they should be doing.

Parents should also do what the American Academy of Pediatrics advises them, and allow no screen-based activity till 2 years-old, no more than one hour a day thereafter until 5, and no more than two hours a day thereafter until the kids are in double figures. That’s hard, but if you aim for that you might be able to manage to  keep it down. If you cut right back on screen time and get involved with pastimes like sharing a book or sharing a story, that’s fantastic. Children love being read to, they love being told stories, stories about your family, or things that have happened in your family, or you when you were little, or even just making up stories with them. It’s talking and listening and sharing books and going to the library, and turning reading into a fun thing that you all enjoy doing. For a few years of your life, try to avoid spending too much time on your phone.

You have lots of experience in schools as a teacher and have worked with governments on education policy. If there were one thing that you could change about education in the UK, what would it be?

It would be to raise the age at which we think of school beginning to 7. Not changing education entitlement in any way, but changing the idea of school – the three ‘R’s, getting on with it and standards, — I’m not objecting to that, I think it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s necessary until children turn 7, rather than 5. It’s absolutely vital that we start looking in the preceding three or four years at children’s all-round well-being, their language development and their embodied learning. People try to think of the brain as though it’s quite separate from the body, but in those first seven years brain and body are working together. You will remember emotional experiences physically, and your emotions are really governing you until you are able to self-regulate. So young children need embodied, real-life experiences, in the real world, and as much as possible in nature, because that’s where biologically we have always learned to function. We’ve really lost track of that and we’re doing our children a huge disservice. I’d like to see much more outdoor education in general.

The next question I have is about ambition. Can parents being ambitious for their children be a bad thing?

Well, it’s the child that needs to be wanting to learn. The problem I have with elitism, and this obsession with trying to become the best or reach the very top, means that automatically anybody who doesn’t reach those heights is a loser. That of course is the basic mantra of marketing, you know, ‘if you don’t buy our product you’re a loser’, so what everyone is doing is buying into this marketing idea, which actually means that only a very few people can actually succeed.

If there are parents with children who are, let’s say 14 years-old, and they’re coming up towards their GCSEs, what sort of approach would you say is healthiest in terms of balancing encouraging them to do as well as they can without at the same time putting huge amounts of pressure on them?

My personal experience  of children of around 13 or 14 years-old is it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll always be wrong! Seriously though I think the issue emerges a lot earlier than that. If you nurture in children their curiosity, their creativity, their problem-solving skills and their love of learning when they’re young, and you encourage them to do their best because it’s worth it and because it’s interesting, that’s the best way to approach it. You shouldn’t be that bothered about exam results – you’re thrilled if they get them — but you should be more interested in your child wanting to learn, and by the way the chances are they will get better exam results if they want to learn, and they’ll also enjoy it more. You’ll be nurturing an attitude and a state of mind which is of far more use than being absolutely terrified and stressed out because all you can think about is your results.

I’m sure some parents would respond to that and say, ‘but what if my child doesn’t want to learn?’

Well if they’re not interested in learning then something has gone wrong, and I fear that for a great many children things do go wrong. Human beings are born to learn, we desperately want to, but we’re deadening the impulse by feeding it with junk. If you feed kids junk food they’ll get fat, and in the same way if you feed them on junk play they’ll get listless and so on. It’s amazing how often the response to the problem is suggested; the whole thing blew up during the industrial revolution – we had so many kids who were listless and bored and people said ‘get them outdoors’. The answer is always to get kids outdoors and to get them doing actual activities in real life. Take them camping, or let them go camping, and actually get back to learning – and being human – is about. This is why I’m so keen on the idea of more outdoor education nowadays, I think we really need it.

This isn’t to say that children always want to go outside; lots of children aren’t keen on it. I was an early reader, and I remember my grandmother saying ‘you’ve always got your nose in a book, get out and play with the other kids or you’ll go funny.’ So I was sent out, I had to go out and play with the other kids, and once out there I was fine and I enjoyed it. Outdoor play nourishes your curiosity, and that’s what children are supposed to be doing, and we’re sitting them down and telling them to pursue gold stars and smiley faces and marks on tests, and very often we just deaden the impulse.

In America there is a tradition of outdoor summer camps – do you think this is something British children would benefit from?

Possibly. I think some children would and some wouldn’t. The problem is that we look at all these things as if there’s a silver bullet that’s going to sort things out, when actually it’s about life in general, and the general environment in which we raise our kids. In the end it will come down to the two developmental necessities (beyond the obvious material needs of children) if kids are going to end up bright and balanced: love and play. The ideal is for kids to have a loving, playful family that nurtures them and gives them the opportunity to become increasingly independent, but also that recognises that focussing on some glittering prize in the future is not going to make the children happy or healthy. I’m not saying don’t care about education, of course it’s important to support your child, to support their school, to make sure homework is done etc. but don’t put unnecessary pressure on your child.

UK Study Centre would like to thank Sue for taking the time to speak with us. Sue's latest project, Upstart, advocates raising the age at which children begin school from 5 years-old to 7. You can read more about it here

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