These are exciting times when it comes to research into childhood. Several projects over the last 15 years have added a great deal to our understanding of how children experience their lives.
A good place to start is the United Nations. UNICEF’s 2013 report into child well-being in rich countries placed children in the UK 16th out of 29 (1). UK children were placed more highly for housing and environment, lower for education and somewhere in the middle for behaviours and risks and health and safety.
The Children’s Worlds survey of 2013-14 talked to 30,000 children from 15 countries. They were asked to say how often they had felt happy, calm, satisfied, relaxed, full of energy and active in the previous two weeks. Children in the UK had relatively low levels of happiness, ranking 14th out of the 15 countries (2). Bullying was highlighted as an issue, and the report showed that UK children are less satisfied with school life than children in other countries. They also have lower levels of self-esteem (3).
While this is worrying, the great thing is that there are things we can do to improve the way in which children experience their lives. With 90% of brain development taking place in the first 5 years of life (4), we can be sure that the ways in which we help children to develop resilience, and feel happy in these first years, will set the scene for the rest of their lives. For example, the EPPE Project (5) looked at the effects of pre-school on young children. It found that attending pre-school clearly benefits children’s development, with high quality experiences leading to improved social and intellectual outcomes.
According to the National Trust Natural Childhood Report children are less connected to nature. This is causing a decrease in their physical and mental well-being (6). Professor Tanya Byron sums it up perfectly:
A 2010 ‘Green Exercise’ study found that just 5 minutes outside considerably boosts self-esteem and sense of well-being, with the impact being greatest on young people (7). Angela Hanscom explains that outdoor play is being replaced with more structured learning, often indoors (8). This is despite all research pointing to the importance of play-based learning. Tim Gill, an expert in child play, says:
The message is clear: we need to make sure children are getting the chance to experience the natural world. We need to offer them the opportunity to climb trees, build dens, and learn the names of the many birds, flowers, trees and bugs that they spot during their adventures. We need to give them time to gaze at the clouds, and feel the sun, the rain and the wind on their faces. It is these experiences that will enable children to solve problems, take appropriate risks, learn about the importance of taking care of the environment, and to enjoy the sense of peace that comes from connecting to the natural world.
4 Sunderland, M. (2007) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Dorling Kindersley