A few years back we chatted to our kids about moving house. Our 7 year old coped with it in the way children do – outwardly there was not much fuss – the emotion was processed through play. With 3 toy dogs in her little play house she acted out how they’d stay in touch if one moved away to another kennel, there were tears from each of the puppies. Play was her way of processing the information, of developing her mental strength and of coping with the change.
Children learn mental strength through play – it’s a fundamental part of human development and has been fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution. Without free play, children’s’ minds become so over structured that they can lack the skills they need to cope with the real world, with boredom, with difficult people and tricky situations. Yet this essential emotional tool is being limited by a whole host of factors – and the school system is undeniably playing a part.
As parents we know play is in decline. Limiting screen time is our continual battle and children not ‘playing out’ our constant lament… we’re trying our best to ‘let kids be kids’ for as long as we can but children spend the vast majority of their waking hours in school where play is being severely limited and a culture of teaching to the test is taking over.
Other countries recognise that the primary years are essential for nurturing slow and steady development through play based learning. In sharp contrast, the UK’s fast paced school system means that children as young as 5 can now be sitting at desks for the majority of the day. Missed playtime is often used as punishment for children who can’t keep up and schools across the country have done away with afternoon playtime altogether because there’s not space in the curriculum to fit play in!
Primary school, which should be a ‘slow cooker’ for development, is microwaving childhood. No wonder there’s such a call for initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week. No wonder Home Education is on the rise.
What’s causing this issue in schools? Undeniably high stakes testing such as SATs where schools are rated, headteachers judged and teachers promoted based on test results. SATs are killing play in schools as test scores take priority over wellbeing. As a strong coalition of parents, teachers and education professionals keep shouting – children are More Than A Score!
On top of this decline of play it is common knowledge the pressure caused by SATs actively causes anxiety and emotional stress in children… a double whammy for childhood mental health. We’re not by any means referring to ‘emotional stress’ in a snowflakey way – we’re not talking about a few tears before bedtime here. We’re talking about doctors medicating children who can’t cope with the ridged nature of school , kids self harming because they can’t cope with the age inappropriate work, children talking about suicide if they fail the tests. This isn’t a problem created by snowflakes – this is an avalanche of pressure created by the Department for Education.
The DfE are fully aware of the concerns from both parents and professionals about the epic failures of their flawed curriculum. An Education Select Committee review concluded that SATs are pointless and damaging and yet the tests continue to take place year after year after year… the tests may provide a way for this government to claim that school standards are rising but at what cost to the mental health of our young minds?
Whilst the buck clearly stops with the DfE, we mustn’t let school leaders go unchallenged – clearly some schools handle the testing culture better than others. Rather than being merely footsoldiers following orders, more need to join the battle to fight the system they describe as ‘immoral’ and ‘bordering on abuse’. Headteachers have a moral duty to put the well being of children ahead of data collection. Bad things happen when good people simply follow orders.
Microwaving childhood might increase academic standards in schools – more 7 year olds may be able to recite times tables, more 11 year olds be able to spot a fronted adverbial – but the long terms costs are not worth the gains. Society needs to prioritise a ‘slow cooked’ childhood where children can develop their mental strength at a natural pace to prepare them for the challenges of the real world.