Literacy expert Sue Palmer addresses parents

Sue Palmer, Educational Consultant and author of ‘Toxic Childhood’ addressed parents at Cumnor House School for Girls in Purley on Thursday 2 March, enlightening them on the well-documented dangers of screen-based entertainment for our children.

She quoted the startling fact that during 2016, researchers reported that UK kids are among the least active, least healthy and most stressed in the western world. Obesity is on the rise, as are other health conditions linked to lack of physical activity. There’s a spiralling mental health crisis among children and young people. While the reasons behind these developments are complex, the influence of technology on children’s lifestyles is clearly involved. There are no short-cuts to healthy physical and psychological development … and no quick fixes if things go wrong.

Ms Palmer went on to explain that during the first two years of life, children have to develop bodily coordination and control, a rough understanding of how the world works and basic social skills. For this they need to move freely, exploring their environment with all their senses.  Unsurprisingly, the proliferation of visual media and the increasing use of smartphones and tablets as infant pacifiers have coincided with a steady increase in developmental disorders.

Outdoor play (with other kids, and minimal interference from adults) has been a consistent feature of childhood in every time and culture until our own.  Self-directed play is where children learn to take responsibility for their own behaviour and discover their own strengths, thus developing powers of self-regulation and feelings of self-efficacy.

It is recognised that some screen-play is a useful addition to a 21st century child’s repertoire, but UK children now spend around five hours a day on ‘recreational screen-based activity’, leaving little time for running, jumping, climbing, making dens and other constructions, splashing about in puddles, inventing games, playing ‘let’s pretend’, exploring and experimenting.  Yet these are the experiences through which children throughout history have practised real-life problem-solving, risk-taking, dealing with set-backs, collaboration with peers and developed the ‘common-sense understanding’ in the real world, in real time and space.

The swap from real to virtual play has also been influenced by the breakdown of local communities and growing danger from traffic.  However, these developments haven’t undermined childhood well-being in other European countries as badly as in the UK.

Last year, Sue Palmer helped organise a letter to the national newspaper ‘The Guardian’ with a host of high profile signatories, calling for:

  • the development of a coherent, well-funded approach to care and education from birth to seven, including a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds with the emphasis on social and emotional development and outdoor play
  • national guidelines on screen-based technology for children under the age of twelve.

She highlighted the point that while digital technology has transformed our cultural landscape, it hasn’t changed our biological heritage and if we want the next generation to be an asset to the economy rather than a drain on the health service, we all need to ‘Keep It Real’ during children’s early years.

Parents of the two single-sex Preparatory Schools of Cumnor House were certainly given plenty of food for thought.