Opinion: 21st Century Childhood - In an ideal world

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Our society's obligations to young children today are spelled out by Manny Lewis.

What is it like being a child today? What is happening to childhood? Clearly, the playing field of childhood has never been a level one, but I fear that childhood in the 21st century is becoming increasingly vulnerable and believe that everyone has a part to play in redressing the balance.

The media alerts us not just to the sufferings caused by war, poverty and climate change in some communities in the underdeveloped world. It also highlights the deteriorating well-being of children in our own developed world.

Of the 21 countries surveyed in Child Poverty in Perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries (UNICEF, 2007), British children came last in two of the six categories - family and friendship and sex, drink and drugs. They come second from last in happiness, 17th in education and 18th in poverty and inequality.

For my grandchildren I would wish the childhood of my own children, when schools lived the ideals of the 1960s, 70s, 80s - exciting communities with a rich abundance of teachers and educationalists who celebrated childhood and the well-being of children. Everything was possible and children's learning was creative and enriching for children and adults.

Schools had high ideals and reflected a world of optimism. Learning was not governed by tests; teaching was not governed by over-planning and over-accountability, with little opportunity for spontaneity and reflection.

Children were given the time they needed to share ideas, embark on a new experience, complete a project. It was the process that mattered, indoor or outdoor, the living classroom. Children had time to be children. They had fun.

For many children now, the connection between learning and the vitality of childhood has been lost, with activities reduced to colouring exercises and worksheets. Such uninspired activity has stripped childhood of its excitement and interest, made it dulled and grey.

There has been huge investment to support education and childhood, but with the extra funding has come a minefield of changes, reviews, accountability and bureaucracy. Children are being led through narrow pathways of learning to the test.

Many educationalists have become disheartened; many excellent workers have left the sector. Yet there remain educationalists who are providing rich learning environments and high-level learning experiences, well-tuned to children's individual developmental needs.

We must give childhood back to our children. We must give them time to think, to speak, to listen - time to be a child. Children need to be strong in the 3Rs of Responsibility, Recognition and Respect. They need to understand about global warming, world poverty, cultural differences and similarities. They will need to be strong and resilient to face the 21st century as adults.


- time to be free

- time to be nurtured

- to be happy with themselves and others within and beyond their own community

- to feel loved and be able to love

- to have hopes and dreams

- to know that they can rather than they can't

- to know that we all care about them and value them.

Society needs to show children that we understand them and care passionately about their childhood. Society needs to demonstrate that it values those who train to work with children. It's no longer appropriate for central Government to dictate the tune.

Local communities need time to take a leadership role, to recognise their own potential and to value the opportunities they have for developing childhood to its maximum strength. Society needs to value the well-being of every child.

As in the Kindergarten, let us join hands together and shout the voice and rights of childhood for children passionately, powerfully and purposefully.

Manny Lewis is former National Chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education Leadership role.

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