A four-day conference embedded within a city-wide celebration of childhood, the International Festival of Childhood (IFC2017) that takes place in Bath this summer is the result of a partnership between the national Save Childhood Movement and the Bath-based charity 5x5x5=creativity.
It was eighteen months ago that we met to discuss Bath’s interest in becoming a UNICEF nominated Child Friendly City, and we quickly realised that we shared a mutual passion about children’s creativity and wellbeing - and importantly, a desire to identify and help transform any systems that might be harmful to young children’s development. What would the world look and feel like if we really maximised human potential and creativity? What kind of people would we be? And what global problems could we solve?
In the last decade we have seen some alarming statistics about the happiness and wellbeing of children in the UK. Currently:
- 28% of children live in poverty
- only 21% of children today play out in their streets and local neighbourhoods,
(compared to 71% of adults)
- girls as young as five already worry about their body image
- one in ten children has a diagnosed mental health disorder
- one in three is clinically obese
- one in twelve adolescents deliberately self-harms
- nearly 80,000 children and young people currently suffer from severe depression.. including 8,000 children aged under 10 years old
- and admissions for psychiatric conditions, eating disorders and self-harm among young people are soaring
Across the globe people are increasingly worried about the kind of world we are creating for children – and whether it is nurturing the development of responsible, compassionate and creatively fulfilled members of society. Many are querying the impact of an era of excessive individualisation and are acknowledging the importance of understanding the context and demands of the unique systems within which children live.
Getting it right from the beginning
There is global recognition that to get it right we must start in early childhood and that this period starts with the experiences of the child in the womb and continues until the child is seven or eight years old. This is the time when we strengthen our physical bodies and capacities and create the neurological structures and patterns that will predict our thinking and behavior for the rest of our lives. It is when we learn to become active risk-takers (or passive learners), when we form our self-identities and expectations of others, and when we take on the values and mindsets of our local communities and cultures. It is basically the single-most important period of life in terms of developing our sense of ‘Self’
The importance of the expressive arts
Young children are beings with enormous potential, who are eager to interact with and contribute to the world - they do so in a myriad of ways, reflecting and making hypotheses often on very complex and abstract thoughts and ideas. The expressive arts are therefore vital to healthy learning and development, as they allow young children to interact with the world, to relate their understanding to others, in ways that have personal meaning and purpose for them as individuals. The arts are essential in life - they can shape and define who we are and how we understand ourselves and others. They provide space for personal expression, help problem-posing and thinking outside the box - and promote diversity, respect and intercultural understanding.
There is considerable expert concern that the growing political preoccupation with children’s literacy and numeracy skills is devaluing children’s use of their many non-verbal languages and diminishing their opportunities to communicate through all their other expressive capacities. Involvement in the expressive arts gives children the time and space to revisit subjects of interest over time and through many different media to gain multiple perspectives and a higher level of understanding. It is a dynamic, emergent process that fulfills the child’s developmental needs, helps them make sense of the world and greatly contributes to feelings of wellbeing.
The impact of the digital world
The impact of the digital world has also profoundly changed how we learn, interact, communicate and physically explore the world. Mostly this has been beneficial, but there are also many unintended consequences, especially to children during the vitally important early years. It is not just how the children themselves are using technology, but the ways that adults are introducing it to them and the changes in the time and quality of personal relationships and one-to-one communications. We need to better understand what is happening to young children’s brain development, to measure the impact on their psychological and emotional lives and to maximize the benefits, whilst also minimising the risks.
A new ‘science of learning’
If we are serious about building cultures of lifelong and creative learning, it is essential that we fully understand and support the foundational first years of life. In the last twenty years enormous progress has been made in our understanding of human learning and development - resulting in a new and rapidly expanding ‘Science of Learning’ that significantly challenges many of the old models. How do we fully acknowledge young children’s extraordinary learning capacities? How do we ensure that every child has the ability to fulfill his or her unique and creative potential? How do we move our education system from seeing children as primarily passive consumers of information to active inventors and collaborators?
We fully support the RSA’s Cities of Learning Initiative, that aims to ‘put learning at the heart of citizenship’, but we caution that far too often the vital importance and impact of early human development is not sufficiently understood and integrated within large adult-led schemes. The UK government itself has a very poor record on acknowledging the rights of the child and is consistently criticised for failing to prioritise child and family wellbeing. Economists, psychologists, statisticians and neuroscientists from around the world all concur that early childhood development directly influences economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society, and that adverse early environments create deficits in skills and abilities that drive down productivity and increase social costs—thereby adding to financial deficits borne by the public. There is simply no more important investment we can make for society that better understanding the true needs of the developing human being.
We know that every child is unique in his or her capacities and experiences; we know that the world relies on environmental diversity; and we know that children should not be diminished by the systems that they find themselves within. Fundamentally it is about children’s right to live in a world where they can express their creativity and individuality within the context of their local communities and systems within which they live, where they can develop their unique capacities and potential, and where adults acknowledge and respect them as young citizens in their own right.
International Festival of Childhood (IFC2017). The Festival is aligned with Forest of Imagination in the RSA SW are partners.
Wendy Ellyatt is Founder and Chief Executive of the Save Childhood Movement
Penny Hay is Founder and Director of Research for 5x5x5creativity