Tears at a conference on childhood…

In a good way.

Alice and I were presenting Playing Out to hundreds of attendees at the April 2013 Flourish Conference.  It was organised by The Save Childhood Movement, set up following UNICEF research findings that children in the UK are among the unhappiest, most pressurised and commercially vulnerable in the developed world.  In itself, enough to make you want to cry…

“We may not have the answers,” the Movement’s founder Wendy Ellyatt said in 2012, “but what we can no longer say is that we don’t have a problem.”  Flourish brought together academics, teachers, heads, parents, play professionals, scientists and others whose work relates to childhood in order to explore the problems and call for positive change.

The issues we looked at over the two days were familiar, sobering, challenging and depressing, all at the same time.  For some reason, like with a sad film, I always hope that the research will have changed, that it will end differently.  But it doesn’t:

In school, children are forced through a system which is increasingly adult, target and outcome led; that is not allowing them or their learning to thrive, and in some cases is actually damaging their development.  Out of school, children have extremely limited independence and freedom to play and roam, and their contact with nature and the outdoors is in massive decline.  Screens feature far too heavily, especially now for the very young.  Childhood obesity is a national public health crisis and other health problems (rickets, asthma..) are increasing.  Mental health problems amongst the young are massively on the rise.  Childhood is increasingly sexualised (t-shirts for 9 year old girls emblazoned with Future Porn Star?!!) and commercialised and in many cases medicalised: for example, the rise in prescription drugs for labels like ADHD, which really just describe the fact that some children can’t sit still or concentrate… And is it any wonder!

What a list.

But… and here is the hope… enough people, from every field relating to childhood, want to do something to change this, and were speaking out.

And in the speeches and presentations, experts were not afraid to speak about love, a child’s soul and happiness, at the same time as they spoke about statistics and curricula.  That was heartening.

There were positive projects and campaigns to hear about.  Playing Out was one of them, and we welcomed the chance to tell people about our work to reactivate a culture of street play in this country; and how simple actions – like opening your front door and letting your children go out – can begin to change streets, communities, children’s lives and maybe, eventually, how our culture sees childhood, play and shared public spaces.

There was humour: a preview of David Bond’s funny and touching film Project Wild Thing, due to be screened in the Autumn as part of a new national campaign to reconnect children with nature.

And, even more uplifting, there was a feeling of gentle, if a little weary, revolution in the air: that the time has come for professionals who work with children to stop going along with things that they know in their hearts are bad for children, and to start speaking out, or just saying ‘No’!

You can register and view any of the presentations including ours here.

And the tears?  Well, it was just that the conference started with the Camden youth choir singing, beautifully and quite hauntingly, the words of Kahil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

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