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9 Tips for putting the ‘child’ back into childhood

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In light of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday 13th November, what I wanted to blog about pales into insignificance. Sometimes I truly feel that the world is so environmentally, morally and ideologically broken that all I would like to do is re-boot it and start afresh, just as we re-boot a computer; provide a clean palate for our future generations to paint their own stories on.

But as France mourns and grieves its dead, just as we grieve with them, we have to keep acknowledging courage, inspiration and resilience – we must, otherwise, as a race there is no hope for us. I would like anyone reading this to take a moment to say their own kind of prayer for the dead and suffering of Paris. And not just France, but also Lebanon, Indonesia, Burundi, Russia and the countless others across our planet who grieve.

#PeaceForParis Jean Jullien

And here is my own story of hope I’d like to share: Over the past few months, I have watched a miracle take place. When we think of miraculous events, we think of something big and bold, something that shakes us to the very core of our being. But there are also the smaller, quieter miracles that take place each day that if we are not mindful and present, we could very well miss. What I have been witnessing is watching my child learn to read. Big deal, right? All kids learn to read. But my daughter isn’t four (the age in the UK when the reading and writing journey begins), she’s seven and a half years of age. Yes, seven and a half and she has only just learnt to read. But here’s the thing: it hasn’t taken three years, it’s taken three months.

There has been a furore recently in British education circles as Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, announces that seven year olds need to undergo ‘robust testing’ in schools to ensure that they are given fair opportunities. And let’s not forget that she is also clamouring for testing for 4 year old’s at the very start of their school journey, not to mention the overwhelming panoply of exams that children are subjected to in their final year of primary school. What does all this mean for teachers, and even more importantly, for the children themselves?

When we left the UK for Kenya with my husband’s work, I was relieved to take my seven year old (then four) out of reception (1st year of UK primary school). She simply wasn’t ready for phonics and key words and all that it entailed, protesting against it with all of her four year old might. We opted for a Waldorf School in Nairobi (also known as Steiner), a holistic educational system in which, amongst other things, children don’t start reading till they’re seven. I’m not going to start writing about Waldorf here. There’s a fair amount of hysteria around this system, mostly from people who have never set foot near a Waldorf School. (Despite the fact that in Finland, Europe’s beacon for successful education, kids don’t learn to read and write until age seven.) My daughter will have no homework till she’s eight, and every single day she returns home from school and plays until dinner time. Suffice it to say that she wasn’t ready to start reading at the age of four, but she is ready age seven and has completely missed out the early readers to go straight on to more challenging books. Why, I wonder, do we spend all this time in the UK (and other countries) preparing children for reading when it can be utterly painless if we just leave it for a couple of years?

I’m not saying this approach is right for all children. My elder daughter is a case in point who was raring to go as soon as she started reception in the UK. What I am saying is that I believe in Britain we (I say “we” because although I live in Kenya we will, at some stage, be returning to the British state system) are slipping dangerously towards a one-glove-fits-all autocratic educational system. Even the simple, powerful act of a teacher reading a story to a classroom of eager, attentive little people is in danger of being sidelined and drastically reduced in the current climate of SAT’s, increased pressure on teachers and arts-related subjects being removed from the curriculum. Grammar is often taught drill-style, entirely out of context, to the detriment of natural and everyday speech, creative writing and poetry (for more on this, read Michael Rosen’s brilliant blog….)

What can you do if you believe your child, age 4, is not ready for reading and writing?

– First and foremost, don’t panic. Although you may believe you are alone, particularly in a high-achieving school, you most certainly are not. Parents the length and breadth of the country are going through the exact same thing as you.

– If you do not have high competition for school places in your area, consider keeping your child out of school for a further year. Children in the UK are not legally required to go to school until the age of 5.

– I know it’s difficult, because if you’re in the system, you have to work with the system. But don’t push key words and early reader books. Your child will get it, just allow them to do it at their own pace. And whatever you do, don’t compare your child to others in their class. There are plenty of pushy parents out there.

What you can do if you have a 7 year old

7 is the ‘age of wonder’. A teacher on sabbatical, Jethro Shirley-Smith, who writes for the Guardian Educational supplement makes the following brilliant point:

‘…It is no secret that the number seven has repeated significance in our society – the seven wonders of the ancient world, the seven day week, the seven golden tripods offered to Achilles, the seven dwarves. Let us not make seven years old the age at which children begin to be deterred from learning. As parents, let them cherish their childhood. As teachers, let them stay feeling safe and secure at school. As a society, let the youth of tomorrow enjoy their learning today. Your child will never be 7 again. As parents, teachers, educators, we have a responsibility to keep this wonder alive.’

– Ensure your child is getting enough ‘down time’ each day, even in a busy school day. Seven year old’s need to time and space to explore, create and imagine possibilities. A parent’s role in this is simple: don’t overburden them with after-school activities and rushing here, there and everywhere.

– Let them be bored. Out of boredom comes the most wonderful, unexpected creations and situations.

– Look up the National Trust’s wonderful list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 and 3/4….’ It doesn’t matter if you’re not National Trust members – these activities, ranging from stargazing to rock pooling can be done in so many places.

– Buy and read Michael Rosen’s ‘How to be your child’s (and your own) best teacher,’ my non-fiction book of the year. It would make a fabulous Christmas present for yourself or a parent you know. (Yes, clearly I am a Michael Rosen fan).

– Think about your happiest memories from when you were around this age. Was it climbing trees? Traipsing across meadows? Going for bike rides? Watching Grange Hill cross-legged, munching on Kelloggs pop tarts? Whatever it is – dig deep, be truthful and emulate some of this truth for your child.

Let’s put the child back into childhood.

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My seven year old exploring a book

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