There has been a lot in the press recently about the role of digital technology in children’s lives and whether kids are becoming addicted to screens and smart phones. There is no doubt that children are spending more time on digital devices and from a much younger age. Exactly what the impact of that will be on children’s brains is still not fully understood. But what worries me most is not what the screens are doing to our children but what our children aren’t doing because they are on screens. And the biggest loser is free play.
Free play is a special type of play that is child-led and child-driven. During free play, children (not adults) choose what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to stop. It’s not an organised activity – think bored Sunday afternoons building dens out of sofa cushions rather than tennis lessons. Free play has no externally set learning goals, it is self-directed learning fuelled by fun and curiosity.
Why is free play important?
Play is the most important thing a child can do. Play builds children’s brains. Babies are born with a brain full of cells called neurons which look a bit like pieces of string. By interacting with their environment and having experiences, these neurons become associated together and link up into pathways which store knowledge and skills. Through repeated experimentation, children learn the fundamental principles of the universe – that water flows and objects fall to the ground, that some things fit inside other things and that pebbles sink. No matter how many times a child sees a plane on the TV (or travels in one), she will really learn how air holds up flying objects by tying her dolls to makeshift plastic bag parachutes and throwing them down the stairs… Continue reading →
As events remind us all too often, we live in a world in which bad things happen. And in this digital era of rolling news, graphic details about terrorist attacks, accidents and other tragic events can spread far and fast.
Wrapping our children up in cotton wool and protecting them from everything bad in the world isn’t really an option. Teenagers learn about catastrophes via social media news feeds alongside their friends’ latest selfies. Even if we prevent younger children hearing about tragic events directly, the playground grapevine can throw up a frightening and distorted version. Something as simple as a train station announcement about unaccompanied baggage can spark difficult questions from little ones about terrorism and who would want to kill them and why.
The best that parents can do is to ensure that distressing information is filtered in an age-appropriate way and help children develop the resilience and coping skills to bounce back quickly from difficult thoughts and feelings. Here are a few tips: Continue reading →
Boredom is good for children because it stimulates curiosity and fires the imagination. At its best, boredom is a creative state that leads to new ideas and new play. And we know that good quality play drives children’s development and builds intelligence.
But boredom is good for children only when it results in children using their imagination to rise to the challenge of boredom. If they always turn on the TV or reach for tech as an easy chewing-gum boredom filler, then that spark of imagination is lost.
Imagination is vital for children of all ages. It stimulates children to explore their environment in new ways, which in turn leads to learning and skills development. Imagination also enhances social skills – after all, empathy is really just the ability to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
And, because imagination is an internal resource – a habit of mind – it is something that children need to develop through practice and repetition. Adults providing imaginative activities for children is never as effective as children inventing their own.
Here’s how parents can harness the power of boredom to support children’s development: Continue reading →
You might not want to hear this. If you have a child aged 11-16 years, it is highly likely they have already viewed pornography online. The majority of that age group have watched porn. Almost all of them saw it before their 14th birthday. We’re not talking about soft-focus, women in provocative lingerie poses. It’s likely to have been graphic and possibly aggressive. Talking to teenagers about porn might be awkward, but it is essential for their wellbeing that parents do it.
The average age that boys first see porn is 11 years old. And with children spending more and more time unsupervised online, that’s getting younger each year. Many 8-year-olds report having seen explicit imagery online (accidentally or otherwise). Children can be shocked and confused by what they see but often won’t tell an adult about it for fear of reprisals.
In the face of patchy sex education provision, many teens turn to porn to learn about sex and explore their sexuality. Problems can arise if they think what they are seeing online is realistic or that they should be copying that behaviour. Pornography gives a very distorted view of sex, bodies and relationships and often depicts apparently non-consensual or aggressive acts. Parents talking to teenagers about porn can help them put it in perspective. Continue reading →
Concerns about managing children’s screen time and the impacts of technology on children’s wellbeing are high on the worry list for modern parents. But most advice on positive parenting seems to have been written in a golden age when wrestling iPads off children just wasn’t an issue. So how can modern parents adapt positive parenting techniques to help manage children’s tech time?
The problem with children using technology is that tech use tends to expand to fill all available time. That can displace many other valuable activities that are vital for children’s healthy development. Like running around. And face-to-face communication. And physical play.
Tech is an easy boredom-filler. But boredom is an essential driver in children’s development through which they learn creativity and self-sufficiency and new ways of interacting with their environment.
And it’s not just children’s use of technology that’s at issue. Digitally-distracted adults are less able to provide the connection, attention and eye contact that help children develop healthy brains and essential life-skills. Parents and children are now spending more time in each other’s physical proximity but we are talking to each other less. Continue reading →
School holidays can be a nightmare for parents of teenagers. Teens are too old to be parked in childcare but they can’t always be trusted to make great decisions about how they spend their days. Boxset binge-watching and Xbox marathons are fine every now and then but for six whole weeks?! So prepare yourself for the school holidays with these great ideas for tempting teens off tech. (And they might even learn some non-digital skills while they’re at it…) Continue reading →
Following the recent parliamentary inquiry into the role of schools in children’s mental health was a pretty grim experience. Just when I thought the stats couldn’t get any worse, a new clutch of horrific numbers would appear. Anyone who claims there isn’t a crisis in children’s mental health just isn’t looking at the figures. And although the final committee report is full of good intentions, the lack of hard cash to back it up (and the demographic bulge which is about to create a surge in teenage numbers) leaves me unconvinced that change is about to happen.
For those of you who missed it, some of the key statistics are below. Be warned, they are scary and I wouldn’t blame you if you chose to skip them…
Calls to ChildLine reporting suicidal thoughts are up by 33%
Self-harm hospital admissions are up by more than 50%
79% of children say they experienced emotional distress after starting secondary school
In a school class of 30 children, on average, three will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder
1 in 3 young people do not know where to get help if they feel depressed or anxious
Children’s mental health services (CAMHS) are experiencing unprecedented demand. Waiting times have doubled since 2010/11. 23% of referrals are turned away completely.
During one week in March 2017 there was not a single bed available in the whole country for an inpatient admission for a child/teenager in mental health crisis
Only 40% of parents are confident they could identify mental health problems in their child
Regular readers will know that I am passionate about play. Play helps children organise their brains and wire up their neurons. Children need room to roam, physically and imaginatively, so their opportunities for play are as wide and as varied as possible. That’s how they develop flexible and adaptive brains that can rise to challenges and solve problems. Good quality play builds intelligence.
If children’s play is confined to a particular type or activity or location then they can miss out on that full range of developmental opportunities.
Parents’ desire to keep children safe is natural and right. But, in the modern world, keeping children safe often equates to keeping children indoors. That increased time indoors (in often sedentary or low-movement activities) is having a direct impact on children’s physical development and future health. But it also impacts on their brains. Continue reading →
Sometimes, if you want to tear teens away from their tech and grab some quality family time, the best plan is to get them out of the house for the whole weekend and as far away as possible from the temptations of that Xbox. Occasionally, I have managed to convince my two to leave all their gadgets behind, but usually I opt for a strategy of booking relatively low-tech accommodation and keeping them as busy as possible once we are there.
Camping is the ultimate option for reducing tech (though I realise not everyone shares my passion for a weekend without a warm shower or a good night’s sleep). The lack of Wi-Fi and electricity means there is simply no arguing about who is watching what or playing which device – it’s a game of cards or read a book or have a conversation!
My mission to find new ways to entice my teenagers to make more time for family activities (and less time for tech) continues. Now that the weather is warming up, the options are widening – and our early successes with indoor caving and climbing and bouldering have predisposed the teens (just a little) to come along for the ride.
The trickiest bit is finding family activities that all of us will enjoy. Two of us like running: two don’t. I love high ropes: my husband thinks they are hell on earth. We all enjoy bowling – but I’m not convinced that bowling really counts as a high-energy family activity?
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of reward charts. They help children to focus on the behaviour that is expected from them and they remind parents to catch their children being good and pay attention to it.
But when it comes to teenagers, a sticker chart is not going to do the trick. A slightly more grown up approach is required. One version of this is a ‘behaviour contract’.
The idea of a behaviour contract is that, just like a reward chart for younger children, it sets out clearly what behaviour is expected, what rewards or privileges will be earned by doing that behaviour but also what the consequences will be for misbehaviour.
A behaviour contract works best when the target (good) behaviour is clearly defined, when the rewards are achievable and when your teenager cares about the rewards and the consequences. Breaking habits takes effort – from both you and your teen – and behaviour contracts only succeed when both of you are on board. Continue reading →
Like many people, I worry about my teens spending too much time staring at a screen. As a family, we are all pretty active but we tend to do our sports separately rather than together. We usually have active holidays (such as trekking in Nepal) and we can be quite adventurous with fun family activities in warmer weather.
But in the winter our family time tends to be indoors and/or sedentary (Sunday lunches, lots of cinema, a bit of theatre and the occasional museum trip).
The thing about teenagers and sleep is that they need a lot of it! But they don’t always want it, or they don’t want it at times that fit in with the rest of the world’s schedule.
Parents who have not experienced sleep issues since their children were toddlers can suddenly find themselves sleep deprived from waiting up late for their teenagers to go to bed, or being woken in the middle of the night (by loud trips to the bathroom or mobile phones going off), or faced with a sullen moody monster who is impossible to rouse in the mornings.
Helping teenagers to develop healthy sleep habits can make a major contribution to teenagers’ overall wellbeing and success. So here are a few thoughts on how parents can help.
Teenagers and sleep: Key Facts
Sleep is essential for teenagers’ growth, learning, brain development and mood.
Sleep patterns tend to shift in the teenage years towards later sleeping and later waking.
Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep each night – but only 15% of them get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation is linked to increased sugar cravings.
Using screens and technology within an hour of going to bed has been shown to affect quality of sleep negatively.
One in three 16 and 17 year olds has faced sleepless nights due to worry in the last year.