Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Are you hot-housing your children?

As a child, I was never really much of a joiner. I was in the cubs, but not the scouts; the only school sports team I played for was at cricket, that well known 'team-game for eleven individuals'; I sing in choirs, but also perform regularly as a soloist. I suppose I'm something of a loner; I'm happy with my own company; I'm seldom if ever bored and can occupy myself happily for hours.

Although he's only three, Charlie's showing some of the same tendencies as me. Thankfully, he's a lot more sociable - he'll talk for hours to anyone which sometimes makes trips to the park a little worrying - but he's got a vivid imagination (like his dad) and can play creatively for ages.

A book published this week claims many parents are guilty of 'hot-housing' their children - filling every waking hour with some structured session or other, from yoga to baby salsa. The authors of 'Too Much, Too Young' argue that babies are being turned into mini-adults by relentless schedules taking them from one activity to another until bedtime. Despite being in Scotland yesterday following a Christening party at the weekend, BBC Lincolnshire tracked me down for an opinion on the matter (I've got plenty of those) and you can hear the brief interview on BBC iPlayer (zoom to 2 hours 44 if you'd rather not listen to the rest of Rod Whiting's excellent show).

In short, I'm firmly in the 'unstructured play' camp. It's a cliché but Charlie really is as interested in the boxes as the toys that come inside them; we make stuff out of rubbish and he plays with it for hours. Like everything, classes can be good but the old motto 'everything in moderation' should prevail as far as I'm concerned. And I am concerned. I'm concerned that an overly structured day - whether at home, at nursery or school - leaves less and less room for creative play and imagination.

I've seen it myself in twenty years working in classrooms: children used to expect to have to take the initiative with their school work; now they're increasingly guided to the point of virtual straight-jacketing by teachers terrified of a dip in the school's results and consequent visit from Ofsed. And it's a tricky situation to row back from. Structure, entertainment, guidance/hand-holding soon becomes an expectation. And it's absence becomes, not an opportunity for the imagination, but mere boredom.

Where do you stand on the issue? Is 'unstructured play' a euphemism for benign neglect? Or is doing nothing an essential part of every day?
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