Children of the Revolution

Here’s a question for you. What’s slow, green and free range? Sounds like a children’s riddle, doesn’t it? A dinosaur egg, perhaps?

Before I tell you the answer, though, I have another children’s riddle for you. Why is it that, when children’s lives should be better than ever before, children in the Western world increasingly see themselves as unhappy and increasingly suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems? (I could give references and may well do so at another time and in another place.)

There is a growing movement towards a different approach to education: an approach promoting ‘slow’ child development, starting formal education later rather than earlier, a ‘green’ childhood, restoring children’s connection with nature and the outdoors, and a ‘free range’ childhood, teaching children self-reliance by giving them more freedom and independence in their spare time.

Child psychologist David Elkind’s book The Hurried Child was first published in 1982. From the blurb to the 25th anniversary edition: “…by blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting – or imposing – too much too soon, we force our kids to grow up too fast, to mimic adult sophistication while they secretly yearn for time to act their age.”

It may well be that your life is so busy that you’re not aware of the ‘slow movement’. The concept of slowing down in all aspects of our lives was popularised by Scottish born Canadian journalist Carl Honoré in his 2004 book In Praise of Slowness. In his 2008 book Under Pressure, Honoré considers a slow approach to parenting and education. He asks (quoting again from the blurb) “whether we are going wrong in some fundamental way”.

You will probably know that, here in the UK, children start formal schooling at the age of five. In many other countries, children don’t start formal education until six or even seven. The 2011 book Too Much Too Soon?, subtitled Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, edited by Richard House, comprises a series of essays by experts on early years education questioning the idea that the earlier children start learning to read, for example, the better they do. Of course some children are ready to learn to read very young (I was one: I could already read fluently before I started school not long after my fifth birthday) but many are not.

Richard Louv’s seminal book Last Child in the Woods was first published ten years ago. According to the blurb in my edition, Louv “directly links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression”. There are many who share his concern about children’s increasing disconnection with nature. David Bond’s 2013 film Project Wild Thing, for instance, tackles the same subject.

Parents are, quite understandably, concerned for their children’s safety so they either keep them at home staring at a screen or sign them up for a continual frenzy of ‘improving’ activities. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s experienced a very different childhood. New York journalist Lenore Skenazy was accused of child abuse after writing a column about how she let her 9-year-old son ride home alone on the subway. As a result of this she founded the “free range kids” movement, encouraging parents to give their children more independence and self-reliance.

Of course this is only one side of the argument and there are many experts who take the opposite view but, speaking personally, I find their views of considerable interest. None of them are advocating a return to the sort of childhood I experienced 50-60 years ago: they are all looking at how latest research can inform parents and teachers how to help their children live in the 21st century. You may well disagree completely and think our current parenting and teaching methods are fine as they are. You may well think their views are impractical and idealistic, but maybe the world needs, and has always needed, impractical idealists.

The answer to my riddle then, is that perhaps we’ll see a revolution in the whole concept of what childhood should mean in the 21st century. Perhaps we shouldn’t be encouraging our children to do too much too soon. (And you might understand why I wasn’t impressed when a fellow chess teacher asked about Under 6 tournaments in his area, and why he wasn’t impressed with my reply.) Perhaps we should do more to ensure that children spend time outdoors and find ways to connect with nature. Perhaps we should give children more freedom and independence. Perhaps the childhood of the future will be slow, green and free range. Perhaps it will be more holistic, with schools seeing children as individuals, identifying their particular talents and interests and finding activities which they might like. It’s not just about being ‘progressive’, though. For many children there’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned concepts such as academic rigour and discipline as long as it’s placed within the context of the children’s lives.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with these ideas, in which case your homework for this week is to read some of the authors I’ve mentioned here. You might expect educationalists who hold these views to be sceptical about encouraging mass participation in chess by very young children. They might also be sceptical about the whole business of promoting chess (or anything else) as something that ‘makes kids smarter’. You might also want to ask yourself what part chess will play in the lives of the Children of the Revolution. Perhaps more children will start chess later rather than earlier (yes, a few children will be ready to start early just as I was ready to start reading early). We might see children taking up fewer extra-curricular activities but taking them more seriously. We might see parents and teachers encouraging children to play chess because they want to become good at it rather than because it might make them smarter. In the short term we might see fewer children playing, but more children will continue to play into their teens and on into adulthood. I just wonder how much of this will happen in my lifetime.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.