Tag Archives: education

Teaching kids non-tech thinking

When I was growing up getting ahead with technology was the big thing. Being computer literate was an essential ingredient to prepare for the world of work. On what must seem like technological dinosaurs we learnt word processing skills, how to use spreadsheets and the importance of touch-typing. I’m talking pre-internet here; most smartphones probably now have bigger memories than the computers that I learnt to type on.

And then the world wide web arrived, revolutionising the way that we communicate. Sometimes you can forget how much of a revolution that this was in the exchange and sharing of information. Email followed suit: I remember in my first job in the late 1990s crowding round a computer to see the arrival of the first email. It was amazing thing to see.

Fast forward to now and screens of various sizes dominate our lives, pretty much 24-7. We carry data rich handsets with us everywhere we go and technology that is fast and reliable is the new normal. A majority of workers in the UK spend their days staring at screens, probably sending and receiving emails mostly.

Kids now are learning about coding, gaming, and lots of other things that I can’t quite understand; which is important to maximise the usage of technology for the benefit of them and society. Its as important now to learn about computing as it was in my day but I’m starting to wonder about the real importance of those non tech based soft skills…such as talking to each other or spending hours building things with lego bricks. We need to inspire kids to dream and to think and not feel that they have to fill ever minute of their day with screen based activity.

I have a sneaky suspicion that in the new fragmented and ever changing world of work its the kids that can think creatively unaided by technology that will stand out from the crowd. In the same way as my generation had to equip itself with the necessary IT skills we might end up teaching children about creative thinking, disruptive ideas and how to be inspired by imaginative non-technological play.


Wild Things: reconnecting kids and nature

This is a longer posting than normal as it appeared in the November/December issue of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent magazine.

“Seeing thirty kids running wild is a wonderful sight. They are all in their element, rosy cheeked with almost limitless sources of energy; running, climbing, hiding and making. This was the scene at a birthday party in the hidden world of Mike’s Meadow, a parcel of land attached to Batheaston Primary School. Used as a place for the Forest School it can be hired out and one of the departing parents neatly summed up the experience – ‘this was the best party that my son has ever been too’.

Kids have a special connection with the outdoors, giving them a real sense of freedom and allowing their imagination to run wild. Hearing their laughter and the noise of them excitedly running about collecting conkers or rolling down a hill is pretty special. It’s giving them the experiences that will help equip them for the journey of life.

However, the pull of the outdoors has more competition that a generation ago. This was confirmed by an RSPB survey that showed that only one in five children has a connection with nature. The reasons that this change has happened pretty quickly are complex from the rise of screen time to more traffic on the roads.

It feels like change is in the air and that Bath and Wiltshire is at the heart of this movement for reconnecting kids with nature. More schools than ever before are running Forest Schools (they have exploded in popularity in a couple of years), outdoor clubs during school holidays are really popular and den building events sell-out almost as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

Steve Sutherland set up Hidden Woods three years ago hoping to recreate the experiences that he had in his childhood for today’s kids. Set across 80 acres of ancient woodland it’s a place that kids can roam free, get muddy knees and get that little bit close to nature.

Steve explains: “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of unstructured outdoor play on children’s development. Whilst the research suggests that today’s children spend much less time doing so than their grandparents did, our experience at Hidden Woods is that they’re always stimulated by the environment and instinctively know how to entertain themselves away from all the screens and modern day distractions.

“We regularly observe the benefits that such rich child-led experiences deliver – greater self-confidence, improved communication and physical skills to name but a few. It’s a real privilege to be facilitating and sharing such powerful experiences in our wonderful natural playground.”

Parents always want what is best for their children and the evidence is stacking up that time spent outdoors and in nature is a key way to help kids grow.

Teachers, GP’s, play experts, local authorities and politicians are also seeing the wider benefits of outdoor time for children.

Time playing outdoors can improve children’s physical activity rates fourfold compared to playing formal sport. Playing in green space helps to reduce children’s blood pressure and enhance their physical development, a counter to the more sedentary lifestyle associated with screen time. Perhaps the most compelling stat is then three-quarters of children feels happiest when playing outside, helping them to connect with the natural environment and sleep well after all of that fresh air.

Teacher Sally Searby runs the weekly wild and muddy club and organises forest schools at St Stephen’s Primary School in Bath. These hugely popular outdoors sessions help kids experience den building, climbing trees and making fires in a safe environment – giving them skills that will last a lifetime.

Sally Searby explains: ‘Forest Schools are all about exploring and experiencing the natural world through practical activities. The activities that take place build on a child’s innate motivation and positive attitude to learning, offering them the opportunities to take risks, make choices and initiate learning for themselves.”

It’s not just formal learning where change is happening. Bath and North East Somerset is one of two councils in the UK to adopt the risk-benefit approach to play. This new model is about looking at both the risks and benefits. Jeremy Dymond, who has over-seen work on play in the city, says: “Children have a natural tendency to explore, have fun and take risks. This is a part of growing up and something we all want to encourage safely. Safety should not equal boring.”

The council has designed a toolkit to help people working with children to make play fun and exciting and weigh up the benefits of being active, creative, out in nature, and the improved health and wellbeing that this would offer, set against the real, yet reasonably low risks of playing outdoors.

Luckington Community School in Wiltshire has recently revived its playground with three beautiful tepees surrounded by wildflowers, creating a magical place for children’s imagination to run wild. Schools across the county are being supporting by the County Council as part of its Outdoor Play Project – showing how local authorities, with the support of local communities, can make a huge difference.

Conservation charities are also upping their game. The Avon Wildlife Trust and National Trust are both part of the Wild Network, a movement of over 1,500 organisations committed to reconnecting kids to nature and outdoor play.

Locally the Bath Skyline, much of which is managed by the National Trust, now has a fantastic natural play trail which is proving a huge hit with families. It allows kids (and parents too) to have a go at clambering, climbing and building in the woods.

I’m glad that my children have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Seeing their faces as they watch a spider in its web or their huge appetite for collecting conkers brings a smile to my face. They love being outdoors, like all children do, having the chance to explore, the chance to engage in imaginative play and the chance to see nature close up; and it’s helped me see the world anew from their viewpoint.

So, why not give your kids the gift of wild time this Christmas. The experience of being outdoors will create an experience that will stay with them for life and there is something magical about being in the natural world with your children whether collecting treasure on a walk or finding a river to play pooh sticks.”

We don’t need no education…an open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education. It’s good to see the MP for my former University town of Loughborough taking on this vital role in Government.

To me it is one of the most important roles in the cabinet – creating an environment where children can flourish, have fun learning about their world and equipping them with the skills for a lifetime.

The start of the summer holidays is a good time to reflect on the state of education in the UK. As a parent of two kids, aged seven and four, I have a sense of the pressures facing teachers and also the impact upon our children.

A debate seems to have begun about getting our children to start their school years earlier. I’ve even read about kids starting their formal education aged two. To me this seems like we’re trying to create a production line of children purely focusing on them as economic units rather than human beings. It’s almost as though we are trying to create widgets rather than well-rounded and socially minded citizens.

Children want to play and play (or informal learning as it’s sometimes known) can be as important to their development (in terms of the basic skills they need for life) as time spent in a class room. We want children to have a childhood rich in memories and a sense of adventure and discovery. They’re natural sponges soaking up a wealth of information and there is a need to make sure that we help on this journey of learning, which will hopefully last a life time.

In many other European countries kids start school at six or seven years old. Yes they have a formalised child care set up for pre-school years but they seem to have very different motives. Germany is always held up as the economic powerhouse of the European Union. And yet children start school much later than in the UK and they seem to be doing ok.

There is a real danger that we are going take the child out of childhood. It is so important to get the pace of learning and the nature of learning right – a tricky balance I know.

The whole issue of parents not being allowed to take their children out of school during term time is another example of micro-management and the meddling in the lives of families. Does it really matter if a five year old misses a few days or even longer to go on holiday or visit family? Having a newly draconian way of making it an offence is a sure fire way to alienate millions of parents in the UK who will always do the right thing by their children.

Children as you know have boundless energy. They are always on the go; moving on to the next thing. However the way that the school day and year is going is draining them of energy. Kids shouldn’t feel pressurised or unhappy at school…after all these are the best days of your life. Piling on the homework or introducing more testing my work for the manufacturing line but not when it comes to human beings.

Let’s, for the sake of children, parents and teachers, have a period of consolidation. Creating a permanent revolution in education isn’t the way forward; it has to be creating an environment where learning is fun, kids are encouraged to enjoy school and parents aren’t left to pick up the pieces.

I wish you well in your new well and hope that you use the summer holidays to reflect on the benefits of the merits of a fallow period of new measures and getting things right.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Collins

Two year olds just want to have fun

Is it me or are they getting younger these days? No I’m not talking about the teachers but school children if the idea floated by Ofsted comes to fruition.

They have been doing a bit of good old fashioned kite flying. Some wise policy wonk in a darkened room deep in London has come up with the idea that children should start school at the age of two. Yes that’s right – aged two.

We’re in danger of losing out in the competition stakes they argue and need to get kids learning when they can barely walk and talk.

It seems that learning now is all about a production line: trying to hothouse children, pushing them harder and harder from an early age. As we slip down the international league table for educational performance the answer, the Government would have us believe, is to get them through the school gates earlier.

Aged two kids just want to play and they need to play. Surely we can’t be serious about parachuting them into a classroom environment – presumably sticking them in front of iPads.

Travel north east to Finland or Sweden or east to Germany and kids don’t start school till they are six or seven. Yes they learn through nurseries and outside the ‘classroom’ but there isn’t the pressure put on them at such a young age.

The mother of a German friend of ours, who used to be a teacher, is horrified about how we teach our children from such a young age. Germany and Scandinavia do pretty well in the learning league tables and yet their kids start formal education 2 or 3 years later than in the UK.

Informal learning for young kids is a good thing and needs to be an essential part of the mix. They learn loads from imaginative play and having the space and time to draw, make and create. Spending time outdoors is also really important for their personal development: there is something special about ‘unstructured’ play in a wood or a green space where children find their feet. They discover, collect and try out new things.

We need to get the nature of learning right for children allowing them with the support of parents and teachers to grow and flourish. But without loading too much on them when they’re so young.

Why Michael Gove misses the point about school holidays

You have to give the Rt Hon Michael Gove some credit: he certainly loves making the headlines and stirring it up a bit.

The latest blue-sky thinking or kite flying is all about shortening the summer holidays. At the first reading it does seem strange that term times are still determined by the cycle of food production and a Victorian way of schooling.

However, summer holidays are a key part of childhood and we need to be careful how we treat them. I can remember my six week holidays with a sense of fondness and sense of dread when the back to school signs started appearing.

I would spend hours with friends out and about, riding bikes, exploring the great outdoors, firing the imagination and having fun. It was a chance to recharge the batteries (though I had absolutely no concept of what that meant at the time) and think about everything beyond the school gates.

I loved learning and being at school but kids aren’t on some production line. Its bad enough that kids start school so young compared to other more enlightened countries without getting them to spend more time at school.

My six year old daughter needs to have a break away from the classroom. She loves school and though she is growing up fast and loves learning new things she needs time to down tools. Play is the key word in her vocabulary and we try and foster and encourage it at every opportunity.

Perhaps we should look at the balance of when school holidays are and not try to reduce holiday time for more school time. Kids learn about the life outside of school aswell as in the classroom and we need to get the balance right.

Screen time vs nature time

In the Metro today (the freebie daily paper) the ‘plugged in’ column has the sub heading ‘Children as young as three are embracing an education revolution with iPads’.

It got me thinking: is it right that children so young are connected to the world of technology? Should they be able to work an iPad before they can read or write? Am I just trying to stem the tide of progress by even thinking that this isn’t natural.

For me its part of a wider assault on what we used to call childhood. A few weeks back a Minister in the UK government suggested that we should start preparing kids for the world of work from the age of 3.

What is happening to play and that sense of discovery? We’re in danger of structuring their worlds at a very early age – making everything feel very structure, in effect like folders on a computer.

Three year old’s just want to play: finding their way in the world by taking risks and learning from their mistakes. Their brains are like sponges and they take in lots of information as they begin to talk, write and read. Its such an amazing thing to see as they grow physically and mentally.

Yes the reality is that children do spend time staring at screens of varying sizes but like everything in life it needs to be managed or rationed.

As a society we’re connected 24/7. I’m writing this blog on a blackberry when I could be reading or staring out of the window. Parents and adults need to set an example by getting their own screen time right. Our minds and souls need nature time and there is a risk that we don’t get enough of it whether children or adults.

Its natural for us to want to be in nature and close to nature. However through the industrial and technological revolution we’ve lost or are losing that vital connection. And now it seems for even the very young age we’re being ‘plugged in’ where the virtual becomes more appealing than the real and yet in so many ways its the other way round.

Technology can help us learn and develop as people. But we need to strike a balance between screen time and nature time. Let’s keep childhood special encouraging children to discover, enjoy and have fun. I’m not sure that three year-olds should know how to work an iPad.

I’m no luddite but I do worry that we’re at a tipping point where technology creates such a hold that it seems more natural than nature.

We need to get the balance right.

Let kids be kids

Yesterday as I read through The Times at work I came across the following headline on page 11: “Prepare children for jobs, minister urges nurseries.” After rubbing my eyes to check that I hadn’t mis-read the headline I read on: “Formal structured education needs to start at the age of three if Britain is to keep pace with top-performing Asian countries, according to Elizabeth Truss, the Children’s Minsiter.”

To paraphrase John McEnroe ‘you cannot be serious’. Why do we insist on turning education in to some sort of production line for the world of work. I always thought, perhaps wrongly, that yes education was about preparing children for their life ahead (including work) but also about creating well rounded people who can make a positive contribution to society and the communities where they live. We shouldn’t be force-feeding children a diet of education that has a negative impact upon their health and general well-being and quality of life.

At 3-years old children basically want to do one thing: play. They’re still finding their way in the world. Yes early years education is important but it needs to be fun and help to nourish kids personal development. To try and introduce, however carefully, the need to equip them with skills from the beginning of their lives is just bonkers.

For me its much better to install a sense of curosity about the world around them and encourage them to spend as much time in the great outdoors rather than being stuck in the great indoors. We shouldn’t be force-feeding children some sort of formal learning at such a young and tender age – especially if it involves staring at screens for hours on end.

At my son’s nursery – he is three-years old – they have forest schools and take them on walks to a local green space. The thought that he is being instructured in some sort of formal way feels me with a sense of dread.

Our early years are so important to our development – the ability to talk, communicate and read. But we need to keep it simple and focus on the wonder of play, fuelling their imagination and a sense of wonder about the natural world around them. Kids grow up fast enough as it is and we shouldn’t allow our education system to accelerate that process and a detrimental way.