Children’s Society Director of Policy, Enver Solomon, recently blogged that UNICEF UK’s Children’s Well-being Report 2011 insufficiently identifies key concerns and influencers of children’s happiness and wellbeing. He cites a number of Children’s Society research findings. Herein I respond briefly to his specific point that it is ‘imperative’ that we (as individuals, organisations and societies) listen to young people more – and act on what they say!
The mixed priorities and challenges in two local authority after-school clubs in which I recently completed doctoral research, demonstrate the complexity of operationalising Solomon’s call to action. I looked at staff, parents’ and children’s views of the purposes and priorities of the provisions, playworkers’ jobs and children’s playtime. What I found was that ideas about our young people, and the constraints put on adults working with them, are in the midst of, and merit further, re-thinking.
After-school clubs allow working and some non-working parents to know their children are safe and looked after – kept away from what is increasingly (or increasingly deemed to be) a threatening world (ergo, children must be protected at all times). Not unrelated, the after school clubs also gave the children a range of opportunities to play and socialise they may otherwise have missed out on. As one playworker put it ‘we didn’t have or need places like this when we were young to play and build our confidence…we played outside with the kids on our road.’
Committed and enthusiastic staff supervise the children and keep them safe, follow procedures, maintain order and provide a range of developmental experiences. Listening to the children and empowering their self-direction was a top priority for most. Staff and parents repeatedly told me how important this was – for the children to feel valued and to build their skills and confidence for life in a challenging world.
Playwork philosophy promotes the vital ability and necessity of children directing significant aspects of their social and emotional development. This requires low-intervention on the part of adults. On the other hand, health and safety policies, childcare regulations, and the like – not to mention litigious leanings – promote risk avoidance, overwhelming levels of supervision, and thus the removal of space and flexibility in which to listen and respond to children’s choices. So staff are hamstrung in their efforts to supervise and protect, and to facilitate and empower.
Amongst the many urgent moves needed to develop children’s happiness and wellbeing, we, and our children, would benefit from some candid self-reflection on how, as individuals, families, professionals, community members and policy makers, we restrict not only children’s voices but the avenues through which it is possible to respond to their voices and choices. If we’re to listen to the voices of our young more, and act on those voices, we must continue to push for recognising children as active citizens, with rights and valuable input to be shared, and actively support those professionals who are in positions to respond to those voices. Perhaps, it is time to challenge our imperative?
Hannah Henry Smith