In education for the last few years one of the buzzwords is resilience. It goes something like this; if we teach our children resilience then they will be better equipped to survive and thrive in this modern world.
As a Child Psychotherapist I have a different take on this mantra. What if we stopped creating such toxic environments for children so that they didn’t have to be taught resilience? What if we created suitable environments in which their natural resilience would support them to grow into adults that are productive and joyful?
Babies do not need to be taught how to walk they just need an environment that doesn't push them over every time they try to get up. However this is similar to the environment we have created in our education system.
Just last week I went on a visit to a new school and the reception children at 10am were in a small room side by side with whiteboard and pens learning phonics. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, this is what I would describe as a toxic environment for a four year old who learns through play.
We have lost our way and our children are paying the price for this wrong turn.
Resilience is actually something small children have in bucket loads. They fall down and they get back up again, that is how we learn to walk. But by the time they are in Year 1 our children have become masters of stopping and giving up.
I spoke with a Year 1 teacher who said she realised she could teach most children anything with enough repetition. However she noted that it would take an enormous amount of time and energy to do so when the child was young. Later in their life it would be grasped much more quickly and in a shorter time span as they are ready for that aspect of learning.
"Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case it takes between 10 and 20 repetitions” Dr Karyn Purvis Artist unknown
I read last year that it is not until we are seven that our brain shifts from being right brain dominant (which is all about symbols, images and feelings) to being left brain dominant (which is there for decoding and logic). This is why play and the way we learn in those early years is so important. It is also a time where the eyes become ready to focus on the decoding required for reading.
All this confirms why so many other countries don’t start school until seven. When studies compared reading levels they found that those who began reading at seven are at the same level at the age of ten as our children who start at four years old. Not only that, there is a major and very important difference - that those children who start later at ten enjoy reading whereas the majority of children in the UK have a much more negative association with reading and do not enjoy it in the same way.
So pushing children to do things they are not physically or developmentally ready for is counterproductive and is a toxic environment to create for children. What we are setting up for our children in educating them in this formal way is struggle, tension, fear of failure and seeing themselves as less when they can’t do it. These internal images of self are not easily shifted the more engrained they get with the struggle of learning. Conversely what is available is a natural way of learning through the joy of exploration through play and connection with each other.