The period of early childhood (i.e. pre-birth to 8 years) is one of rapid, miraculous development. Experiences during this time are the most significant in our life course, as they lay the foundations for all that comes later. To create societies in which human flourishing can prevail, it is essential that we cultivate and promote healthy early life experiences for every child.
Sadly, many children today are struggling with the ever-encroaching pressures and undue expectations of the adult world. The changing nature of family and community life, the lack of contact with nature, the increasing influence of the media, the pressures of the schooling system and the impact of the digital world, have all steadily eroded the environments and experiences children need in order to refine their senses and develop into happy, confident learners, in touch with themselves and the wider world.
Human beings are amazing creatures. We are fine-tuned and biologically wired to learn, grow and develop in diverse ways. Unfortunately, in many countries around the world we are seeing unacceptably high levels of mental and physical distress in children as they struggle with increasingly restricted and unnatural environments. This has not been intentional, but is the unintended consequence of the many adult-created systems that have failed to acknowledge and adapt to the vast increase in our understanding of human learning and the science of natural development.
It is easier and cheaper to create strong, happy and resilient
children than it is to mend struggling, unhappy and broken adults
In 2016 an estimated 41 million children under 5 were affected by overweight or obesity (WHO, 2017). Without effective treatment they are likely to remain overweight and obese throughout their lives, putting them at risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and premature death, as well as suffering physical and psychological consequences in childhood.
In 2014 more than two-thirds of children in the USA (ages 17 and younger) were exposed to violence within the year, either directly (as victims) or indirectly (as witnesses). Base estimates show a minimum of 50% or more of children in Asia, Africa, and Northern America experienced past-year violence, and that globally over half of all children—1 billion children, ages 2–17 years—experienced violence. (Hill, S et al, 2016).
Early deprivation and trauma has a life-long impact. Nearly one in eight children (12 percent) have had three or more negative life experiences associated with levels of stress that can harm their health and development. (Child Trends Databank, 2013).
Depression is estimated to affect 350 million people and is currently the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO, 2012)
” In today’s world your zip code, even more than your genetic code,
determines whether you will live a healthy life. People’s income, family
structure, housing, employment, and educational opportunities affect
not only their risk of developing traumatic stress, but also their access
to effective help to address it. Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools,
social isolation and substandard housing are all breeding grounds for
trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people.”
Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 2017
What’s the current state of child wellbeing in the UK?
In its first wellbeing study involving 540,000 15-year-olds across 72 countries, the UK ranked 38th out of the 48 countries that took part in the happiness study. Pupils in the UK were among the most likely to be bullied, and spent the most time on the internet. They were also more anxious about testing than many of their international peers. (OECD, 2017).
One in four girls in the UK currently have depression by the time they are 14 (NCB and University of Liverpool, 2017)
The UK has the highest rate of child obesity in Western Europe, which is estimated to cost the NHS about £4.2bn a year (Public Health England, 2009). One in three is now clinically obese (Young Minds, 2017).
Less than 1 in 10 children regularly play in wild spaces now, compared to 5 out of 10 a generation ago (Natural Childhood Report, 2011).
In the UK the “roaming range” (the area within which children are permitted to play unsupervised) has shrunk by more than 90% in 40 years. Only 21% of children today play out in their streets and local neighbourhoods, compared to 71% of adults who were able to do so as children (Playday Poll, 2007). The recent Persil ‘Dirt is Good’ Campaign notes that British children “spend less time outdoors than prisoners”.
Play England’s 2007 research found that 51 per cent of children have been told by adults to stop playing in the streets or area near their home.
British children spend disproportionately large amounts of time in front of screens, compared to their counterparts in other Western European countries. ‘Higher levels of TV viewing are having a negative effect on children’s well-being, including lower self-worth, lower self-esteem and lower levels of self-reported happiness.’ (Children’s Society, 2013).
By the time the average child is eighteen years old, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders (Facts and Figures About Our TV Habit. TV Turnoff Network).
One in ten children in the UK has a diagnosed mental health disorder (Young Minds, 2017).
One in twelve adolescents deliberately self-harms (Young Minds, 2017).
28% of children in the UK currently live in poverty (Child Poverty Action Group 2017).
Approximately 25% of children live in a one-parent family, and 47% of children living in one-parent families currently experience relative poverty (Gingerbread, 2017).
Nearly 80,000 children and young people currently suffer from severe depression, including 8,000 children aged under 10 years old (Young Minds, 2017)
Admissions for psychiatric conditions, eating disorders and self-harm among young people are soaring (Sunday Times Mental Health Campaign, 2017.