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Let Children Play Out Again!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Top author and authority on children's upbringing Sue Palmer told 300 parents at Bolton School: 'Get the TV out of the bedrooms'.  

Palmer, author of 'Toxic Childhood' and '21st Century Boys', went on to say that children must be allowed to play out, with friends and without close parental supervision, to develop properly. She condemned the society that assumes all men are guilty and that causes boys to have so little contact with male role models. 

Palmer was giving the school's prestigious annual Tillotson Lecture, named after Marcus Tillotson, grandson of the founder of the Bolton Evening News. 

The speaker began by asking the audience to recall a happy childhood memory.  Nearly all the adults recalled playing out, unsupervised with friends.  However, for people under 20 years of age, this was not the case.  They had simply not had the same opportunity to play out.  This was something that Palmer found the world over.    

Childhood experiences are changing and, according to Palmer, not necessarily for the better.  A recent UNICEF report had found out of 21 developed countries, the UK was 21st, just behind the USA, in a league table of childhood wellbeing.  The countries at the top of the table, such as Finland and The Netherlands, had no or very little IT in the classroom.  They also began their formal schooling much later, when children reached the age of seven.  Such countries tend to put much more focus on allowing children to learn through play in their early years. 

Palmer said the average child now spends 5 hours and 40 minutes every day in front of a screen and is in danger of not enjoying the real world but living in a virtual world.  Hugely popular websites like Playfish and Club Penguin are aimed at children as young as five years old.  Parents need to be diligent with what their children witness on screen as they do not have the same concept of space as adults and when they see images on a screen, for them, this could be happening just down the road.  She pointed out that in France, broadcasting to under three year olds is now forbidden and in the US the recommendation is that children under two should not watch television.  However, in the UK several free to air baby channels are available.  Palmer stressed it is about keeping it real for boys, especially for those aged seven and under.  

Certainly statistics relating to developmental disorders suggest something is going wrong, particularly for boys.  Compared with girls, boys are three times more likely to have reading difficulties, four times more likely to have ADHD, four times more likely to have dyspraxia and nine times more likely to have Asperger's Syndrome, as well as have more problems with dyslexia and autism.  Men outnumber women in all major crime categories.  Between 85 and 95 per cent of offenders found guilty of burglary, robbery, drug offences, criminal damage or violence against the person are male.  Seventy per cent of women now progress to university compared to only 50 per cent of men and women are becoming more predominant in many professions, teaching being a classic example.  This is a dangerous development, as boys need men in their learning, particularly at a young age.  Palmer quoted a man who summed up many men's worries when he said he would be concerned: "about being classed as a weirdo if I wanted to hang out with children."

However, all is not lost and Palmer suggested that there are some simple but essential concepts for raising boys.  She identified five key factors that boys need: love, discipline, play and communication and all of these are tied together by the final element, education. 

Quoting the old adage "it takes a village to raise a child" she said this is still true but the danger is that the village has now becoming electronic!  Parents need to reconnect with their children - families need to eat meals together and children should not be allowed to spend too much time on their own, especially in their bedrooms in front of screens.  Having a proper bedtime routine which encourages good sleep pattern is to be encouraged, as is a healthy diet.  It is better if there is no electronic equipment in bedrooms and no mobile phones.   It is known that some boys' sleep is interrupted as they text each other during the night!  Palmer saw the enemies of our children as being marketing, the media and the speed at which modern society is moving. 

Boys need discipline.  They need to know what the rules are and what is and is not acceptable.  They are almost programmed to test the rules so it is important that parents are firm but fair.

Boys also need social play, ideally outdoors.  They need physical activity and to be driven around in cars less.  Studies have found that boys are more competitive than girls and are more status-driven.  Even as adults, males tend to be more motivated by job titles, money and status, whereas females, on the whole, see quality of relationships as being more important.  Today's risk-averse society is not good for boys as it is part of their nature to take risks.  There is a real danger that boys are now taking their risks and building their status through online activities and games.  Palmer stressed that life cannot be lived virtually! 

A prolonged study of conceptual development (or "common sense" understanding of the world) by King's College found that eleven year olds in 2004 were, in terms of common sense, 2 or 3 years behind children of the same age that were tested in 1990.  This was explained by the fact that the 2004 children were not playing out in the same way as children of the early 1990s. 

Palmer had, initially, been a specialist in literacy and she had realised how things were changing when a teacher in a Yorkshire school said: "Boys can only write when they can talk and they can only talk when they learn to listen."  Parents should be mindful that boys do not communicate as well as girls and emphasis needs to be placed on developing these skills.  They need to engage boys in conversation and develop their language skills.  It is important in building self-confidence, independence and in learning how to get along with others.  Communicating and playing is how the brain is programmed to learn.  

Palmer finished her presentation with the best piece of advice she had recently received, which came from an LSE professor who had said: "We need to accord more relative prestige to kindness and less to know-all behaviour." 

Headmaster Mr Philip Britton thanked the guest speaker for an instructive lecture and reflected that Bolton School is fighting against these trends through its strong academic curriculum, which is richly complemented by an unusually wide range of sporting and extra-curricular activities including residential trips to the School's outdoor pursuits centre in the Lake District. 

This was the 39th Marcus Tillotson Lecture, a lecture series which began in 1971 and has included presentations from Sir Ian McKellen, Colonel Blashford-Snell and Michael Portillo.

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Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys

Sue meets the Head

Sue Palmer with Headmaster, Mr Philip Britton

The Tillotson Lecture

Mrs Palmer addresses the Boys' Division Great Hall audience