There are no rules

I’ve told you a million times already – that’s not what it’s for.  Climb up on the steps and slide down on the slide“.
These were the words from a mother to her 5-year old son in the playground today after she watched him happily (and harmlessly) climbing the hard way up the slide.  The child continued playing on the slide, but obediently using the steps to go up and the slide to come down (“conventionally”, as an adult would see it but “restrictively” in the eyes of a child).

Who says that’s what it’s there for?  It’s there for fun; for enjoyment; for imagination.  How confusing must it be for a child to be constrained in this way?  After all, wasn’t the mother (albeit unintentionally) stopping him from having fun?  He wasn’t doing anyone any harm – and for him it was more fun to go up the slide and down the steps!

Children already have so many constraints imposed by parents, many for good reason, that it seems unreasonably harsh to impose yet more without good reason.  The great thing about play is that there are no rules.


Preconceived ideas… a passion-killer

Channel4 television has recently started airing another excellent documentary – Jimmy and the Giant Supermarket, in which a farmer (Jimmy) attempts to persuade Tesco to sell high-welfare produce in addition to their existing range.

Jimmy confirmed very quickly through face-to-face chats with customers, that the biggest challenge was one of price.  High-welfare meat was well-received, but customers said they expected it would cost more, and weren’t prepared to pay extra for it.  Nevertheless, he picked up the challenge, with a determination which was admirable.  In the first episode we saw him working with farmers to produce free-range, high welfare meatballs which almost met the cost target – but they tasted slightly different from the every-day “value” meatballs which Tesco were selling.  At his presentation to the senior managers, he was met with a wall of objections, primarily because of the different ingredients (in this case English rose veal) which, they said, would put customers off.  Undeterred, Jimmy spoke directly with the customers, explained everything to them and they were fine with that.

Of course, it is always a matter for senior management to do what they believe is best for their organisation, and it is imperative that they use the experience which they bring to the role.  Learning lessons is part of what makes us all more successful, but it is very depressing to hear senior people saying “we’ve tried this before“, and “if it were easy we’d have done it by now” to someone clearly driven to do something different.

In the episodes which followed, Jimmy redeveloped the sausage and the chicken kiev, on the same basis – reaching a cost which was acceptable to the consumer, whilst at the same time using high welfare meat.  The result was that Tesco (eventually) agreed to stock the new recipe and consumers voted, through sales, confirming that they did indeed appreciate high welfare meat.

None of this would have happened if the senior managers had followed their instincts which had been carefully honed over many years of looking at sales figures.  They would have instantly killed off the ideas on the basis that consumers would never buy something different.  Possibly because they were being filmed for a television documentary (we’ll never know), they let Jimmy try to prove them wrong – which, of course, he did.

We often see children trying some crazy things unencumbered by experience or preconceived ideas.  Admittedly the results are sometimes horrendous, but sometimes they are wonderful.  Surely our experience tells us is that it’s okay sometimes to put our preconceived ideas “on hold”, and try something different.  By always saying no, we kill any passion to think differently and do things differently.

Inspiring teachers…

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

… worth their weight in moon dust.

For me as a child, learning history was dull.  It wasn’t just me – I don’t remember any of us actually “enjoying” it.  It certainly wasn’t as exciting as science, or as interesting as French.  It was just dates and facts which had to be learned. Dull dull dull.  Looking back at that time as a pupil, I can reliably say that the only thing I learned about history was that it was boring.

But my interest in history has taken a turn for the better in recent months, with the discovery of Horrible Histories.  It hasn’t transformed me into a history-fanatic, but it has generated a degree of enthusiasm and interest which had previously eluded me.

Very heavy coverage by the BBC, with regular repeats at child-friendly times have helped create a buzz which has alerted my children to a subject which was so uninteresting for me, that I would have struggled to rouse even the slightest interest in them.  And it is quite obvious how this has happened… the history is presented in a way which is exciting, accessible and really interesting to children.  It’s not all about dates – it’s mostly about gory detail.  The books are written by Terry Deary, Peter Hepplewhite and Neil Tonge and cover every period in history in an appealing, easily digestible way.

There’s a lovely quote from Terry Deary: “If I had it my way, I wouldn’t have schools at all. They don’t educate, they just keep kids off the streets.  But my books educate, because they prepare kids for life.”  The combination of great source material (the books), the dramatisation, and the scheduling create a fabulously inspiring learning experience for children.  And the result is that there cannot be a child anywhere in the UK who doesn’t know the fate of each of Henry VIII’s six wives, something which could not have been said 40 years ago.

Anyone who has ever experienced the power of an inspiring teacher will recognise how potentially life-changing it can be.  Sadly not all teachers are so endowed.  I wonder how dramatically the lives of our children could be changed if only we could harness the skills of inspiring people, and channel them towards receptive ears.  What a difference that could make.