Barbara Yee – Principal, Corpus Christie

Some months ago, whilst driving across country NSW, we travelled through apple growing territory. I was intrigued to see a prominent sign displayed outside an orchard bearing the words: Tree Ripened Fruit. This was clearly their advertising grab.

It made me wonder what sort of a world we have created where tree ripened fruit is something remarkable!

In 2016, consumers expect and dictate the standard practice for farmers and suppliers. Premature harvesting of crops is considered routine to ensure a reliable supply. Consumers also insist on a great range of produce being available on demand, regardless of the seasonality of the produce.

Technology has enabled and normalised these practices. All manner of produce are now harvested long before they are ready for consumption and produce that is harvested is treated with a gamete of sophisticated chemicals and processes; snap freezing and variable transport options have enabled this process. This is often due to profit driven practice and competition – consumers expect consistency and continuously availability produce. Unfortunately, quality and taste can be one of the first casualties.

There is some compensation for these demands, fruit may transport better or stay fresher for longer but at what cost? And we can enjoy this produce for a longer period of time. These are the demands our contemporary society places on many industries. 24/7 access to services, live and real time data feeds are the expectation across our society, and if you don’t keep up you are left behind.

What has been sacrificed to satisfy demand insatiable consumer convenience?

In the case of the apples growing in the mountains, the fruit no doubt tastes better when it is allowed to naturally ripen on the tree the way nature intended, allowing the sugar to naturally occur and the climate to fully produce great tasting, fresh crunchy apples.

Could similar observations be made about the milestones that are the markers of childhood development? It can be said that opportunities and experiences we provide children as they make their way through their childhood are being accelerated. Some of these experiences might sound like to fun to an adult but we can fail to account for childish minds and their capacity to can make sense of it all.

And what of other childhood pursuits and social activities? Some of these activities can produce high level stress responses in young minds that they may not be equipped to handle. These patterns of interaction are also training the brain to behave in ways that is less instinctive and more calculated, based on instant rewards. Less sophisticated pursuits can produce hours of wholesome enjoyable fun at a fraction of the cost and possibly a fraction of the stress.

Parents also have the pressure of balancing the tension between wanting the best for the child but at the same time managing the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) factor. It can be a tough call for parents to be brave enough to go against the grain or popular thinking. We all want to provide whatever we can for our children. Parents find it hard not to succumb to the pressure mounted by friends and family.

Sociologist identify that the acceleration of children to mature prematurely can be attributed to a number of factors:

  • Concern that children may ‘miss out’ on aspects of their attainment.
  • Clever marketing of children’s activities; telling us that this is best for our child
  • The trend to achieve ‘early mastery’ of a range of activities to ensure success later in life
  • Preparation to enable that ‘competitive edge’ for secondary school, university places and even the workforce
  • Mastery of ‘processes’ at the expense of creative and critical thinking
  • The need to generate ‘high ability’ in specific areas to the exclusion of a broader range of achievement

It is true that ‘hothousing’ may indeed produce prodigies in sport, academics and the performing arts. This may prove successful whilst the children are quite young. Often though, the gap narrows and other children catch up as developmental milestones are achieved. Extraordinary achievement at this elite level does occur. Even that requires sophisticated dedication to sustain into adolescence and beyond. This is something to marvel at and requires delicate management.

Similar trends can be seen in the area of academic achievement. Extensive out-of-hours tutoring may promote rote learning at the expense of thinking skills, relational understandings and creative problem solving.

Maybe it is time to draw the line in the sand and let our children be children. Childhood is fleeting. Little people grow into big people very quickly. We don’t need to gallop them through life, rather we need to teach them about pace and taking in things they see around them. Childhood should be a time of unstructured creativity and exploration of the world around them. Time to watch clouds, dance like there is no-one watching, unbridled imagination and all with minimal schedule or need to impress.

How much unstructured time do children have? Unstructured doesn’t mean unproductive!! Unstructured play enables brain function in children in the most positive way possible. Children are learning about building relationships, trial and error, inquiry, problem solving and ingenuity whilst being totally occupied in a manner of their choosing – albeit at times with the guide on the side!

Play is an integral part of child development and opportunities for children to be encouraged in unstructured play are vital. Pretend and imaginative play in a range of scenarios is the way a child’s brain makes sense of the world they are encountering. Children’s brains grow developmentally and neural pathways and connections are being generated as children master a range of skills.

Creative play encourages children to respond in ways that match their aptitude. Activities where the response to play is pre-constructed encourages much less brain development. This process is developmental, unique to each individual and fragile. Growing healthy brain function is a delicate process, one not to be rushed if we want the process to be completed well. Many of the most successful minds we see, especially in the technology start-up sector often found creative and innovative solutions to common problems.

Let us offer children unremarkable experiences, unstructured time where their pursuits are limited only by their imagination.

It is no coincidence that the recent trend has emerged for young adults to take a ‘Gap Year’, which has stemmed from too much pressure, scheduling and too many demands. If we don’t provide time for kids and young adults to be just that, we are sending them into adult life having to continue taking on these stresses and burdens.

Let’s allow our children time to ‘ripen on the tree’ so as to speak, at a natural pace, taking in everything the world has to offer them in their own good time. Give them time to process their learnings about their world. They will ripen and will grow into well rounded individuals just as nature intended them to be!