Give me a child till he is seven years old

Sue Palmer of Upstart Scotland , a campaign for a nordic-style kindergarten age in Scotland, makes the case for the power of play in childhood development

' Give me a child till he is seven years old,' said St Ignatius Loyola, ' and I will show you the man.'

The founder of the Jesuit Brotherhood was way ahead of his time. For most of human history, serious-minded adults paid scant attention to the under-sevens. After all, small children have no obvious economic worth. They're also difficult to control and apparently impervious to reason...

But neuroscience has proved Loyola right. Children's experiences in those first seven years - when formation of the neural networks is governed largely by emotion - will affect their behaviour throughout life. As an international organisation determined to mould human souls for its own purposes, the Jesuit Brotherhood was spot on in targeting the very young.

The corporate hijack of childhood

The combination of ancient wisdom and neuroscientific evidence is a powerful one that hasn't been lost on the marketing departments of powerful international organisations today. As one high-flying marketing executive put it:

'Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product,

you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that... You open up emotional

vulnerabilities and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most

emotionally vulnerable.'

With billion-dollar budgets and constant access to infant minds through the mass media, corporate marketers are far better placed to groom the under-sevens than a scattering of medieval priests. So for many years, they've been inveigling their way into tiny children's lives by hijacking a traditional infant activity: play.

This used to be something kids did under their own steam. 'Go play!' said the adults, and they happily disappeared to run, jump, build dens, invent games and play 'let's pretend', making use of anything that came to hand. From the age of two or three, children played out around their homes, the older kids keeping a eye on the younger ones, and the women of the neighbourhood keeping a general eye on them all. Play was active, creative, self-directed and, in every sense of the word, free.

But nowadays, thanks to the power of advertising, children have been taught that play isn't free. It requires specialised equipment designed by adults - huge quantities of it, involving a considerable amount of shopping. Since many parents have been brainwashed into thinking that spending money is the best way to demonstrate love for their offspring, the market has finally found a way to make the under-sevens generate cash.

And it's not just the pursuit of immediate profits that motivates global corporations. It's the prospect of profits to come: give a marketer access to children till they're seven years old, and he'll show you future generations of Super-Consumers.

The power of play

However, it's becoming clear that the corporate hijacking of children's play has unintended consequences that are anything but good for the global economy. When children are distracted from 'old-fashioned' play during their formative years, there's a price to pay as time goes on.

'Real play' (as opposed to 'toy consumption' or screen-based entertainment) is essential for physical and emotional health, especially when it happens outdoors. All that running, jumping, climbing, building and so on is great for physical health and development. And when it happens in natural surroundings, it's extremely good for mental health too.

'Real play' requires also considerable personal input and initiative, so it helps children develop a range of positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance, creativity and emotional resilience. It develops social skills - through playing together, youngsters learn how to get along with their peers, to collaborate over shared projects and to negotiate their way through squabbles. And, since it's driven by infants' fierce desire to understand how the world works, old-fashioned 'real play' provides the cognitive foundations on which formal education can later be based. Play is, in fact, evolution's way of helping human children develop minds of their own - curious, problem-solving, adaptable, human minds.

Take away these formative experiences and you'll get physical and mental health problems. Make kids dependent on shop-bought toys and sedentary entertainment for their kicks and you'll affect the social, emotional and cognitive development of the next generation. So tomorrow's adults may well have the bodies and brains of Super-Consumers, but will they be capable of generating the wealth required to feed their shopping habits?

The state of play

Freedom to play has been the birthright of human children since the species began. It's only over recent decades, in traffic-clogged towns and cities, that opportunities for kids to get outdoors and active began to drain away. Since this coincided with the growth of consumerism and screen-based entertainment, it's proved amazingly easy to keep the younger generation off the streets.

Concerned adults now insist their off-spring spend most of their leisure time indoors, perhaps screen-gazing, perhaps attending supervised clubs and classes - but always under close surveillance and direction by adults. Perceptive parents know, deep down, that something about this isn't right, but it's been translated into anxiety rather than remediation. Mums and dads are increasingly anxious and protective about their offspring - worrying about their health and safety, their education, their future. All of which has fed right into the hands of the marketing men, as they've merrily hijacked the very concept of play and used it to generate squillions of dollars...

If we go on denying children access to real play, global corporations will generate squillions more. But the physical and mental health problems already affecting a growing number of children and young people will lead to impossible demands on our health services.

Time and space to play

So Scotland must, as a matter of urgency, find a way to reinstate active, creative, self-directed play at the heart of childhood. And we must do it during those first seven years, when children are at their most ' emotionally vulnerable' - but also at an age when they can establish health default habits of behaviour, rather than unhealthy ones.

At present, most kids have a chance to play outdoors at nursery school but our extremely early school starting age means that, at four or five years old, they transfer to school and are expected to crack on with reading, writing and sums. We aren't giving enough time and space for play to work its developmental magic.

Other European countries (especially the Nordic nations) are making much better progress in this respect than than we are. Their play-based kindergartens extend until children are six or seven years old, and are staffed by well-qualified early years practitioners who understand the intricacies of child development. They know when to intervene with helpful support and when to back off and let the kids learn from their own explorations.

At the same time, they don't 'hold children back' - any child who shows and interest in reading, writing or numbers is encouraged and supported. But by treating their charges as individuals, and not pushing anyone to learn before they're ready, they ensure a much more level educational playing field when formal schooling eventually begins.

In the most recent OECD survey of educational achievement, the three western nations who scored highest were Finland, Estonia and Switzerland, all of which have a kindergarten stage up to the age of seven. Countries with a later school starting age also have a better record in terms of childhood well-being - and there's a growing pile of psychological research to explain why .

Most public debate about early education and childcare in Scotland relates to its role in freeing parents to return to the workplace. But we should also be discussing its importance in the long-term development of physical and mental health. There are powerful arguments for changing the ethos of education and care for the under-sevens and giving more attention to their physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. Upstart Scotland , a campaign to introduce a Nordic-style kindergarten stage, will be making these arguments in the coming months.

Give Scotland's children time and space to play till they are seven years old, and we'll have brighter, more well-balanced citizens in the future.

Sue Palmer, a former primary headteacher, is a literacy specialist and author of books on child development in the modern world. For more information on Upstart, visit www.upstart.scot .