What's making UK children so unhappy?

'Children in England rank near bottom in international happiness table' screamed the headline on February 17, bringing back memories of UNICEF's first ever survey of childhood wellbeing (2007) when the UK was right at the bottom of the chart. And here we are, ten years later, still shamefully low.

'There's something going on in the UK,' says Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, author of the new study, 'and it seems to be focused on self-esteem and confidence.' Children as young as eight worry about their appearance, relationships with peers and performance in school.

Research into the UNICEF survey blamed the problems on a culture of 'selfish materialism'. Asked what made them happy, UK children talked about time spent with family, friends and pets, particularly outdoors. Their parents, however, listed consumer goods like smartphones and designer clothes.

My theory - after fifteen years researching modern childhood - is that parents in a hyper-competitive consumer society are deeply confused about two essential ingredients for positive self-image and emotional resilience: LOVE and PLAY.  Neither can be bought in the shops, but marketers are skilled in making families confuse love with 'stuff' and convincing them that play is the same as 'toy consumption' and screen-based entertainment.

Sadly, the results of this confusion aren't merely that youngsters are less happy.  Mental health problems among children and adolescents have now begun to spiral out of control. It's vital that we take action to improve the quality of children's lives. Since no mainstream political party will tackle the marketing bombardment, support for parents must come from another source.

In many European countries, the state provides an early counter-balance to the consumerist assault on parental love and children's play through a play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to six or (preferably) seven. This provides a trusted source of information about early child development in the heart of every community, which also acts as a hub for medical, psychological and special needs services.

The ethos of kindergarten education promotes two powerful messages:

  • The importance of young children's social and emotional development, and of adults 'tuning in' to the feelings and opinions of children in their care
  • That active, creative play (as often as possible outdoors) is essential for every aspect of development ... and children love it!

Even if these messages aren't taken on board by every family, a kindergarten stage at least ensures all children have three or four years of play-based, emotionally-nurturing early years care and education. And in countries with a well-established kindergarten stage, children aren't just happier than in the UK, they also do better academically, so there's a narrower gap in attainment levels between rich and poor.

This is why I'm part of the rapidly growing Upstart campaign to introduce a kindergarten stage for Scotland's children. In a world where 'real play' is being squashed out of children's lives, we desperately need to reinstate it as central to their early development. And in a country where formal schooling has always begun at a ridiculously early age, it's time to show parents that, up to the age of seven, nurturing children's physical, social and emotional development is far more important than academic learning. Indeed, success in school - and in life beyond school - depends on it.

You'll find evidence supporting Upstart's case on www.upstart.scot along with articles, FAQs and information on events around Scotland. We're looking for ideas and suggestions from all interested parents and professionals. Please sign up for our monthly newsletter and join us in our quest to give all Scottish children the best - and happiest - start in life.