Healthy Human Growth: A Commonsense View

A long-time educator shares her views on what we can do to encourage the healthy growth of our childen.


by Allison Stallibrass 

How much help do children really need from adults? I am told by a Secondary School teacher that the most disruptive effect on learning in the classroom is that many have no confidence in their ability; they are disadvantaged by a lack of self-esteem.

How can this have come about I wonder. Babies are born with the power to grow in ability. Jean Piaget and other developmental psychologists have observed that infants are virtually helpless at birth, their activity merely reflex actions such as sucking at whatever touches the inside of their mouths and waving their arms and legs. Yet they grow into capable two year olds with no assistance.1

Human infants, like the young of other species, have an instinct to do what they need to do at any moment, in order to travel further on the road towards becoming capable members of their species.2 Most babies learn quickly how to co-ordinate the activities of sucking and swallowing; then they learn to use their eyes, ears, noses, fingers, feet and organs of balance, to cope with the effects of the force of gravity, to respond in kind to smiles and laughter and to recognise a number of people, although they can be seriously put out if somebody they think they know turns up in a hat.

The growth of physical and mental abilities will only occur if the baby's surroundings are favourable for healthy growth; it must contain the food that the baby requires if they are to grow. The food required for a baby to handle objects is practice in grasping, picking up, holding, dropping or carrying things to its mouth. At the same time as the baby is exercising its ability to handle the object, it is sensing the properties of the object, its shape, weight, malleability, texture and so on. As a result of this activity, the baby's body of knowledge and know-how grows. Gradually he or she learns to handle a particular object more deftly and also to adapt his or her picking up and holding skills to other objects. The psychologist D.O. Hebb has observed that a baby tends to select for investigation things that are different but only slightly different from those with which it is already familiar.3

This instinctive learning activity is the baby's work, the raison d'etre of childhood. We call it play. But play of this spontaneous instinctive kind is as important as any work a person may later do, for by means of it, the child is nurturing a sturdy seedling capable of blossoming into his or her unique self.

I think it is generally recognised that both genes and environment play a part in determining what a child becomes, but healthy and full growth depends mainly on two things: the suitability of a child's environment for healthy human growth and the character of the individual's response to the environment. Given a favourable environment, a child's growth is the result of his choice of activity: on what he chooses to pay attention to, what he likes, loves or hates and on how much opportunity he takes to respond strongly and with discrimination to his experiences.

So the child grows provided his or her environment is suitably nutritious.

The Pillars of Mental Health
Jean Liedloff,4 after having lived for several months with a tribe of Yequana South American Indians-an extremely happy people-became convinced that for optimum growth, babies need surroundings and treatment as close as possible to what they "expect" to find.

For several weeks after birth, the mother, or another member of the family, carried the baby with her wherever she went and the baby could sense, among other things, the familiar beating of a human heart. Then as soon as he or she could toddle unaided, the child was able, while keeping an eye on the whereabouts of mother as she went about her work, to play; exploring his surroundings as far as he could reach, exercising his physical and mental judgement and budding human powers, as and when he felt moved to do so.

As parents know and have always known, babies delight in having an effect on their surroundings, both inanimate and animate. Yequana babies could become acquainted with other members of the tribe of all ages and learn from observation what kind of behaviour was acceptable. In this way, they could build up a healthy self-esteem and the feeling that life is good: two gifts, it has been said, that are the twin pillars of mental health.

Adults can help the process of growing if they are aware of-and indeed respect and rejoice in-children's instinctive wisdom regarding their learning needs, in particular their ability to recognise appropriate bits of functional, mental and emotional nourishment that are present around them.

The Situation Today
Young children need to use all their waking hours for growing in the above sense. That is why they should not be subject to formal schooling much before their seventh birthdays. Before that age, children should not be expected to learn skills of civilisation such as reading. If, as some do, they insist on working out for themselves how to read, we should not be surprised, for most children want to imitate their elders' skills, just as they want to "do it myself" (however long it may take them) and to feel that they are becoming effective and responsible members of the family.   

Nowadays in industrialised countries where the work-day environment of adults is rarely suitable for the spontaneous play of children and thus of their healthy growth, it is imperative that society-parents and planners-provide suitably equipped spaces, both indoors and out, in which children can foregather, supervised by adults who appreciate the value of entirely spontaneous play.

In the recent past, some "pre-school playgroups" and, for older children, "adventure playgrounds" provided good substitutes for the local woods, quiet roads and the village greens of a hundred years ago. Nowadays their value is rarely understood, and so it can happen that, at a very early age, young children can lose the ability to recognise the nourishment needed for growth because, for so long, it has not been there. In fact, we have come to the point when the adult population needs to go to school for some intensive education in the nature of babies' and young children's needs and how to provide for them.

I was glad to see a recent TV programme which provided some evidence of the benefits to children of being introduced to formal teaching in the arts of literacy only at the age of seven. It heartened me that somebody had publicly challenged the present assumptions of both the Government and of the majority of parents. In Britain, children are expected to become proficient readers at six; some are successful but the majority are insufficiently developed intellectually before the age of seven to learn to read with ease and pleasure. However skilled their teaching may be, many children fail to satisfy their teachers' expectations in the field of activity which, it is obvious to them, their elders consider to be the most valuable. This may have tragic results: after two or three years of instruction that has made no improvement in their skill, they come to the conclusion that they are "stupid" and incapable of success at school.

Surely this cannot be good for their educational prospects or for their self-esteem or for that of their teachers or for the peace of the classroom or, indeed, for the future of civilisation.

And there is a greater tragedy: time and energy is wasted on premature schooling when children need all the time they can get during their first seven years for the essential work of childhood. They need to spend their days amid a variety of opportunities to develop their potential humanity-their physical and mental and emotional powers. Perhaps because the essential knowledge and know-how learned in such an environment cannot be taught, its value is underestimated. For whatever reason, the trend of the last twenty years has been to focus more and more on the purely intellectual development of even the youngest children. Parents want to be sure of access to the schools of their choice. Therefore they want "pre-schools" which 'get the children on', and also get them accustomed to being continuously directed by a teacher or to answer the question, "What would you like to do?", which the children soon learn means choosing an approved occupation and sticking to it for a long time-at least five minutes! And if a child stops to watch what is happening around it or to ponder or dream, it risks a repetition of the question, with the slightly irritated addition of the word "now". Sadly, the theories of the Behaviourist School of psychology, current during the early part of this century, still linger. For example, the child is still thought of by some
as a "blank slate" waiting for the teacher to write on it, and therefore, it is reasoned, the earlier the better.

A Useful Piece of Research
I have been lucky in that my life has been spent in observing the voluntary behaviour of children of all ages. I was the eldest of five. Then I had the great good fortune to spend three years as a student-assistant to a group of biologists who were studying the nature of human health-the health of the whole person, physical, mental, emotional and social, and hoping to discover in what it consists and in what kind of environment people can cultivate it in themselves.

This observational research was the brain-child of two experienced doctors of medicine, George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse, who, after many years thought on the subject and three years running a pilot scheme in an
ordinary house in Peckham-an inner-city suburb of London-opened a specially designed building in the same area, to house a scientific laboratory-cum-social club which they called "The Pioneer Health Centre." It became known world-wide as "The Peckham Experiment," after the 1943 publication of the book of that name by I.H. Pearse and L.H. Crocker.5

Williamson's and Pearse's basic method of promoting whole health was to ensure the freedom of the individual, within an environment in which everyone was equally free, to use their own initiative in discovering or creating leisure activities to their taste, or to do nothing but relax and chat or watch what was going on. The same opportunities, geared to the needs of toddlers and under-fives, were provided in the "nurseries" in which babies and young children could be left during the afternoons when their mothers were occupied elsewhere in the building. After some months, "the Doctors" realised that it would be necessary to find means of giving the same freedom to the school age children of the member-families. When this was achieved, primarily by allowing those children who had proved they could swim (and most who could not, quickly learned) to use the large centrally situated swimming pool and the adjacent gymnasium as playgrounds during most of the afternoon and early evening.

The children had shunned classes but, through playing in the water and in the air above it, and on the Swedish apparatus with which the gymnasium was furnished, they attained a high degree of skill. After this innovation, a marked change in the general behaviour of the children was observed; they became much more purposeful and serene, although equally energetic, and more responsible for themselves and their surroundings. Moreover their relationships with their elders became happy ones.

Through what I learned at the Peckham Centre,6 and later while running a pre-school playgroup on Peckham lines for up to twelve children in my own home; through observing the behaviour of my own five children with relative detachment, and studying theories of child development while writing a book7 on the spontaneous play of young children, I acquired some useful knowledge of how babies and small children grow through spontaneous play in a suitable environment.

Until about fifty years ago, most children in both town and country areas of Britain had some opportunity to play with other children out of sight of organising and controlling adults. A hundred years ago when families were larger, even toddlers had playmates in the home, or had opportunities for "doorstep" play with neighbouring children. Now children are often in a minority, both in the home and in the neighbourhood. Out of doors, they are rarely seen except being conveyed here and there in cars or coaches.

This situation can become healthier when adults understand children's needs and learn how to provide for them. So it is to be hoped that all adults and adolescents, and especially young parents and people in positions of authority will hasten to make themselves proficient in this area of knowledge and make a point of observing the spontaneous behaviour of babies. I would recommend people to begin by reading my book The Self-Respecting Child.

1. Jean Piaget, The Origin of Intelligence in the Child.
2. R.Winthrop White, Motivation Reconsidered: the Concept of Competence in
Psychological Review, 1959 Vol.66 no 5.
3. D.O.Hebb, A Textbook of Psychology, 1958.
4. Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept, Gerald Duckworth 1975, Penguin
Books 1986 and Addison-Wesley 1987.
5. I.H.Pearse & L.H.Crocker, The Peckham Experiment, George Allen and Unwin
1943, reprinted by Scottish Academic Press 1985.
6. Alison Stallibrass, Being Me and Also Us: Lessons from the Peckham
Experiment, Scottish Academic Press 1989.
7. Alison Stallibrass, The Self-Respecting Child, Thames and Hudson 1974,
Pelican Books 1977 and Addison-Wesley 1989.

Alison Stallibrass has worked as an educator since 1936 and studied child development since the 1940's. She has published two books on education, as well as contributing to numerous periodicals.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 8, No. 4, issue 27