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Ben Kingston-Hughes: Bringing Joy to our Children

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Thinking about joy

Recently I have been thinking about the concept of “joy”. I have been thinking back to my own childhood which was full to the brim with joy. Long summers spent roaming the woods, endless bike rides and marmite sandwiches and no concept of time or even space. Now don’t get me wrong it was not all idyllic. As a child with ADHD (only recently diagnosed) I struggled in school. I was bullied by both teachers and children and had some really bleak times. As soon as I got home from school though, the day could really begin. Looking back I now believe that my joyful childhood outside of school, the good friends and wonderful nurturing parents, actually got me through the tough times at school. I shudder to think of what would have happened to me if I did not have those crucial moments of joy to balance the stress and anxiety. 

Of course we now know why this was so important. If we can support our children to have more positive experiences of life than negative then they are much more likely to thrive. If, however, they have more negative than positive then they are likely to struggle. So to me, those moments of joy in childhood are more than just pleasant memories but the fundamental reason why I survived. 

Right now those pleasant memories have become even more relevant because I am working with vulnerable children in the wake of a global pandemic. What I see missing from those children is the very thing that helped me cope with life. Moments of joy.

Joy is never mentioned

The curious thing is that whilst most of us can see how catastrophic it is for our children if they don’t experience joy, there is very little concrete research on just how important it is. The concept of joy is barely mentioned in the Early Years Foundation Stage and not once in the National Curriculum. It is ignored by most child development theories and is seldom seen on training courses. And yet I believe this simple concept is a fundamental building block for every single aspect of a child’s well-being and development.  

We all know the catastrophic damage caused by anxiety. In fact children that experience too much anxiety suffer from physical damage to the brain and a decrease in healthy brain growth. In the wake of a global pandemic we need to do everything we can to mitigate that damage and joy is a vital process doing exactly that. Feelings of joy and happiness flood the brain with positive biochemicals which, apart from making us feel fantastic, actually begin to heal the damage caused by anxiety and enable healthy brain growth to resume.   

So if we recognise the value of a joyful childhood and also recognise the catastrophic deficit of joy in some of our children then I suppose right now we have two choices. We could moan about a lost generation of children, endlessly focusing on the increasingly catastrophic lack of joy in children’s lives. We could look at the horrific statistics on mental health interventions for increasingly younger children whilst wistfully looking back to a rose-coloured idea of childhood from the 1970’s and 80s. Or we could quite simply give it back. Give children back the joy they are missing. 

If every child in the country experienced more joy in their lives the impact would be instant and far-reaching. And it is up to us. Anyone that works with children can inject some joy.


So, how do we bring joy back?

What can we do as adults to give children back their joy? As a play specialist, I inject joy through play, and I see first-hand just how profound it can be. It doesn’t have to be through play though. Just our attitudes to life and our nurturing interactions can make all the difference. Children have mirror neurons in their brains that copy and model behaviour from the adults around them. Most adults have seen, for instance, hundreds of red buses and let’s be honest to most of us a bus is not really all that exciting. Think of a three-year-old though, seeing up close the thundering monstrosity that is a big, red, double-decker bus. Think of the awe, wonder and joy of seeing that for the first time. Then think of the frowns on the adults faces as they hurry the child away because they are late, it’s raining or both. We take joy away from children by making the world more ordinary and by making the magical mundane. My daughter once shouted, “Look Daddy that’s the best mushroom ever.” All I could think of to say was, “Don’t touch it it’s dirty.” I then looked at the mushroom and it was indeed a truly fabulous mushroom. Sometimes we need children to remind us of how amazing the world really can be.

Young girl sat on grass crosslegged and smiling

So we need to be joyful ourselves (even when we don’t feel joyful). We need to give our children opportunities for awe and wonder and then share those moments with them. Make even ordinary moments full of joy. My son used to sculpt his mashed potato into mountains and then make trees out of broccoli. Yes, I know this was probably a way to delay the eating of the dreaded broccoli. I will never forget the look on his face when I served up an entire diorama on his plate with a mashed potato volcano and plastic dinosaurs gathered under the broccoli trees.

Joyful stories

When reading a story to children it should not just be a throw away thing. It should be a prime time production with suspense, drama and surprise. We should be giving the goblins “real” goblin voices and making the witch convincingly spooky. We should be genuinely astounded that the caterpillar turns into a beautiful butterfly (sorry spoilers!) and we should live and breathe every character from every story we tell.  The best thing is that if we show joy in a story the children will too. Not only will their levels of engagement soar but their investment in the whole process of stories will increase. If they experience joy in stories they will want not only to hear more stories but maybe even create them for themselves and then maybe, just maybe, want to write them down. As a published author I know for a fact that my love of writing comes directly from the joy of stories and reading as a child.

So it seems that maybe joy is not just about emotional well-being and off-setting anxiety. Joy is a fundamental motivator for all forms of learning and development. Think about communication and language for instance? Why does a child actually want to learn to speak in the first place? Because of the joyful sounds, silly noises, songs and rhymes they experience as they grow. If speaking is a joyful thing then children will want to do it more. If, however the only words a child hears are negative then a basic motivating factor for language acquisition is now absent and the child is highly likely to struggle with language.

A simple joy of movement

What about physical development? Joy is THE key motivator for movement. Quite simply if children enjoy movement they will do it more. Once movement begins to be too much about winning and achieving then many children disengage in the whole process because the joy has been lost. If however, children see adults moving with joy, silliness and fun rather than a desperate need to win, then they will join in. The good news is that you don’t have to be a trained athlete to inspire movement. Human beings come in all shapes and sizes and our children need to see all of us dancing like we just don’t care and jumping with joy, not just the athletic people.

Are we fun anymore?

Now think about your environment. Does it stimulate joy? All environments for children have two components. The physical resources and the human or emotional environment. If we get both of those environments right by combining stimulating hands on resources with wonderful, playful and nurturing adults then we can create moments of true magic in children’s lives.

I was contacted by a nursery setting recently to deliver training on “Joy” (Yes I do deliver training on Joy!). The manager said before the session, “I don’t feel like we are fun anymore.” I guess this is the question we need to be asking ourselves. Are we fun? Do we bring joy into our children’s lives? What can we do to bring even more magic and joy into children’s lives.

We are all magicians

When I first started Inspired Children we had the strapline, “Putting the magic back into children’s lives.” I quickly had to drop this as people kept mistaking us for magicians and tried to book us for children’s parties. However, one of the activities we do with our children is to make magic potions from food colouring and assorted shiny bits. We then use a light box to make the potions glow. The look of joy on children’s faces as they “literally” light up with joy is unbelievably precious and truly magical. So maybe we are magicians after all?

A final task…

Ok, so I have a task for you. You all have the Characteristics of Effective Learning document somewhere in your setting or school. The CoEL are spot on and backed up by enough neuroscience to make them an invaluable road map for learning. However, maybe there is something missing. I want you to find that document and graffiti the word “Joy” in thick marker pen at the bottom of the page. I don’t want anyone to get into trouble so maybe a disguise is in order, maybe a fake beard or eyepatch. However you do it, just make sure the word joy is recognised as the fourth characteristic of effective learning. Hey but why stop there? Graffiti the word joy on your parent notice board, the staff notice board, the back of the toilet doors and even have a tattoo done to remind everyone just how important the simple concept of joy can be for our children. Then all we need to do is go out and bring joy to our children and just maybe experience a little more joy for ourselves.

Ben Kingston Hughes headshot

Article written by Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben Kingston-Hughes is an international keynote speaker, author and multi award-winning trainer. He is also the Managing Director of Inspired Children and has worked with vulnerable children across the UK for over 30 years. He has appeared on television several times working on a variety of children’s projects and his distinctive blend of humour, neuroscience and real-life practical experiences have made his training invaluable for anyone working with children. His new book, “A Very Unusual Journey into Play.” is now available.

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