Why We Don’t Need To Worry About The Kids

The kids are alright. Better than alright. Here is why: the kids are Fabled, full of magic, full of wonder.

The future is thick with challenges, known and unknown. But children come with all the inbuilt Human Learning equipment they need. It’s called the imagination — and our most important Grown-Up job is to keep it firing.

It’s been estimated that 65% of the jobs today’s new school shoes will fill haven’t been invented yet. The latest World Economic Forum predictions are that automation and AI will create 60m more jobs than it destroys by 2022.

Rightly or wrongly, the future feels more foreign than it has. But the feeling matters, and it has an emotional response to match. We are in the midst of a great global clenching, a fearful tightening into collective fight-or-flight.

And the reaction to that feeling has been just as primal. To try to outrun it, to speed up, to do more to our kids — more school, more activities, more homework, more self-improvement. Just more.

But when it comes to what matters, we need to do less. In fact we need a big undoing if we want to raise humans open to the opportunities ahead, and fortified against the sea-changes we can’t foresee.

The World Economic Forum report concluded the skills we’ll need most in a future are the most ‘human’ ones — emotional and social intelligence, creativity. The skills machines find it harder to ape. The skills to build the skills we don’t yet know we need.

Which makes sense. In a world where the full archive of human experience is within click-reach, and being added to daily, what matters is being able to access, assess, and creatively build on it. Not to have memorized it.

Yet most education systems still take a ‘provide-the-fish’ rather than a ‘teach-to-fish’ approach. We’re on track to meet the fourth industrial revolution with a school ethos designed for the first one.

Meanwhile, outside of school children’s ‘downtime’ has become an exhausting barrage of uppers. Busyness punctuated by collapses into candy-crushed oblivion when it all gets too much. (Fair enough, but it’s the vodka shot kid-equivalent of coping mechanisms, we can do better).

Levels of anxiety that are insidious for Grown Ups quickly turn noxious for our youngest. So now we have three year olds self-harming. There is a patina of nervous energy sticking to modern childhood. The thicker the coating, the more repellant it becomes to the cultivation of those most human traits — knowledge of self, empathy for others.

And these are characteristics our children will need even more as the pace of change increases. It’s about more than future jobs, our goal must be raising humans who can be their best — their most fulfilled, happy and secure — and help others be the same.

So it seems ironic, and mostly sad, that during peak amygdala-fuelled panic to future-proof our kids, we’re missing one of the easiest and most effective tricks in the book. A magic ingredient which does more than almost anything for children’s creative, communicative, collaborative and critical-thinking skills (the ‘four C’s’ identified as the key attributes needed for the 21st Century).

What is this fantastical elixir? Well it goes by many names and forms. And while that sometimes confuses adults (whose desiccated brains enjoy rigid categories), the children know it when they do it. The kids aren’t confused at all. It is imagination, make believe, storytelling, pretend play, day-dreaming.

All mammals play, and that play is how they prepare for adulthood. Human play is extended and deepened by language, and stories are its currency. As we get older, we engage more formally with the story part — we structure it, codify or write it — but the source, intent, and impetus is the same. It’s all Make Believe.

And it’s a thing that comes so naturally to that kids don’t need grown-ups to do any more to support it. In fact they need less from us — less doing, less directing, less correcting, less ignoring.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the thing kids do when left truly to their own devices is the thing that is best for them. Kids who make up stories do better academically, socially and emotionally.

Most obviously, storytelling develops communication skills — improved writing, speech, reading, with better ability to structure and convey thoughts. Twice as many children who write creatively outside school write above the expected level for their age compared with those who don’t. Yet while all literacy skills support each other, we hear about the need for kids to read at home, but less about writing and speaking, and still less about the interrelation between all three.

The academic value goes further. Engaging in make believe has been found to be one of the strongest predictors of all-around academic success. It’s even a predictor of genius — a 2012 study of Nobel Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant winners discovered that they did more imaginative play as children than peers in their fields.

The benefits for children’s wellbeing go deeper still. Telling your story — self-expression — is a vital part of mental and emotional health. Children who are more engaged with literacy have three times the levels of mental wellbeing than those who are not. A recent University of Washington study found that kids who write at home with parents develop better self-control and resilience.

Kids use fiction as a safe space for exploring and processing emotions, for acting out future scenarios and building resilience to them. They develop empathy as they imagine others’ interior lives. And the act of creation itself, and of honing their creative craft, brings a deep calm and satisfaction. Stories act as an escape in a world that spends more time talking at kids than listening to them.

Really though, we should have reason enough to encourage kids to tell their stories when we see the joy it brings them and us, and the wild genius of the tales they conjure. Creativity in childhood has inherent artistic value. All the more so because it is a unique perspective on the world which gets lost once we grow.

Being a kid is like having a short-term superpower. We need to savour it. That’s why I’ve created Fabled — a platform which uses technology to help kids tell their stories. Children need their voices to be listened to, inspired, and celebrated — that is what Fabled does.

The world needs more wonder in it, let’s help release it in our children. Because if they cannot first imagine, they cannot later change.

The future is Make Believe. Make Believe it.