Giving your children their ‘Five a Day’

In my now-traditional Sunday morning Twitter rant, today’s target was Nick Clegg, and specifically some of the nonsense he was reported as saying in the Independent here:

I won’t rehearse my cynical tweets in this blog. 

What followed was one of those very enjoyable Twitter conversations in which many of my Tweetmates got involved, sharing views about teaching, learning and caring in the early years of a child’s life and about how good support at this crucial time can make for better life chances. 

Though there was a whole load of bunkum in the Indy article, Clegg is right when he says: 

 “If you are a bright but poor kid, despite all the good intentions of the last decade or so, you are still more likely to be taken over in the classroom by a less bright but more affluent child by the age of six or seven.”

This point is illustrated clearly in screengrab below from p23 of Sir Michael Marmot’s Public Health review “Fair Society Healthy Lives”. (Source:  It shows how the high cognitive potential of children from the lowest income levels of our society tails off over time, whereas children in high income families who start life with low cognitive abilities find this deficit is remedied in the same period.


This is one of the most profound injustices of our time and Marmot himself insists that giving every child the best start in life is the first priority of his public health strategy. 

Clegg’s answer to this problem (which would not be mine) is what takes him to the proposition that 65,000 new ‘state nannies’ is the answer. He is focused on ‘school readiness’, described like this: 

“What do you do to make children school ready? So even before they hang up their coats they are ready to learn; they are ready to mix with other children; they are enthusiastic, able to be disciplined in class. That’s a really big undertaking.

I don’t know any young children who aren’t learning all the time (never mind ‘ready to learn’), but ‘school ready’ is something else. If we do decide to care about ‘school readiness’ there are some basics we need in place first. It’s not an ever-earlier formal education that makes children ‘school ready’. 

The Coalition does spout a lot of punitive, judgemental rubbish about early intervention (including regularly forgetting that early intervention applies throughout life and not just in the early years), but, although their proposed 5-a-day recommendations on this subject aren’t a full answer, they are good. So – to give credit where it’s due – here they are: 

  • Read to your child for 15 minutes.
  • Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes.
  • Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off.
  • Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently.
  • Give your child a nutritious diet.

If you want to know more about the detail behind these, you’ll find it here in the Centre Forum’s report Parenting Matters:

This report also devotes some space (e.g. p11) to cognitive outcomes by age and socio-economic status, but to my mind doesn’t illustrate the frank injustice of the current situation nearly as well as Marmot’s review does.

Based on both my own parenting experience and my professional involvement in Early Years, I would add to the above list: Make sure they can get a good night’s sleep

I tweeted this list of 5/6 ‘must dos’ for child development using the hashtag #5aday4childdev and got a great response.

@CriminologyUK said that the 5-a-day thing made her very sad; the fact that it was necessary to say something so basic was a real shame. 

Others had additions they wanted to make to the ‘must do’ list:

@DearDaveandNick  May I add: Ask open ended questions of your children.Encourage their natural curiosity.Read in front of them

@Lamagretch and answer their questions!

@loftspace if you can

, if you can’t find out together.

@Mairemd 7) allow them to get dirty. (clothes should be practical & washable therefore)

@SuperlativeC proper shoes, warm coat.

@SZeitblom We made sure we had proper family mealtimes – time to eat and talk together. I know it’s hard for parents but so important

@Tigersue66 totally agree with all of those. And would add go out as a family and enjoy the simple things on the fresh air.

@rebelraising How about “Go outside with your child no matter what the weather”?

And @Grumpyhatlady asked the question which so often comes up when discussing these ideas: isn’t all that common sense?

And of course, it is all common sense.

In a way that question is a re-formulation of @CriminologyUK‘s sadness. How can these things need saying? They are so obvious, so simple. Is it really the case that people don’t know or understand to do these things with their children? 

But they aren’t ‘common sense’ suggestions for everyone. Few of us are taught parenting at school. To know and understand that these are necessary activities of parenting, someone needed to parent us in these very basic ways when were were children. If that didn’t happen for some of us when we were little, why and how would they seem to be common sense once we become parents ourselves?   

It is also time for a little personal honesty here. In answering @Grumpyhatlady‘s question, I remarked that although these are ‘common sense’ suggestions, not everyone ‘gets’ it. And among those who do ‘get’ it, not everyone finds they can achieve it. At least not all the time. In that number, if I’m being honest, I must include myself. 

15 minutes reading, 10 minutes playing and 20 minutes conversation per child in The Shoe quickly adds up to three hours a day, not including the time spent making sure they have a nutritious diet and ensuring that they can ‘play out’ safely by supervising them or going with them as needed (‘playing out’, I do think is another one that deserves to be added to the list). It’s not a prohibitive length of time (the suggestions have been made to show that small, manageable amounts of time spent can make a big difference); it’s not an impossible length of time. But also, I’m not sure that I can say, hand on heart, I manage all five for all my children every single day.

If that’s true for me – when I know full well how important they are, when I’m motivated, educated, and ‘aspirational’; when my own parents parented me well; when I don’t have to worry about whether I can put food on the table, or keep a roof over our heads; when I’m not drunk or stoned; when I’m not being knocked about by my partner; when I don’t have an unmanaged or unmanageable mental health problem; when the loan collector isn’t knocking on my door every day – then it’s easy to see that it will take more than just a checklist and good intentions to make this possible for all our children. 

And – to get back briefly to Mr Clegg – it will take more than just creating an army of 65,000 fairly low paid, undervalued workers (however skilled and caring they are) to outsource our parenting to. The list doesn’t say “get someone else to read to your child for 15 minutes per day” or “have someone else speak with them for 20 minutes”. Woven into this set of expectations – and rightly so – is the expectation that parents will be parents; that we will build relationships with our children; share warm and loving experiences with them; cherish our moments together.

Poverty is one of the problems that undermines parents’ capacity to be good enough parents. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is a good place to start understanding why this is so. When @SuperlativeC remarked that children need “proper shoes, warm coat”, I replied that although I agreed, affordablity of these things is a problem for many families. And she responded: Hierarchy of need though- we see kids in secondary school too cold/ wet to learn too.

 Maslow’s hierarchy proposes that humans require their needs to be met at each of the lower levels before they can engage in meeting their needs at higher levels. A child who is hungry won’t be able to concentrate on a story, a child who is thirsty won’t enjoy a game. A child who is sleep deprived because their home is in a noisy neighbourhood, or because paper-thin walls mean that next door’s telly keeps them awake half the night will struggle to manage a warm, cozy chat. Children who have had to move often – perhaps because their family finds it hard to maintain their rent, will not feel safe or secure. In many cases they won’t find it easy to be ‘ready to mix with other children’. If we want our children to be ‘school ready’ they need their basic needs to be met. We must commit resources to making this so. 

The ‘Five-a-day’ recommendations (with perhaps the sensible additions of adequate sleep and time outdoors) can do much to help all our children get the best start in life, as the Marmot Review proposed. The Government needs to do more than commit to ‘state nannies’. It should commit to bringing child poverty to an end too.     


With thanks for this morning’s conversation to: 

@MrsBofVigo, @justjjoke, @chunkymark, @13loki, @SuperlativeC,@ianrobsons, @DominicNewbould, @Beckiebroccoli, @realacqua, @blamehound, @Heidimo, @victo1999, @huxley06, (the very magnificent and knowledgeable) @kaygeeuk, @jamg3916, @Rykalski, (the very wonderful) @helenmew, @Jodatu, (the warm and sympathetic) @langtry_girl, @Markliamb, @crowmogh, @DrLindy83, @CriminologyUK, @JackFrostMrs, @recitweets101, @rebelraising, @DearDaveandNick, @h00tings, @nicola_us, @sjksanders, @junrussell, @Mairemd, @Grumpyhatlady, @SZeitblom, @StillStandingSW, @Tigersue66, @katebentham, (excellent company on a protest x) @loftspace. 



7 thoughts on “Giving your children their ‘Five a Day’

  1. This is a really terrific article; please send it personally to Clegg and Gove. I used to work for Mother & Baby & also Parents magazines in the 70s & 80s then went back to Uni to study psychology. All this was well known then; I once wrote am article for M & B on ‘preparing your child for school’; all the experts I consulted including a lovely infants teacher made these points. Also the huge importance of Play. Alas that’s a bit unfashionable now . But as you must know in your shoe, children learn so much from each other if allowed. Thanks for all your wise words and tweets

  2. Maslow’s hierarchy is a practical and effective, simple framework to use for any intervention by government or any agency seeking to improve people’s lot in life. Thanks for sharing this very thoughtful and articulate post. Thanks too for caring and your ‘rants’. I missed the Sunday session, but will go back and check it out! The social determinants of health, educational status and overall success in life are a graphic and adjustable indicator of a society’s social justice attitude and overall kindness. I agree with Maire, send your article to the policy makers and advisors. Send it to the Observer too. You need wider coverage of your views.

  3. this subject it really interesting. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, to be honest. I was a bright but poor kid, I did get overtaken by dimmer but more affluent kids – not by 6 though, I’d say I kept up ’til GCSE level, which is when other bright kids got the extra books and lessons paid for by their parents and I kind of got the opposite.I agree that it’s "common sense" but I don’t think it’s a class thing – people with less money have common sense too and people with money can bring their children up "badly". I think some success has to do with expectations. While I fought for my right to study (and worked to pay for it), people from more educated backgrounds expected to go to university and were supported financially and in other ways all through it.I don’t know how one really fixes it – maybe by good schools and healthcare for everyone…with grants for higher and further education….with mentors available for kids who want to reach further than their background prepared them for….with parents seeing that their children are valued by society and that they will have a place to go to after finishing school, whether that be vocational training or university. Why help your child achieve when you know it’s going to face long-term unemployment…or you won’t be able to afford to send them to university…or when college courses won’t end in a job anyway? Common sense in a world with no hope tells you to NOT give your child ideas that won’t come to fruition. Maybe only the affluent can afford to give their children that kind of hope?

  4. Thank you for your comments. Out of Touch – you’re certainly right to point out that not all children will experience exactly the trajectory outlined in the graph. It effectively points to the extremes – both of cognitive ability and of income – and the spread of experience is much broader.I work in a relatively affluent area and there are parents at all income levels that overlook these important basics (including sometimes me, which I think it’s important to acknowledge), but it can be particularly difficult for parents in the lowest income families to do these, for various reasons. (For example, parents who struggle with literacy themselves, will often also struggle to make ends meet, and to be able to read with their child).The answer /is/ good schools, good healthcare, good family support, good housing (among other things) and a non-judgmental approach to providing these things, or enabling families to provide them for themselves. I feel desperate at the idea that we might not bother to do so in a "world without hope". Creating that hope is part of what we’re here for. Anyway. Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you here again. x

  5. Excellent article – glad to have found you via your tweets with @LeahFHardy today. I would immediately want to add – teach your child to sit and eat/ listen – the amount of classroom time wasted because parents don’t believe they have the ability to get a toddler to not wander round with food is amazing. As part of running a parent/carer toddler group, this was something we worked quite hard to help parents understand. Now I’m seeing the other side of this in the class room.I also had a rant the other week about girls who can’t chase across a playground because their shoes fall off as they go – Good shoes are expensive but if the likes of Clarks would take the lead in decent enclosed school shoes for girls it would be a start. Time wasted drying out socks on radiators is another waste of time and education money.I’ll champion sleep above some of the things on the 5 a day list too. Like you I’ve fallen way down on the 15,10,20 business – I refuse to listen to children read just so they can hit star targets at school, preferring to encourage a love of reading for the sake of it. Let off steam time when they come home rather than infant homework and try to provide a level of boredom occasionally that led us to become inventive in our play.Oh and encourage more parent facing pushchairs – interacting with your child at that age as you walk along is like gold.

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