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by Sue Palmer

In Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, he identifies the social phenomena listed on that scroll as contributing to the rapid growth of mental health problems among children and young people in the UK and USA.  He describes the change, over recent decades, from a play-based to a phone-based childhood and the effects this is having on developing brains.

It is an excellent book, highly readable and filled with evidence-based information and wise advice on how parents, schools, communities and governments can address the problem. I desperately hope it’s widely read and that action is swiftly taken to put 21st century childhood back on track.

Changing childhood

Forgive me, however, if I sound a little weary.  The bullet-points in the scroll at the top of the page aren’t taken from Haidt’s book. They’re from a presentation I made almost 20 years ago to publicise my own book on the subject, Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it.  My life since its publication has been spent campaigning against the four social phenomena listed on the scroll.

It didn’t take long to discover that ‘screen-based lifestyles’ and ‘the commercialisation of childhood’ are global phenomena driven by immensely wealthy organisations which have no desire whatsoever to change. So rather than bang my head against those particular brick walls, I decided the best way to stem the terrifying increases in mental health problems (and other side-effects of a play-deprived, screen-based childhood) is to convince our government to adjust aspects of their universal state services. That’s turned out to be something of a head-banging exercise too because governments don’t seem to like change either.  However (deep breath) … onwards and upwards!

Nature-Based Learning

Somehow, we have to ensure that, at least in the first seven or eight years of children’s lives, we KEEP IT REAL!  That’s why I’ve spent the last nine years working for Upstart Scotland, in the hope of providing all Scottish children with three to four years of relationship-centred, play-based care and education, which takes place as often as possible outdoors.

So I heartily welcome Jonathan Haidt’s  book and recommend it as an up-to-date analysis of the problem … BUT if you’re an educationist looking for a solution, get yourself a copy of Alexia Barrable’s Nature-Based Learning.

It’s full of great ideas, case-studies and practical advice about getting children out into the natural world – and getting the natural world into schools and school grounds. It’s all backed up with research evidence. And it provides one of the best summaries of young children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development I’ve ever come across.  I wish everyone in education would read it – including the policy-makers.

P.S. As it’s always harder to find solutions than problems, here’s a link to where you can buy it.


Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation:  how the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Creating an Epidemic of mental illness (Penguin 2024)

Alexia Barrable, Nature-Based Learning (Independent Thinking Press, 2022)

Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it (Orion, 2nd ed 2015)