The Blog

A Stitch In Time? There's a Simple Pattern for Making Happier Children

Each year, it seems, we get a new, academic study confirming that it is the good, old-fashioned pleasures of friends, family and, in particular, fulfilling activity that makes youngsters feel really contented.

What makes generation XBox happy? YouTube? Their smartphones? Hanging out on facebook? Maybe not.

Whilst tv, gizmos, games and social networks undoubtedly rank pretty highly in modern children's lives, more and more research is suggesting that, deep down, our kids also hanker for less high-tech pursuits.

Each year, it seems, we get a new, academic study confirming that it is the good, old-fashioned pleasures of friends, family and, in particular, fulfilling activity that makes youngsters feel really contented.

In 2011 a UNICEF study found that children in Sweden and Spain feel more fulfilled, more sociable - and generally happier than they do in the UK. A large sample of children in all three countries told researchers they are happiest when they are spending time with friends and family and have plenty of things to do, for example, taking part in practical activities and being outdoors. The more materialistic children of the UK miss out on these real world, social interactions, and are consequently less happy than their European counterparts, UNICEF concluded.

Last month, the much-publicised Good Childhood 2012 report from the Children's Society painted a similar picture. The report, based on interviews with 30,000 eight to 16-year-olds, said that at any given time up to half a million of the UK's children are unhappy, mainly because of obvious factors like poverty and poor family environments but also because of the related stress they see their parents undergoing in making ends meet, as well as peer pressure to 'look good'.

'Children who have low levels of happiness are much less likely to enjoy being at home with their family, feel safe when with their friends, like the way they look and feel positive about their future. Children unhappy in this way are also more likely to be victimised, have eating disorders or be depressed,' the report said.

The report highlighted six key criteria required for children to be happy. Among these were 'the opportunities to take part in positive activities that help them thrive', 'the right conditions to learn and develop', a 'positive relationship with their family and friends' and 'a positive view of themselves and a respect for their identity'.

Now I am neither a child psychologist nor a social scientist. However, when I read both of these studies I had to nod, knowingly. Both confirmed something I see with my own eyes every day of the week at School of Frock, where I run sewing, dressmaking and fashion design classes for children (and adults, some of them underprivileged) in southeast London.

I started running the classes four years ago as a response to the decline in education in sewing, dressmaking and dress design not just at schools but within families. I grew up in a family where everyone could sew, and enjoyed it. Today very few children are taught even to sew on a button. They are rarely exposed to sewing and dressmaking at school or at home. I wanted to preserve a dying art, but discovered something else along the way.

At one level, the children who attend my after school sewing classes love discovering the fun, creative opportunity it provides. They relish the chance to learn a useful new skill, and in particular, love the end results of their hard work. Many of my pupils now have their own sewing machines and are making their own clothes. They love the fact they can make something real. The sense of achievement - and self esteem - it gives them is fantastic.

But these children get something else as well; they love the social side of sewing classes. We all know our children need a release when they come home from school. They have been cooped up for six or seven hours, they need to unwind. As they measure and cut out their dress patterns, do hand stitching and sit at the sewing machines, the girls in my classes giggle, chat and gossip. Many of them attend different schools across southeast London. They enjoy swapping stories, some of them - it has to be said - pretty hair raising. They seem to draw something from sharing their experiences. It's a social network as well as a sewing class.

The list of positives goes on. One of my pupils has just saved her mother a small fortune by creating a rather wonderful, floral confirmation dress. It would have cost hundreds in the shops. More importantly, a lot of my pupils are acquiring a sustainable - and even an ethical - skill for life. A lot of them talk with pride about the fact they may never need to buy cheap, imported clothes from discount High Street stores that exploit Third World children like themselves.

Now I'm not arguing that we can perform some kind of make-do-and-mend miracle and solve our children's 'happiness issues' simply by reintroducing a needle and thread to every UK home and classrooms. (Having said that, I can think of a lot of worse ideas.) What I am saying, however, is that I'm convinced that simple, relatively inexpensive classes like mine, and the myriad other small cooking, singing, dancing, acting and sports classes that run each day up and down the country, perform a really important role in helping children to re-connect with something that is in danger of being lost in the attention deficient, pressure cooker of a society that they inhabit.

They certainly tick some of those six boxes the Children's Society highlighted last month and offer a simple pattern for redressing - excuse the pun - the imbalance UNICEF pinpointed back in 2011.

So if we want to improve the well-being of our children, we should regularly steer them away from their technology and get them out there, doing, making, creating and talking about things. It may just make them slightly more contented - and yes, happier - souls.