17/11/2011 10:38 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Listening to Children Makes Everyone Happier

It's easy for adults to vilify young people without really understanding them. Barnardos' recent research worryingly showed that the public has a negative view of children and young people, often viewing them as abusive, violent and even 'feral'. Our 20 years' of experience of working closely with and listening to children at Eureka! The National Children's Museum has produced a whole body of evidence to the contrary.

What really makes children happy?

When we listen to children - like we do in the development of everything at Eureka!, and as Unicef did in their recent research into children's well-being - we find that they are not naturally driven by the materialism that has been blamed as a catalyst for this summer's riots. In fact, children themselves say that their well-being and happiness depends on the simple things in life like family time and outdoor play.

Of course, children living in poverty are in urgent need of financial support to give them an acceptable standard of living, but quality of life is about much more than material things. For a child to grow and develop emotionally, intellectually and physically, they need to be given as many opportunities as possible to express themselves freely, discover the world around them and interact with others - to simply be children.

Why are children in the UK so low down on the well-being league table?

Currently, children in the UK fare badly in terms of well-being compared to those in countries like Sweden and Spain where play is part of the fabric of family life. From a young age, children and adults in the UK are given targets to meet and put under pressure from a society which places emphasis on work, money and material possessions. This leaves less quality time for adults to talk, laugh, get outdoors and play with children. It also means that we as adults miss out on valuable opportunities to learn from and about our children.

How can we improve children's and families' well-being?

Children are naturally curious and imaginative. Our 20 years of experience has shown that when you take away targets and boundaries and let children play freely with others from all backgrounds and circumstances, they are happier, healthier and more confident. Eureka! is an environment deliberately created for this purpose and designed in a way that encourages playful learning. Many of the families that visit us find that we give them ideas to take away for simple ways to play together in their everyday lives - in the kitchen, in the car, in the garden etc.

However, as a recent article by education and human behaviour expert Alfie Kohn in the Washington Post pointed out, the concept that play is good for children is nothing new - and it is not being listened to by those in power. The real meaning of play - which has no outcomes or boundaries and involves children and adults of different ages - is being redefined and narrowed by early years and education policy both in the US and in the UK.

We believe that government policy needs to put a lot more emphasis on well-being over financial goals and targets - and a big part of this is ensuring that children have stable family lives with adults that have the time, freedom and resources to take part in regular play-based activities with them. The newly introduced Well-Being Index is a first step but a complete culture change amongst communities, the education system and the workplace is needed. The knock-on effects of increased well-being also have an economic value, as people develop stronger bonds, greater self-sufficiency and higher aspirations.

How can we ensure that children with special needs have equal opportunities to play and develop?

There is also a lot of work to be done to ensure that families with children who have disabilities have equal access to resources, space, time and opportunities to play and develop. Too often, children with special needs are isolated from other children and their families and not given the opportunity to just be children.

We know from working with families who have children with autism through our recent 'Break to Play' project that a lot of family time can be taken up dealing with issues and overcoming barriers that affect the whole family, including siblings. Families with children with additional needs are often reluctant to go on days out because of the challenges they face. This means that they miss out on valuable opportunities to spend quality time together and access support and resources to help them grow and develop.

We are working hard to ensure that Eureka! has the right staff, tools, environment and outlook to help these families, and we want to help other museums and attractions do the same. We've got funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to run a three year project called 'Helping Hands' which aims to make Eureka! a welcoming place for children with disabilities and their families . We're undertaking research into the most important issues facing parents and carers of children with disabilities when visiting places like Eureka! If you are the parent or carer of a child with disabilities, you can fill in our Helping Hands Survey to contribute to this research.

As part of Children in Need we are urging all families and communities to dedicate more time to listening and responding to what children naturally want and spend time playing together. This doesn't mean adults watching children play - we want everyone to experience the joy and personal fulfilment that comes from time spent playing and learning together.