Climbing on the statue

David Newnham

On the eve of a showcase of Swedish children's arts, David Newnham asks if Sweden is a better place to grow up

Asked what he understood by the term "children's culture", a five-year-old Swedish boy called Alva had this to say. "(It's) like a statue. Children's culture is when you are allowed to climb on the statue."

Alva's definition, duly recorded in a government report, was subsequently quoted at ministerial level as Sweden began looking ahead to 2007, designated the Year of Young Culture. And over the next few weeks, his words will no doubt gain some currency in this country too.

For next week sees the launch in London of Small Feet Go Far, the first ever Swedish cultural season for children in the UK. It is billed as a chance for children, families, educators and artists to see five plays, view seven films (two free screenings as part of National Schools Film Week), witness nine rehearsed readings, and meet six authors (as well as a couple of Swedish government ministers). But even though many of the works on show have never before been seen in this country, there is more to it than entertainment.

Through a series of seminars involving both Swedish and British cultural leaders, an attempt will be made to compare attitudes to children's culture in this country with those in what is widely regarded as the most child-friendly society in Europe.

At a time when many in Britain believe that childhood is in danger of being poisoned by a cocktail of junk food, electronic entertainment and high-pressure education, the exercise is nothing if not timely. But can a comparison of cultural artefacts, even when conducted by the likes of Philip Pullman and the acclaimed children's dramatist Professor Suzanne Osten, add much to the debate?

Tony Graham, as artistic director at London's Unicorn Theatre and one of Britain's leading exponents of drama for children, believes that it can.

"There is a fundamentally different perception in Sweden about who and what children are," he says. "The very borders between child and adult culture seem hazier than they are in Britain. When it comes to children's culture and their ways of connecting it to education, the Swedes have a lot to offer. For instance, an adult theatre company can't get money in Sweden without some commitment to children's work."

In Swedish theatres, says Graham, he frequently sees children and adults sitting together to watch plays that might be considered unsuitable for younger audiences in Britain. "We tend to be much more hidebound by age-specific issues," he says, "a more holistic approach defines the Swedish experiment."

Suzanne Osten, whose play for seven-year-olds and above, The Girl, the Mother and the Rubbish will be a highlight of the season, exemplifies this holistic approach. The play is about a child growing up with a schizophrenic parent, which is typical of the sort of subject matter that for 30 years she has rigorously approached from a child's point of view in works that are aimed at children and adults equally. The festival programme also includes a rehearsed reading of The Children of Medea, a play about the effects of divorce co-written by Osten and Per Lysander.

Yet Osten is highly critical of much of the popular culture - cheap TV and "reality" shows - to which Swedish children are exposed. "The biggest audiences for this sort of thing are children," she says. "And what are they looking for? They are looking for how to become adults. I am totally convinced that children are changing because they have access to a changed media climate." She regards the handwringing about the corruption of childhood that she sees in the press of her own country as "a lot of hypocrisy".

She recently devised a cabaret for six-month-old babies, and says there is evidence that the performance held their attention. "The popular press and popular debate are not interested in the real world of children and what it really means," she says. "If it means that a baby of six months can grasp a cabaret about being born, coming to life and meeting its parents, that would change everything. And that would be very inconvenient."

Small Feet Go Far runs from October 11-29 at various venues around London.

Some events are free but must be booked in advance. For details, visit National Schools Film Week:

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David Newnham

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