`We wanted to watch them as you would in a wildlife show'

28th August 2015 at 01:00
Documentary puts infants in a classroom and lets cameras roll

"Are you watching camera five?" Teresa Watkins says. "Bring up camera five."

The camera homes in on a group of five-year-olds standing in the sunshine.

"In my nana's house, there's a dummy tree," Devan says.

"Dummies are for babies," Ruth retorts.

Devan thinks about this. "My nana puts it in her mouth," he says, "and then she's like a baby nana."

Ms Watkins is standing in a cabin in south-east London. In front of her are more than 20 screens, each showing a different camera angle. This is the raw, live footage for The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds, a documentary series to be screened on Channel 4 in October.

The programme puts 10 children in a classroom with an early years teacher and a teaching assistant. While the adults offer some guiding activities, the children are largely left to their own devices, to be observed by the film crew in the cabin.

In the style of Attenborough

"We wanted to mic them up and observe them as you would in a wildlife programme," says Ms Watkins, the series' executive producer. "And it is literally like watching a David Attenborough film."

The crew's focus shifts to Arthur, who has been asked to talk about his family background. Arthur holds up a Canadian flag. "This is the maple-syrup country," he says. "Which is Canada, where my granny lives."

The on-screen teaching is provided by Kate Gadsby, who was offered the job through a supply agency. This post requires her to be considerably more hands-off than she might otherwise be in a conventional classroom.

"The focus is very much on how they're developing their personal, social and emotional skills," she says. "In the classroom, most teachers are likely to step in a little bit earlier when you see certain conflicts arising.

"Here, we're really encouraging them to sort out their own conflicts - to try to communicate with each other, rather than always running to teacher."

This is echoed by Oliver Le Sueur, Ms Gadsby's teaching assistant. When he is in the room, he says, the children will often ask him to solve their problems.

"I feel quite strongly about that: the less you do, the better," he says. "They're having to form those connections themselves. I think we'd get smarter, more savvy people if they spent the first six, seven years of their lives doing this, and less time doing a formal curriculum."

The programme's makers have also asked educational neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones and clinical child psychologist Elizabeth Kilbey to observe and comment on the children's behaviour. "Most of what we think about, when we think about learning, are adult-child interactions," Dr Howard-Jones says. "But it's very clear that the children's moral ideas, their ideas about friendship and the world - they're learning those from each other."

The camera's focus shifts again, this time to the children in the classroom.

"Good morning, wee-wee," one child says to another.

"Good morning, poop-poop," another responds.

While many of the social challenges faced by the children will not be entirely unfamiliar to the programme's adult viewers, the children have a particularly idiosyncratic way of attempting to resolve their problems. A child wanting to assert control over a friend, for example, might tell them to pretend to be a dog chained up in a kennel.

"We learned to be very wary of any sentence that begins `let's pretend'," says Dr Kilbey. "Play is learning, play is controlling, play is communicating. Play is their currency."

In fact, says Ms Watkins, children's social lives are much more complex than adults necessarily realise. "In a day, children go through so much," the producer says. "They make friends, they break friends, they make up again. It's a roller coaster.

"Then we meet them at the end of the day and say, `How was school?' and they say, `Fine'."

As the children continue to issue scatological greetings - "Good morning, wee-wee head" - Ms Watkins adds that she would like to see play forming a greater part of the primary school curriculum.

"In the end, we go out into the world as social beings," she says. "And that's what 18 years of education should be teaching us. We're not just a bit of paper with exam results. We're the sum of all those interactions."

Children and their secret lives

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds - scheduled to be screened on Channel 4 in the autumn - is the second instalment of a three-part documentary strand following four-, five- and six-year-olds.

In February, Channel 4 broadcast a one-off pilot of The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, which became an instant success, both at the school gates and in the playground. "It's like cult viewing among children," says executive producer Teresa Watkins.

Part of the aim of the series is to show how the three age groups of children develop differently.

The four-year-olds relate mostly to the adult in the room, Ms Watkins says, whereas the five-year-olds try to cohere as a group. The six-year-olds, meanwhile, are beginning to bow to peer pressure.

"These children develop in leaps and bounds over a year," she says.

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