Penny Hay is co-founder of Forest of Imagination, senior lecturer in arts education at Bath Spa University, director at 5x5x5=creativity and advocate for children

There is an urgent need to re-think our concept of childhood and place imagination and creativity at the heart of a more compassionate society. The current view of childhood doesn’t place enough emphasis on children’s happiness and wellbeing. The first years impact thinking and behaviour for the rest of our lives. The best investment in society is: children.

In the UK, currently 28% of children live in poverty, just 21% of children play outside, one in ten has a mental health condition, one in three is obese, nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression, and self-harm among young people is soaring. The impact of the digital world on children includes a reduction in the time and quality of personal relationships and one-to-one communications, as well as over exposure to commercial exploitation.

There is growing expert concern that the political preoccupation with children’s literacy and numeracy skills devalues children’s use of their non-verbal languages, diminishing their opportunities to communicate in other ways. High stakes testing has dominated our education system to the detriment of children’s individual progress and wellbeing.

Children learn more effectively when they are happy, when learning is focused on individual interests and dispositions, when they feel connected to the people around them. Children are born to be curious, to ask questions, take risks and learn how to learn alongside others who care.

The charitable, arts-based action research organisation 5x5x5=creativity focuses on exploring children and young people. The research is based on the view that all children and young people are creative and competent: with the adults ‘researching children researching the world’ and learning alongside them. We believe creativity is a human right. 5x5x5=creativity places emphasis on giving children the freedom to find and follow their fascinations and discovering children’s intrinsic motivations to learn. Children thrive in a calm, caring environment and quickly show that they are more self-motivated, engaged and confident.

Engagement with the arts, creativity and culture plays a crucial role in thedevelopment of emotional intelligence and imagination. Involvement in expressive arts gives children time and space to revisit areas of interest, to gain multiple perspectives and a higher level of understanding.

The arts are vital to healthy learning and development; they allow children to interact with the world, to relate their understanding to others, in ways that have personal meaning and individual purpose. The arts can shape and define who we are and how we understand ourselves and others. They provide space for personal expression, help problem-posing and thinking outside the box, they promote diversity, respect and intercultural understanding.

“There is an urgent need to re-think our concept of childhood and place imagination and creativity at the heart of a more compassionate society”

The arts allow us to be curious, playful, intuitive and sensitive. Through being able to express ourselves in art, dance, movement, drama, music, writing, numbers and many more, children’s imaginations are stimulated and they learn to be even more creative.

Play and playing in nature is another basic human right. A connection to and understanding of the natural world is central to a child’s educational development. This is integral to developing children’s sense of responsibility and stewardship for nature.

Children often continue their play outside indefinitely, learning through first-hand experience and with absorbed concentration. Away from the classroom children can reveal their true selves through play. Playing outdoors liberates children and offers permission for infinite creative possibilities.

Forest of Imagination (Thursday 29 June to Sunday 2 July) is a unique pop-up contemporary arts and architecture event combining multi-disciplinary installations with imaginative events: a place to celebrate the wonder of childhood. The Forest of Imagination is an opportunity – not just for four days in the year – to help professionals, parents and children think differently about the way we perceive childhood and to imagine new possibilities.

Now in its fourth year, the Forest creates time and space for children and adults to explore nature through their imagination. The Forest creates a context for exploration – familiar spaces are reimagined for exploring the urban and natural world as well as the internal world of the imagination. Children readily play with fantasy and possibility through their imagination and creativity. Creativity and play are its heart.

A forest is one of the best classrooms. Children, playing outdoors, learn through first-hand experiences and in cooperation with others. They play with ideas, thoughts and materials in a safe environment. The Forest of Imagination invites children and adults alike to explore their deep human connection to nature through their own imagination. Making a real and lasting difference to children and young people is a central theme of the Forest. We believe that creativity can enhance wellbeing and transform lives, communities, cities and economies. And the Forest is a natural realm for exploring the bigger themes in the world around social purpose – issues of conservation and the environment, creativity and responsibility. We want to engage with contemporary creativity, imagine new possibilities for the way we live and create spaces for everyone to enjoy. The Forest of Imagination brings a message of hope for children, for their rights and their future.

Care, compassion and empathy developed through respectful relationships are essential for creative learning, happiness and well-being. Investing in creative learning and children’s wellbeing means we will have happier adults and a happier society. The attitudes, values and skills we learn in childhood stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Learn more: forestofimagination.com and at: 5x5x5creativity.org.uk.

To coincide with the Forest of Imagination, a Re-Imagining Childhood Seminar will be taking place from 29 June – 2 July. Visit: forestofimagination.org.uk/re-imagining-childhood to find out more.