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  • Writer's pictureTom Hopkins-Burke

Five Things We Learned About... why children need joy

The host card for the Twilight Show with Nathan Gynn.  It says "Why Children need joy: concrete strategies for increasing the levels of joy in our children" with Ben Kingston-Hughes, with a picture of the book by Sage Education.

In partnership with SAGE Education: the latest thinking, fresh ideas and must-have resources to support you at every stage of your education career.


Joy is one of the most undervalued aspects of childhood. Far from being an abstract concept, joy is one of the key motivators for every aspect of learning and development throughout childhood. In short? It's something we ignore at our peril.

Ben Kingston-Hughes' transformational book gives concrete strategies for increasing the levels of joy in our children, as well as highlighting the catastrophic damage that a decline in joy can cause in our children - especially in a post pandemic world. Here's five things we learned about why children need joy.

A photo of Ben Kingston-Hughes, author of "Why Children Need Joy"

1. What is joy?

"The first aspect of joy is an element of happiness, but it's not always accompanied by belly laughs and smiles" Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben argues that joyful experiences can be broken down into three components:

  • Happiness

  • Engagement

  • Emotional safety

While happiness is vital to joyful experiences, it may not always be visible among young children. Sometimes, they may be focused so intently on a joyful experience that they may not be visibly happy. Ben describes the combination of happiness and engagement as the "aspirational rocket" in his book, with the third component of joyful experiences - emotional safety - as the "launchpad".


2. Who is joy for?

"There is almost a tendency to make children grow out of joy as they get older... but they never lose that sense of play" Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben argues that joy really is for everyone - both adults and children. Since the urge to play is universal, and certainly not limited to children in EYFS or in primary schools, Ben urges us to remind ourselves that children never lose their sense of joy. Some older children may see play as juvenile or frivolous, but Ben suggests that this is a problem with society, where there can be a stigma attached to play. He wants us to recapture joy for children of all ages.


3. What is the science of joy?

"When you hear a good rhyme in a poem or a children's story, you get a little hit of dopamine. That's why children love stories that rhyme" Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben dedicates a section of his book to the neuroscience and biochemistry of joy. Happiness hormones - such as dopamine - are key features of joyful experiences. Dopamine is like the body's rewards system but it is subjective, so it is important to consider what experiences give dopamine to particular individuals. For example, children may get a dopamine hit when they are writing poetry and create a well-crafted rhyme.


4. What are the barriers to joy in our schools?

"My heart goes out to any teacher banging their head against the wall because the behaviour is so extreme" Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben argues that the principal barrier to joy is not the fault of classroom teachers at all, but rather the outcomes-driven system in which teachers work. To illustrate, special schools, where there is more leeway over outcomes, are more likely to deliver joyful experiences where things aren't working in classrooms. Sometimes we are so focused on the goals and outcomes, we forget how we get the children there in the first place - after all, don't we want children to enjoy their lives?


5. What are the social aspects of joy?

"In all mammals, we look out for each other instinctively... shared social experiences are much more powerful than we thought" Ben Kingston-Hughes

Ben references something as simple as a family sitting around the table eating dinner as a joyful experience - yet this is something that more and more of our younger people do not experience on a regular basis. Shared social experiences like singing and dancing together are important because they help to make us human. During the pandemic we had fewer smiles because of masks - and while we don't yet know the full consequences of that, Ben suggests that this can't be helpful for children.


Looking for more joy? Catch up with the whole episode below!

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