The return of Secret Life of Four Year Olds means more fascinating nature docs – about toddlers

Forget the Amazon rainforest and the foothills of the himalayas, pre-school is just as interesting as nature documentaries, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

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I am better acquainted with the personal habits of Japanese macaque monkeys than I am with what human four-year-olds get up to when left to their own devices.

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Thanks to an obsession with nature documentaries I could tell you that macaques love hot springs, spend hours grooming their silvery locks and have a nightime cuddling rota but until I watched The Secret Life of Four Year Olds I had no idea how fascinating pre-schoolers could be.

It turns out they share and negotiate, both question authority and follow the rules. They even bare-face lie. They’ve got unique ideas on how to deal with bullies (one reckons you should bite them. We are reserving judgement) and a refreshingly simple view on how to make friends: say your name, tell them you’re a nice person, be a nice person.

Thankfully, I’m likely to find out a whole lot about the tiny humans, because the Channel 4 ob-doc that follows pre-schoolers as they bicker, fight, forge friendships and steal chocolate cake in a camera-rigged nursery, has been given a full series to spy and eavesdrop on more tots.

I can’t wait. The recent one-off special (currently available on demand) is 47-minutes of gripping and entertaining telly. 

It’s also hilarious – I still can’t quite get over one tot saying into her toy phone ‘Stop ringing me Richard. You’re not the dad. I don’t love you anymore. I hate you now’ – but the opportunity to laugh at little ones isn’t why it’s great.

We telly-lovers watch hour after hour of nature documentaries. We love witnessing members of the weird and wonderful animal kingdom behaving like we do – monkey mums telling off their misbehaving kids, frogs taking prettier frogs on dates – yet Secret Life of Four Year Olds is all about us.

It’s a mirror to gaze into. And nothing is more interesting than our own reflections. It’s why we love watching people watching TV on Gogglebox and kids triumphing on the Educating series. But Secret Life of Four Year Olds takes that fascination one step further, because, although we recognise what we see in TV’s mirror, it’s also a little unknown.

The show is all about that vital part of us that we actually pay very little attention to: our ability to interact with others and pick up on social cues. We rely on it for almost everything – take it away and our familiar world would become alien – but, unlike times-tables or touch-typing, we can’t pin-point the exact moment we learnt how to do it.

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Here, you can watch it happen. These four-year-olds are laying the foundations for their adult personalities. Master-schmoozer, captivating public speaker, shoulder to cry on or blushing wallflower – it all started around the sand pit.


It’s back to play school for Channel 4 as The Secret Life of Four Year Olds gets a full series

Educating Cardiff: Channel 4 heads to Wales for its next series

Why we love watching Gogglebox