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Hunters-gatherers allow children to learn on their own through play and imitation

Posted August 2, 2019

We often talk about hunter-gatherer communities as something from the past. However, many of them are still around. This is fascinating, because they can teach us a lot about our history and how humans interact in more primitive settings. Scientists from UCL now took a look at how children in these hunter-gatherer communities learn to survive.

BaYaka children learn their skills by playing and imitating and not by studying. Image credit: JMGRACIA100 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Researchers  collected naturalistic videos of 40 children from early infancy to adolescence doing different activities in this BaYaka hunter-gatherers living in the rainforests of Congo. Scientists then analysed these videos trying to describe what were people doing at different moments. They paid attention to children, but also to adults, checking what every member of the group was doing. The goal was to see how children learn the very important skills needed to sustain this ancient lifestyle.

Interestingly scientists did not observe many teaching moments. Instead, children were learning by playing in their own little circles and imitating adults. 5-6 year old girls were already digging yams and using machetes efficiently even though no one ever taught them. There were no instructors or no structured teaching moments. Instead, children were only taught in a meaningful way only when they did mistakes. Girls start foraging and helping around houses rather early, while boys continue to play. This is obviously due to hunting being more physically demanding – boys needed to grow more before they could be pressed into work. They start participating in night hunts in adolescence.

Scientists say that hunter-gatherers oftentimes value individual autonomy very high. Adults are mostly allowing children to learn on their own. This is rather interesting, because our ancestors must have been learning this way too. Dr Gul Deniz Salali, one of the authors of the study, said: “Cultural traits accumulate and evolve over time if information can be passed on with accuracy. We believe that learning through being taught has co-evolved with culture to facilitate transmission of more complex and abstract information”.

And, of course, this opens up the question if we are teaching children correctly now. Should we focus on creating an environment where children can learn on their own? Or more traditional structured teaching is preferred?

This is still up for debate, but we will never copy hunter-gatherer education model. Simply put, we operate on much more complex concepts and ideas. They cannot be learned by playing or imitating. However, allowing children to discover some things could be beneficial.


Source: UCL

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