Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How childhood makes us who we are

Humans have a “strangely shaped childhood,” said Emory anthropologist Melvin Konner during his recent Life of the Mind talk. When you consider our large brain size, we get kicked out of the womb a lot earlier than our last common ancestors shared with the chimpanzees. We also get weaned earlier, and we have a longer time before sexual maturation.

Konner wrote “The Evolution of Childhood,” a landmark book on human development that explores our biological past to understand our psychological present.

We have a mid-growth spurt between the ages of 6 and 8, “and then this long period of quiescence before puberty really sets in,” he said. “It’s the period when the emotional intensity and turmoil of early childhood is over, and before the turmoil of puberty. And it’s a period of great opportunity to create a cultural being.”

During middle childhood, “children are expansively exploring the world and each other, and building their own brains through the process of play,” Konner said.

Play has been compared to the evolutionary process. “It generates seemingly random and senseless movements and engagement with this world,” he said, adding that these movements are central to brain development. “In Georgia right now, playgrounds are being dismantled at schools and recess is being abolished because play is being seen as not contributing to scores on standardized tests. Obviously, we want our children to grow up to fit into our culture, but when you get to the point of dismantling playgrounds you’re abandoning a few million years of evolution, and it’s not such a good policy.”

Related: Is ADHD a disease of civilization?

The playground of hunter-gather societies is the bush around the village. The children roam and play in mixed-sex and multi-age groups, and they make a game of finding food for themselves, Konner said, with the older ones helping the younger ones learn about the environment and what’s edible.

“Modern humans left Africa maybe 80,000 years ago after a couple 100,000 years of primary culture development, and they spread rapidly,” Konner said. “I have this vivid image in my head of kids going out and roving further and further and maybe pioneering the direction of the spread of humans.”

The nurturing mind
The fruits of play

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