Education and hunter-gatherer children

Education, by my definition, is cultural transmission. It is the set of processes by which each new generation of human beings, in any social group, acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, lore, and values – that is, the culture – of previous generations in that group.” ~ Peter Gray (p.24)

Like I said, I really enjoyed Peter Gray’s Free to Learn. He describes what seems to me to be an eminently sensible alternative to conventional schooling, drawing on anthropological comparisons with hunter-gatherer societies and the success of Sudbury Valley School in the States to make his argument. He explains:

By allowing their children unlimited time to play with one another, hunter-gatherer adults allow their children unlimited practice of the social skills and values that are most central to their way of life. Social play (that is, all play that involves more than one player) is, by its very nature, a continuous exercise in cooperation, attention to one another’s needs, and consensual decision-making. 
Play is not something one has to do; players are always free to quit. In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends. To keep the game going, players must satisfy not only their own desires but also those of the other players. The intense drive that children have to play with other children, therefore, is a powerful force for them to learn how to attend to others’ wishes and negotiate differences. Research in our culture has shown repeatedly that even preschool children engage in enormous amounts of negotiation and compromise in the context of play…. One of the great evolutionary purposes of social play is to help children learn how to treat one another respectfully, as equals, in ways that meet everyone’s needs and desires, despite differences in size, strength, and ability. These skills are crucial for survival in hunter-gatherer societies, but are valuable in every human society. We all need the help and support of others, and to obtain that we need to know how to help and support others.
… hunter-gatherer children always play in groups that encompass a wide range of ages. Even if they wanted to play only with age-mates, they would not be able to. Hunter-gatherer bands are small, and births are widely spread, so it is rare to find more than two or three children within a year or two in age. Research in our culture… shows that age-mixed play is qualitatively different from same-age play. It is less competitive and more nurturing. In age-mixed play, each child tries to do his or her best, but has little or no concern for beating others. When playmates differ greatly in age, size, and strength, there is little point in trying to prove  oneself better than another. The age-mixed nature of play, coupled with the egalitarian ethos of the cultures, ensures that the play of hunter-gatherer children is highly cooperative and noncompetitive.” (pp.34-35)

By comparison of course, conventional ‘western’ schools look quite different and it is this comparison that Gray discusses in Free to Learn. He writes:

“When we see that children today are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we naturally assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all of this. Perhaps if we didn’t force children to go to school, or if schools operated differently, children would grow up to be incompetent in our modern world. Perhaps educational experts have figured all this our, or perhaps alternative methods of allowing children to develop have been tested and have failed.
The reality, as I will show later, is that alternative ways have been tested and have succeeded. Children’s instincts for self-directed learning can work today as well as they ever did. When provided with freedom and opportunity, children can and do educate themselves marvelously for our modern world. The schools that we see around us are not products of science and logic; they are products of history.” (pp.42-43)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to Learn Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in History of Childhood, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, play, social and political contexts, Standardised Testing, Teaching excellence, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Education and hunter-gatherer children

  1. Pingback: The educable animal | LiteracyNZ

  2. Pingback: How schools came to serve the state | LiteracyNZ

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