Thursday, June 25, 2015

Living In Cooperative Societies

Yesterday, one boy started banging on the "thunder drum" with a longish stick. He was soon joined by a younger boy who picked as his drum stick a short pieces of tree bark. Like a dinner bell, the banging drew other children who took up their own utensils of varying lengths, some even brandishing the blank end of stick ponies. 

I was watching the game up close because, after all, these were young children swinging sticks in a tight formation. The noise was loud while the children were silent, focused on their target. Hands and even heads got close to the action, and there were close calls. The youngest children, the two-year-olds, appeared for the most part to be oblivious; a couple of them flinched protectively when a stick came close to their hands, but it was the older children who were keeping this game safe, taking responsibility not just for themselves, but for the younger children as well.

As play-based educators, we start from the premise that children, even very young children, are fully formed human beings with all the rights that that implies, and education is, in part, the process of coming to assume the responsibilities of being a citizen and person, a lifelong endeavor. 

Among the most evolutionarily necessary of these responsibilities is to care for one's own well-being, followed closely by caring for the well-being of others just as the older cared for the younger in our thunder drum game. The species does not survive otherwise. The popular thinking is that looking out for oneself comes naturally because it is based in self-centeredness, but that caring for others, altruism, must be learned. Scientists, however, are finding that this is not the case. Altruistic behavior, the core of the philosophical assertion that "man is essentially good," selflessness, appears to be at least as natural as selfishness.

A couple weeks ago, I posted on this topic, including a video of German scientists demonstrating this point. A few days ago, the New York Times published a piece linking to another vein of research:

Children as young as age 3 will intervene on behalf of a victim, reacting as if victimized themselves, scientists have found.

The researchers found that this sense of justice, of responsibility for others, was something that emerges in humans rather than something that is learned or taught. Said one of the researchers:

"The take-home message is that pre-school children are sensitive to harm to others and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator . . . Rather than punish young children for wrong-doings, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as a solution."

This is, of course, is what we do at Woodland Park, and what play-based practitioners everywhere have done forever. It's nice to see that science is finally catching up with what we've known all along. 

And it's not just humans who are naturally prone to developing a sense of fairness and justice. Biologists have learned, for instance, that crows do, and dogs and monkeys do as well. In fact, scientists are coming to understand that this is a key aspect of all animals who live in cooperative societies.

That's what we do at Woodland Park: practice living in a cooperative society. It's what a play-based education is all about.

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