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For hundreds of thousands of years, up until the time when agriculture was invented (a mere 10,000 years ago), we were all hunter-gatherers. Our human instincts, including all of the instinctive means by which we learn, came about in the context of that way of life. And so it is natural that in this series on children's instinctive ways of educating themselves I should ask: How do hunter-gatherer children learn what they need to know to become effective adults within their culture?
In the last half of the 20th century, anthropologists located and observed many groups of people???in remote parts Africa, Asia, Australia, New Guinea, South America, and elsewhere???who had maintained a hunting-and-gathering life, almost unaffected by modern ways. Although each group studied had its own language and other cultural traditions, the various groups were found to be similar in many basic ways, which allows us to speak of "the hunter-gatherer way of life" in the singular. Wherever they were found, hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands (of about 25 to 50 people per band), made decisions democratically, had ethical systems that centered on egalitarian values and sharing, and had rich cultural traditions that included music, art, games, dances, and time-honored stories.
To supplement what we could find in the anthropological literature, several years ago Jonathan Ogas (then a graduate student) and I contacted a number of anthropologists who had lived among hunter-gatherers and asked them to respond to a written questionnaire about their observations of children's lives. Nine such scholars kindly responded to our questionnaire. Among them, they had studied six different hunter-gatherer cultures???three in Africa, one in Malaysia, one in the Philippines, and one in New Guinea.
What I learned from my reading and our questionnaire was startling for its consistency from culture. Here I will summarize four conclusions, which I think are most relevant to the issue of self-education. Because I would like you to picture these practices as occurring now, I will use the present tense in describing them, even though the practices and the cultures themselves have been largely destroyed in recent years by intrusions from the more "developed" world around them.
- Hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount to become successful adults.
It would be a mistake to think that education is not a big issue for hunter-gatherers because they don't have to learn much. In fact, they have to learn an enormous amount.
To become effective hunters, boys must learn the habits of the two or three hundred different species of mammals and birds that the band hunts; must know how to track such game using the slightest clues; must be able to craft perfectly the tools of hunting, such as bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, snares or nets; and must be extraordinarily skilled at using those tools.
To become effective gatherers, girls must learn which of the countless varieties of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area are edible and nutritious, when and where to find them, how to dig them (in the case of roots and tubers), how to extract the edible portions efficiently (in the case of grains, nuts, and certain plant fibers), and in some cases how to process them to make them edible or increase their nutritional value. These abilities include physical skills, honed by years of practice, as well as the capacity to remember, use, add to, and modify an enormous store of culturally shared verbal knowledge about the food materials.
In addition, hunter-gatherer children must learn how to navigate their huge foraging territory, build huts, make fires, cook, fend off predators, predict weather changes, treat wounds and diseases, assist births, care for infants, maintain harmony within their group, negotiate with neighboring groups, tell stories, make music, and engage in various dances and rituals of their culture. Since there is little specialization beyond that of men as hunters and women as gatherers, each person must acquire a large fraction of the total knowledge and skills of the culture.
- The children learn all this without being taught.
Although hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount, hunter-gatherers have nothing like school. Adults do not establish a curriculum, or attempt to motivate children to learn, or give lessons, or monitor children's progress. When asked how children learn what they need to know, hunter-gatherer adults invariably answer with words that mean essentially: "They teach themselves through their observations, play, and exploration." Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is given only when the child clearly desires it. Adults to not initiate, direct, or interfere with children's activities. Adults do not show any evidence of worry about their children's education; millennia of experience have proven to them that children are experts at educating themselves.
- The children are afforded enormous amounts of time to play and explore.
In response to our question about how much time children had for play, the anthropologists we surveyed were unanimous in indicating that the hunter-gatherer children they observed were free to play most if not all of the day, every day. Typical responses are the following:
??? "[Batek] children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens." (Karen Endicott.)
??? "Both girls and boys [among the Nharo] had almost all day every day free to play." (Alan Barnard.)
??? "[Ef??] boys were free to play nearly all the time until age 15-17; for girls most of the day, in between a few errands and some babysitting, was spent in play." (Robert Bailey.)
??? "[!Kung] children played from dawn to dusk. " (Nancy Howell.)
The freedom that hunter-gatherer children enjoy to pursue their own interests comes partly from the adults' understanding that such pursuits are the surest path to education. It also comes from the general spirit of egalitarianism and personal autonomy that pervades hunter-gatherer cultures and applies as much to children as to adults . Hunter-gatherer adults view children as complete individuals, with rights comparable to those of adults. Their assumption is that children will, of their own accord, begin contributing to the economy of the band when they are developmentally ready to do so. There is no need to make children or anyone else do what they don't want to do. It is remarkable to think that our instincts to learn and to contribute to the community evolved in a world in which our instincts were trusted!
- Children observe adults' activities and incorporate those activities into their play.
Hunter-gatherer children are never isolated from adult activities. They observe directly all that occurs in camp???the preparations to move, the building of huts, the making and mending of tools and other artifacts, the food preparation and cooking, the nursing and care of infants, the precautions taken against predators and diseases, the gossip and discussions, the arguments and politics, the dances and festivities. They sometimes accompany adults on food gathering trips, and by age 10 or so boys sometimes accompany men on hunting trips.
The children not only observe all of these activities, but they also incorporate them into their play, and through that play they become skilled at the activities. As they grow older, their play turns gradually into the real thing. There is no sharp division between playful participation and real participation in the valued activities of the group.
For example boys who one day are playfully hunting butterflies with their little bows and arrows are, on a later day, playfully hunting small mammals and bringing some of them home to eat, and on yet a later day are joining men on real hunting trips, still in the spirit of play. As another example, both boys and girls commonly build play huts, modeled after the real huts that their parents build. In her response to our questionnaire, Nancy Howell pointed out that !Kung children commonly build a whole village of play huts a few hundred yards from the real village. The play village then becomes a playground where they act out many of the kinds of scenes that they observe among adults.
asked byKeith_3 (78)
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on August 24, 2012
at 10:36 PM
I'm a theatre teaching artist, so I find that while I am into education, I have a lot of concerns about school systems (and if I ever have a classroom teaching post, will still carry those concerns). One book I really enjoy is called Unschooling Rules. The book is basically a series of ideas about education that go against the grain of established schools. One such rule: animals are better than books about animals.
The ideas in the book seem to jive with the article. How can we educate in hands-on, playful, dynamic kinds of ways? I hope that my own work using drama in different subjects can be a part of that, because as I see it it is really about play.
Another book that comes to mind is Homo Ludens. The title is Latin for "Playing Man". The book is about play as a cultural phenomenon, influencing politics, poetry, war, religion, education, etc. Play as a microcosm for adult life.
I think if we are to learn from the educational structures of hunter-gatherers, we need to acknowledge how deep our assumptions of school being something formal (dare I say industrial?) actually go. Education ??? school. Education = life, lived, breathed, and played.
on September 07, 2013
at 12:44 AM
My parents thought me that there were consequences for bad behavior without every punishing me, and I turned out pretty well. Friends who were beaten as kids are now the ones who gets in trouble, have problems with alcohol, get in fights, etc. Seeing my girlfriend wake up in the middle of the night crying after having nightmares of when her parents beat her is enough evidence for me to understand that beating kids are detrimental to their health and development. It is absolutely wrong to say that it's been used since the 1960's without problem, thousand, if not millions, of kids have been traumatized. By your logic, hitting adults who behave bad should also be practiced, unless violence only applies to innocent children. There is nothing in our biology that suggest that violence is good for learning behavior, quite the opposite actually.
on August 25, 2012
at 02:59 PM
Children will be children no matter what era they live in.They learn by observing and playing.If not for the organized educational system,our kids will be playing all day long too.But we have to go to work so it's more convenient to send them to school.Our kids have to learn a lot too,but on a different scale.And they do.Look at technology,there's so much information to be learned and kids are embracing it and are good at it.A lot of times by figuring it out and practicing on their own
on August 24, 2012
at 06:57 PM
Great article but...
Their childhood ends in our Junior High. In some cultures girls are married off after the first period - around 10 - 11 years old. No, I got the numbers right, I actually checked. The boys are considered adult at around 14.
They learn by experience. They have no writing systems, no books, so it is all empirical knowledge. They learn by doing. They don't have to take entrance exams, study for the tests or build their resumes. The only exam they have to pass is surviving in their natural environment. If they don't know how to hunt, they will starve to death.
There were not so many teenage-kids in every tribe to begin with. There were only 20-30 people in each group, some old, some very young - so it is a different ratio. Compare it to today's schools - 30 kids in one class for one adult.
I am glad I am not a hunter-gatherer. I prefer Korean way of disciplining children - beat them with a stick on their butts. As a former teacher I support corporal punishment all the way. Especially for grade 8 boys. That's the only way some of them will understand rules.
EDITED: PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING STUDY http://www.newsmax.com/US/spanking-studies-children-spock/2010/01/07/id/345669
- I am almost done with my bone broth. It took me 12 hours and I am tired. It is better be good, otherwise I will write another answer to the question I really know nothing about.