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Hunter-gatherer childhoods hold clues for improving modern child wellbeing and education

Research on hunter-gatherer childhoods provides important insights into conditions that children may be best psychologically adapted to.

A recent study by Dr. Nikhil Chaudhary and Dr. Annie Swanepoel of the University of Cambridge investigates child mental health in hunter-gatherer societies. Their work, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggest that understanding the common features of hunter-gatherer childhood could improve education and wellbeing for children in economically developed countries, for example through GED prep.

The study points out that while the conditions for hunter-gatherer children are vastly different, research on hunter-gatherer childhoods can still provide insights into conditions that children may be psychologically adapted to. With careful consideration, hunter-gatherer childhood behaviours could help design experimental interventions to improve child development in homes, schools, and nurseries.

Physical contact and alloparents

The study highlights a significant difference between hunter-gatherer societies and developed countries in physical contact with infants. In Botswana, for example, !Kung infants aged between 10-20 weeks are in physical contact with someone for about 90% of daylight hours, and almost all crying bouts are responded to with comforting or nursing, while scolding is rare.

The exceptional attentive childcare in hunter-gatherer societies is possible due to non-parental caregivers, or alloparents, who provide almost half of a child’s care. In the DRC, for example, Efe infants have 14 alloparents a day by the time they are 18 weeks old, and are passed between caregivers eight times an hour.

The availability of alloparents reduces the negative impacts of stress within the nuclear family and the risk of maternal depression. The study highlights that such alloparenting is a core human adaptation and that maternal instincts alone should not be relied on for childcare. It suggests that reducing childcare support from familial and social networks can create evolutionary mismatches that may harm both caregivers and children.

Care-giving ratios

Hunter-gatherer societies’ communal living results in a high ratio of available caregivers to infants/toddlers, sometimes exceeding 10:1. By contrast, nursery settings in developed countries require a 1:3 ratio of carer to children aged under 2 years or a 1:4 ratio for children aged 2-3 years, according to the UK’s Department of Education regulations.

The study emphasises that hunter-gatherer infants and toddlers have a capable caregiver within a few metres of them almost all day, which is significantly different from many nursery settings in the UK. The study suggests that stretched ratios could impact children’s wellbeing, and nurseries must consider possibilities to improve caregiver ratios.

Children providing care and mixed-age active learning

Hunter-gatherer societies show that children play a more significant role in providing care for infants and toddlers than in developed countries. In some communities, children begin providing childcare from the age of four and are capable of sensitive caregiving. Older children, but still pre-adolescents, are also commonly seen looking after infants.

In contrast, the NSPCC in the UK recommends that babysitters should be in their late teens at least when leaving pre-adolescent children at home. In developed countries, children may have less opportunity to develop caregiving competence while busy with schooling. The study suggests that exploring the possibility of older siblings playing a more significant role in supporting their parents could enhance both their own social development and their younger siblings’ wellbeing.

Mixed-age active learning

In hunter-gatherer societies, children of different ages learn from each other, often through play. Dr Chaudhary explains that “mixed-age learning is probably the norm in hunter-gatherer societies, and this can have many benefits for younger children. They get to observe and participate in activities that are otherwise beyond their developmental stage, and they are more likely to have access to diverse knowledge and skills.”

Mixed-age learning is probably the norm in hunter-gatherer societies, and this can have many benefits for younger children.

Dr. Nikhil Chaudhary, University of Cambridge

By contrast, schools in developed countries tend to group children by age, which can limit opportunities for mixed-age learning. However, there are some alternative education models, such as Montessori and Forest schools, that embrace mixed-age learning.

Implications for education and wellbeing in developed countries

The study’s authors emphasise that they are not suggesting that developed countries should aim to replicate hunter-gatherer childhoods. Rather, they argue that paying greater attention to the care and education practices of hunter-gatherer societies could inform interventions in developed countries.

Dr Chaudhary said: “We need to acknowledge that the ways in which we care for and educate young children in developed countries are not necessarily the best or the only ways. By looking at hunter-gatherer childhoods, we can gain insights into what kinds of environments and caregiving practices children might be psychologically adapted to.”

He added: “Incorporating elements of hunter-gatherer childhoods into contemporary homes, schools, and nurseries could improve child wellbeing and cognitive development, reduce maternal stress and depression, and create more supportive communities.”

The authors suggest that some potential interventions could include:

  • Increasing the availability of non-parental caregivers, such as grandparents or trusted friends, to reduce the burden on parents and provide children with more diverse social interactions.
  • Adopting mixed-age learning environments in schools and nurseries to enable children to learn from each other and participate in more varied activities.
  • Encouraging older siblings to take on more caregiving roles within the family.
  • Promoting more physical contact between caregivers and infants to provide comfort and reassurance.
  • Supporting parents to develop sensitive and responsive caregiving skills through programmes such as parent-infant psychotherapy.

Conclusion

The study highlights the importance of understanding the care and education practices of hunter-gatherer societies in informing interventions to improve child wellbeing and cognitive development in developed countries. While hunter-gatherer childhoods cannot and should not be idealised, they offer valuable insights into the types of environments and caregiving practices that children may be psychologically adapted to. By incorporating elements of hunter-gatherer childhoods into contemporary homes, schools, and nurseries, we could create more supportive communities and improve child outcomes.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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