What makes us human?

24 May

In the NewScientist of 21 April 2012, there is a very interesting article on what makes us human and why we are different from most animals. This article pinpoints 5 characteristics that make us human in a unique way. Three of these are present in young children and remind us of Alison Gopnik’s words that young children are the research and development phase of humanity.

The first characteristic is being playful. This is my personal favourite. Although many animals play, no species pursue such a wide variety of play over such a long period. Although the nature of play changes as we get older, humans still play into old age. What makes human play different, is the great degree of imagination that is generated in play. If we look at the pinnacle of play in the preschool phase, it is imaginative play that provides children with the opportunity to socialise, compromise and learn from mistakes. Play isn’t simply for fun (Marc Bekoff). Through play, young children develop muscle strength, rhythm, coordination, balance and spatial skills. Even more important is the ability to develop a theory of mind as well as a social instinct. To me one of the most important benefits of play, is the ability to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Children playing without interference of adults learn to trust their instincts, and they learn from the mistakes they make. The article comes to the conclusion that play is a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. One of the benefits of imaginative playing is the development of symbolic thought. The young baby, holding a wooden block to his ear, pretending to talk on a cell phone, is replacing a real object with a symbol of that object. The development of symbolic thinking underlies the development of reading, writing and math.

The second characteristic is one that parents of young children are very familiar with. It is the ability to sort the surrounding environment and experiences into categories. Children are natural scientists looking for meaning in the world around them. The much loved, often repeated question of young children: “But why ..?”, epitomizes this scientific quest. This question eventually links up with the symbolic thinking with the purpose to understand the world better and to be in control of the world. The question “why” is fundamental to the young child taking apart a toy to see why and how it is working; a much more enduring reward than putting batteries in a toy!

The next characteristic is the tendency to make rules. Anyone observing imaginative play in a group of 4 to 6 year old children will notice that making rules is a major part of the play. In fact, this is one of the benefits of play. If we look at this benefit longitudinally we can assume that to play by the rules is a building block of morality. Although rules differ from society to society, and whether we agree with the rules or not, rules are an inherent part of every society. Children playing are thus, without knowing, preparing themselves to function within a particular society.

We often think of children as being in a process of becoming a human being. But by their nature, children are already finely tuned humans.

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