NORTHWESTERN (US)—The way children develop reasoning about the natural world is largely influenced by how and where they are raised, a new study finds.
For decades, the consensus was that as young children begin reasoning about the biological world, they adopt an “anthropocentric” stance, favoring humans over non-human animals when it comes to learning about properties of animals. But it appears human-centered reasoning among children is not universal after all.
In a study, which appeared in the journal Cognitive Development, researchers at Northwestern University teamed with researchers and educators from the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin to determine whether this human-centered (or anthropocentric) reasoning is universal.
They were interested in whether such reasoning is influenced by children’s experience with the natural world and the culture and belief systems of their communities.
To examine these potential influences, the study included children growing up in an urban setting (Chicago) as well as children from rural Wisconsin, who have more extensive direct contact with the natural world.
To examine the influence of culture, the rural community included European-American and Native American (Menominee) children.
The results were striking—while young urban children revealed a human-centered pattern of reasoning, the rural European-American and Native-American children did not.
Children’s experience, including the extent of their day-to-day interactions with the natural world and their sensitivity to the belief systems of their communities, influences their reasoning about the natural world.
For example, the researchers noted that while children generally are taught in school that only plants and animals are alive, the traditional Menominee notion of “alive” includes natural inanimates, such as rocks and water, and may even include artifacts, depending on the purpose for which they were made.
Such cultural differences provide strong evidence that the human-centered pattern displayed by young urban children is not a universal starting point for development, as researchers and educators had previously assumed, explains Sandra Waxman, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
“Instead, this human-centered style of reasoning is itself culturally inflected,” says Waxman. “It may, in fact, reflect a cultural model that is prevalent in the media for young children, for example, stories and films in which animals talk, sing, and act like humans.”
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