Here’s an experiment that’s easy to do on your own. Grab the nearest elementary- or middle-school-age kid, sit her down in a quiet place, and ask her to name everything she can think of that’s alive. The results might tell you a lot about your young subject’s life. The wilder the animals, the more domestic the kid.
The 5-to-14-year-olds in Andrea Taverna and Sandra Waxman’s version of this experiment lived in Argentina. (Taverna is a researcher at Argentina’s National Research Council; Waxman is a psychology professor at Northwestern University.) One group of subjects lived in a city and another group lived in a rural area. A third batch of kids were members of an indigenous group called the Wichí, who live in the forest and speak a native language instead of Spanish.
Taverna, Waxman and their colleagues expected that each of these groups would have different ideas about the natural world. Earlier studies in English-speaking children had shown that it takes just one simple question (“Name everything you can think of that’s alive”) to reveal major cultural differences between children. With their 129 Argentinians, they stopped each kid after naming 10 things, then tallied up the answers.
The researchers also asked kids in each group what kinds of activities they did on a daily basis. Most urban kids reported things like watching TV, playing electronic games, and going to the park. Rural Spanish-speaking kids also mentioned television and computers, but in smaller numbers. More of them said they spent time farming, fishing, and walking in the field. The forest-living Wichí, as you might imagine, had the most interaction with nature. They said they often did things like collecting wood and useful plants, picking fruit, and swimming. Oh, and trapping lizards.
When asked to name living things, all the kids stuck mainly to animals, especially mammals. And they all tended to name basic domestic creatures: dog, cat, horse. But in other ways, their answers differed strikingly. The Wichí named mostly animals that they had personal experience with (snake, bee, a deer called a tsuna). Urban and rural Spanish-speaking kids usually included humans on their lists, while Wichí didn’t. Rural Spanish-speaking kids more often named farm animals (cow, pig, hen, sheep). And more urban kids named exotic animals such as lions, tigers, and giraffes. Lacking their own experiences with animals, they went to what they’d seen in books and movies.
Given the kids’ lifestyles, the differences made sense. But Taverna was surprised by how consistent those differences were. “I did not expect to find such clear variations between linguistic and cultural groups,” she says.
Kids in different groups also seemed to organize their concepts of “living things” differently. While the Wichí listed specific animals and plants (armadillo, pigeon, carob tree), Spanish-speaking children were more likely to simply say “animal” or “plant” or “tree.”
Taverna thinks understanding kids’ varying windows on the natural world can help teachers reach their students. Wichí teachers could take into account the fact that their students have a personal understanding of nature, and that it might be different from what they see in textbooks. Teachers in urban classrooms, meanwhile, can recognize that their students’ knowledge of nature comes largely from media.
“It is essential,” Taverna says, “for teachers to take into account the underlying organization and knowledge that children from different backgrounds bring with them into their classrooms.” And if that kid you grabbed can only name animals that are animated, you might want to send her back outside.
Image: by Franklin Park Library (via Flickr)
Taverna, A., Moscoloni, N., Peralta, O., Medin, D., & Waxman, S. (2014). Naming the Living Things: Linguistic, Experiential and Cultural Factors in Wichí and Spanish Speaking Children Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14 (3-4), 213-233 DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12342122