October 01, 2021

A young Shuar girl gathering papayas. Credit: Dorsa Amir

This article was originally published November 15, 2019.

Childhood today is radically different than it was just a few generations ago. Before the coronavirus pandemic, kids’ busy schedules included school, homework, chores, sports, music lessons and other activities. Those packed schedules often left out one key element that is crucial to growth and learning — play. That’s according to Dorsa Amir, an evolutionary anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Berkeley.

Amir has studied the Shuar people of Ecuador, a non-industrialized society, and observed startling differences in how Shuar children and American children spend their time. She tells us how childhood has changed drastically, and how that affects kids today.

Three Takeaways:

  • Amir has observed that children in Ecuador enjoy a lot of unstructured play time, much like American kids did in the past. She says that nowadays American children have less control over how they spend their time, but they have found space to explore online. While communicating over the internet may have some benefits, Amir says it’s no replacement for face to face interactions, when it comes to a child’s development.
  • According to Amir, having friends who are both older and younger is important for a child’s learning. She says that when a child is learning a new skill, it helps them to copy a slightly older child whose abilities are closer to theirs, rather than an experienced adult. But the way classrooms are set up today typically means that kids have friends who are mostly their own age, which Amir says may affect how quickly they can master new concepts.
  • We all know helicopter parenting has its downsides, but how involved is too involved? Amir says that not allowing a child to have unstructured playtime and not giving kids any independence can potentially contribute to issues with attention, conflict resolution, regulating emotions, and other social skills.

More Reading:

  • Check out Amir’s Washington Post op-ed about how the importance of play may be more ancient than we thought. 
  • Is taking away recess making kids more prone to bullying? Child psychologist David Elkind explains his take in this New York Times op-ed.
  • Psychologist Peter Gray has written extensively about the nature of play, and why it’s so important to child development. He goes in depth on what play really means in this article from Psychology Today

childhood, Education, Dorsa Amir, Sci and Tech, play

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