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How Our Kids Learn Naturally

Educational lessons from the world of yesterday

Apart from being a scientist, I am also the father of a son who goes to high school. Like many other parents, I am concerned about the quality of their education. In the Netherlands, where we live, it is clearly not an issue of finances. In 2016, almost 30 billion euros were spent on education, of which 10 billion on primary education and 7 billion on secondary education. This comes to about 8000 US dollars per child per year. This amount is generally well spent.

The Netherlands has the second position on the European ranking list of educational quality, right behind Finland, but before Belgium, Germany, France and the UK (on the world rankings the Netherlands features on 9th position after various Asian and Scandinavian countries and, by comparison, the US is ranked at place 29).

Nevertheless, there are plenty of concerns. Children from immigrant families or families living in poverty rarely continue to higher education, the study performance of boys is generally lower than that of girls, and teachers face a high work load. As a result, there is too little time for innovation. The teaching methods at the school of my son are fairly similar to those from my own educational past some 35 years ago.

That is somewhat surprising, because the scientific knowledge about how children learn (and how the mind of a child works) has increased greatly during that time as a result of advances in psychology, educational science and neuroscience.

My own discipline, evolutionary psychology, studies how children learn in hunter-gatherer cultures in which humans spent about 99% of their evolutionary history. During this long spell, the child brain was formed. Fortunately, there are still communities that more or less live the way our ancestors did (like the Ache in Paraguay, the Kung San in Botswana, and the Hadza in Tanzania). They teach us a great deal about how children learn.

The Evolution Institute, of which I am a member, is an international organization that uses insights from evolutionary theory and biology to improve society. A couple of years ago, the Institute organized a conference where evolutionary scientist shared their insights about education. These were some of their main conclusions.

1. Children are biologically programmed to learn; childhood lasts long for humans (compared to other species), because we need a great deal of information in order to survive and thrive as adults in large, complex societies.

2. Some skills are more easily learnt than others: you do not have to teach a child to walk, talk, or play, that happens naturally. Novel evolutionary skills such as, reading, writing, or math, cost more effort and require intensive training, without a guarantee for success for everyone.

3. Children learn by playing with other children, and usually not through the instructions of adults. In hunter-gatherers, learning is child-directed. The child decides what it wants to learn and has a lot of freedom to explore.

4. Learning must be rewarded quickly. The children of all animal species have difficulty with putting in effort for things that do not provide an immediate reward. Rewards can be diverse though; a fast improvement of a skill (like whistling), an elevation of your status in the group, or the smile of another child are rewarding.

5. Among hunter-gatherers, learning takes place in mixed-groups of children from different age groups. The older children function as role models and teachers, and by doing so they prepare themselves for parenthood. Putting children of the same age in the same class room is a mismatch.

6. Anxiety, stress, pressure, and hunger reduce the learning abilities of children. When a child is anxious, for example because of a test, the child is focused on surviving and not on learning. Learning requires a safe environment without threat.

7. Children differ in their learning styles. Some children are more curious than others. There are also, on average, sex differences in learning styles. Boys take more risks and learn more by doing stuff. Girls are more cautious and first take in the information before they act. Girls have better verbal abilities, boys have better spatial abilities.

8. Learning in small-scale societies occurs primarily in natural environments where children learn while they play, exercise, relax, and touch each other. Prohibiting such natural play behaviors could suppress the learning ability and creativity of children. So, does a school environment with no plants, trees, or animals in sight inhibit the learning process. Greening up schoolyards should thus be a toppriority!

Scientific insights, such as these, about how the brains and minds of children evolve and what they are good and bad at doing, should not be missing from education agendas of nations around the world. Our education is only as good as it succeeds in stimulating the natural learning capacities of our children.

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