Friday, May 13, 2022

Hunter-Gatherer Children’s Object Play and Tool Use: An Ethnohistorical Analysis

Hunter-Gatherer Children’s Object Play and Tool Use: An Ethnohistorical Analysis. Sheina Lew-Levy et al. Front. Psychol., May 11 2022 |

Abstract: Learning to use, make, and modify tools is key to our species’ success. Researchers have hypothesized that play with objects may have a foundational role in the ontogeny of tool use and, over evolutionary timescales, in cumulative technological innovation. Yet, there are few systematic studies investigating children’s interactions with objects outside the post-industrialized West. Here, we survey the ethnohistorical record to uncover cross-cultural trends regarding hunter-gatherer children’s use of objects during play and instrumental activities. Our dataset, consisting of 434 observations of children’s toys and tools from 54 hunter-gatherer societies, reveals several salient trends: Most objects in our dataset are used in play. Children readily manufacture their own toys, such as dolls and shelters. Most of the objects that children interact with are constructed from multiple materials. Most of the objects in our dataset are full-sized or miniature versions of adult tools, reflecting learning for adult roles. Children also engage with objects related to child culture, primarily during play. Taken together, our findings show that hunter-gatherer children grow up playing, making, and learning with objects.


Learning to make and use tools is central to our species’ success. Many features of object play—including non-functional non-stereotypical actions, and joint social engagement—have been hypothesized to help children efficiently develop physical, cognitive, and social skills needed to make, modify, and use tools (Smith, 1982Bjorklund and Gardiner, 2011Bateson and Martin, 2013Solis et al., 2017). In the present paper, we took an ethnohistorical approach to exploring object play and use in hunter-gatherer societies. In doing so, we help shed light on how objects are incorporated into the everyday lives of children outside the post-industrialized West. In what follows, we relate our findings to current research on play across cultures and discuss emerging research questions.

Most objects in our dataset were used in play. This finding echoes those from observational studies, which show that play makes up a large proportion of hunter-gatherer children’s time budgets, and that children incorporate many objects manufactured by themselves or others, as well as raw materials, into their play (e.g., Boyette, 2016Froehle et al., 2019Salali et al., 2019Lew-Levy et al., 2020a). It is important to note that in some cases, children may engage in activities that are simultaneously playful and instrumental (see also Crittenden, 2016). For example, children may engage in target practice with the goal of improving their hunting skill, even if they do so during a game with peers. Similarly, children engage in instrumental activities in the service of play by making their own toys. Much of this nuance is lost in our coding scheme, partially because we have opted to use binary coding to simplify analyses, and partially because it is often not possible to identify children’s own goals via ethnographer descriptions. Nonetheless, these findings raise the possibility that children may be proficient at using a variety of objects to meet both playful and instrumental goals.

Children were more likely to engage with objects socially during play than during instrumental activities. Such social object play may be an important avenue for observing and imitating others, receiving teaching, learning about cultural norms such as sharing, and for innovating with peers (Bakeman et al., 1990MacDonald, 2007Imamura and Akiyama, 2016Lew-Levy et al., 20172020b,2021). Children were also more likely to use safe objects while in play than while in instrumental activities. Many ethnographers note that children in hunter-gatherer societies are free to play with dangerous objects (see Lancy, 2016 for review). Our findings support these observations: our dataset includes several examples of children engaging in play with risky objects such as knives, canoes, or stilts. Play with risky objects may have developmental benefits by helping children master age-appropriate challenges (Sandseter and Kennair, 2011). Further, play contexts may be created such that risk, including object-related risk, is minimised (Gopnik, 2020). Nonetheless, our findings suggest that children use relatively less risky objects when in play than when engaging in instrumental activities. This may be because some risky objects, such as knives and bows, are more instrumental in nature and thus, might invite more instrumental activities.

We found that many of the objects used by children were full-sized or miniature versions of adult tools, and that a majority of children’s objects were composite in nature, overall reflecting the observed complexity of adult material culture across societies (Boyd et al., 2013Sterelny, 2021). Miniature or full-sized versions of adult objects may help children learn about adult roles and activities as well as object affordances (Riede et al., 2018). Further, adult objects were more likely to be used during instrumental than play activities, reflecting their functional nature. This finding echoes ethnographic studies which demonstrate that children learn through participation across a range of cultural contexts (Lancy, 2012Rogoff, 2014Lew-Levy et al., 2019). In contrast, objects reportedly used by children only such as dolls, figures, and games, were overwhelmingly used in play. Engaging with child culture artifacts during play may facilitate the acquisition of child-specific ecological knowledge (Gallois et al., 2017), the retention of technologies which have been abandoned by adults (Imamura, 2016), and the development of strong social ties with their peers (Corsaro and Eder, 1990). Some objects may facilitate learning about both future adult roles and peer cultures. For example, while they are not scaled-down tools, dolls nonetheless commonly represent babies. By making and playing with dolls, children may simultaneously learn about object affordances, practice adult social roles, and reinterpret adult culture to meet the concerns of their peer world (Corsaro, 1993Edwards, 2000).

There were no gender differences in objects used in play vs. instrumental activities, reflecting findings from time allocation studies on the topic in hunter-gatherer societies (Boyette, 2016Lew-Levy et al., 2020a). Boys were more likely to use risky objects, which may echo cross-cultural findings regarding gender differences in risk taking (Apicella et al., 2017). Our results regarding age were imprecise and hence inconclusive, largely because few ethnographers provided enough detail to confidently attribute age categories to object users, resulting in most user ages being categorized as “unknown.” Tentatively, however, our results suggest that children in middle childhood and adolescence (i.e., seven years or over) were more likely to use objects during play and more likely than infants and children in early childhood (i.e., six years or younger) to use risky objects, suggesting that children’s use of objects becomes more varied with age. Note that the increased use of risky objects with age need not signify actual increased risk in object use; this could be an expression of older children having acquired the necessary skill to wield risky objects safely.

Our study has several limitations. We had few observations for precise age categories, limiting our ability to infer developmental trends in object play and use. In the case of object complexity, values were not missing completely at random, but instead are biased toward missing values for girls. Gender differences related to complexity should thus be interpreted cautiously. By focusing on inanimate objects, we have overlooked how children play with babies and animals, the form and learning function of which may share similarities with some forms of object play. The records included within eHRAF reflect biases inherent to the ethnohistoric literature: virtually all ethnographers were adults, and most were men. In addition, all observations were made before the full advent of interest in children as culture-bearers and prior to the emergence of systematic studies in this domain. As a result, many aspects of children’s activities may be less systematically recorded compared to other aspects of culture. In addition, eHRAF is known for its bias toward North America. While it does represent the single best source for comparative cross-cultural analysis, and while we used statistical methods to overcome such biases, the sample’s representativity in the strict sense cannot be claimed. Finally, the present study used binary coding of variables of interest to facilitate analysis and because ethnographer descriptions often lacked the details necessary for more continuous coding (e.g., ratings). We acknowledge that this approach obscures much of the nuance inherent to children’s activities, and indeed, human behavior more generally.

Despite these caveats, our descriptive study points to several new avenues of research which can help further our understanding regarding the learning function of object play across individuals and societies. First, many experimental studies examine how children’s play with raw materials (e.g., clamps, sticks, pipe cleaners) contributes to their ability to modify and recombine these into functional tools. However, these tasks often represent ill-structured problems in the sense that children lack information about the transformations needed to accomplish the desired end goal (Cutting et al., 2011). Our data suggests that in contrast to playing with component pieces, hunter-gatherer children often play with composite objects. By engaging with the end-state first, children may more easily come to understand the functional properties of component pieces, and thus, may more easily apply their knowledge to tool selection and modification tasks (Cutting et al., 2014Riede et al., 2018). Some experimental studies investigating the learning function for play also focus on children’s solo play with objects. However, our findings suggest that most play with objects occurs socially. Developmental research has long demonstrated that collaborative learning bolsters children’s ability to solve novel tasks (Azmitia, 1988Perlmutter et al., 1989Rendell et al., 2011) and their logical reasoning skills (Tomasello et al., 1993Kruger and Tomasello, 1996). Such socio-cognitive capabilities may also be central to children’s ability to make and innovate tools (Gönül et al., 2019Lew-Levy et al., 2021). Next, most experimental research on object play focuses on deferred functions related to tool use and tool making skill. However, our findings hint at the possibility that playing with objects may more immediately have a central role in the development and maintenance of peer cultures. Finally, if object play contributes to the development of problem solving skills, then the diversity and complexity of children’s play objects should covary with that of adult toolkits (Riede et al., 2018). Testing this possibility requires careful attention to potential confounds such as environmental risk, population size, raw material availability, and subsistence strategy (Kline and Boyd, 2010Collard et al., 2013). We are in the process of expanding our dataset to include these variables in the hopes of further investigating how children’s learning through object play contributes to the observed cross-cultural variation in material culture. Such analyses will help shed new light on how object play and play object provisioning may have bolstered technological innovation in the past.

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