Social cognition and emotional intelligence are both phrases we hear in connection with the development of the “theory of mind”, specifically in relation to the early years of children, generally being birth to five years old.
In the early twentieth century, theorists began to evolve their thinking concerning the competency of babies and young children, with many having historically believed children to be egocentric, unable to see the perspective of another person, simple beings, characteristically similar to adults, but with less mental capacity.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist, was one of the first scientists to explain a theory of cognitive development of the child, linked to the way in which children mentally construct an image of the world. Piaget disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait and regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment.
In her inaugural lecture to the Institute of Imagination (in her role as the Children’s Museum Patron), Alison Gopnik, a Professor of Psychology and Affiliate of Philosophy at the University of California, describes the biological maturation highlighted by Piaget, as the long evolutionary period of a child, a period designed for learning. In this sense, Gopnik regards children as being responsible for research and development, whilst adults take on the role of production and marketing.
In these early years, children’s brains are very flexible, in neurological terms. New connections (synapses) are formed, strengthening and becoming more effective, with these synapses being pruned as more knowledge is acquired and information is gathered from experience.
In her lecture, Gopnik refers to children as having a longer period of immaturity than any other species, remaining dependent on their carer in a physical, mental and emotional sense, and asks why this might be. She shares with us a study of New Caledonian crows, an exceptionally intelligent species of bird whose offspring remain in a close knit family group for up to two years. During this time, the birds learn how to fashion intricate tools to catch their food and have been found to have a larger brain and are smarter as a consequence.
If we agree that this extended early developmental period of children is designed to assist in their learning, what role does the power of play have during these formative years? Without doubt, scientists have shown that the nature of a child’s play, in every sense, has a relationship with a child’s cognitive capacity. Through exploratory play, children test and research the causal structure of the world. Children work independently, but also collaborate as they get older and form social groups, examining the world around them, investigating the meaning and function of everything they see, hear or come into contact with.
Through pretend play, we also see children beginning to reason and we observe counter factual thinking at work. Through experimentation with roles and language, children start to think about things that are not true or could not happen. It is through this type of role play where children take on someone else’s perspective and begin to discover how people’s minds work. It is only through allowing children to think for themselves, to think critically and creatively, that they are able to innovate and think freely.
Gopnik reminds us, “pedagogy can be a double edged sword”; if we show children how to do something or suggest a way of doing, then a child might more easily or more quickly find a solution to a problem, but they might also stop exploring for themselves, they are no longer the creature of learning,as the joy of exploration and self discovery has been thwarted.
Alan Curtis Kay, an American computer scientist, is famous for once saying, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Through pretend play, children are far from being confused by the distinction between reality and that which is not real, instead they are imagining, thinking deeply about problems, analysing and seeking solutions to their enquiries. It is through the imaginations of these young people that the future will develop, possibilities will flow and from which inventions will originate.
In her closing remarks, Gopnik calls on us to use our own imaginations to think of adults and children as being stages of the life cycle of a single being, a caterpillar and a butterfly, with the butterfly continually moving in search of knowledge, a creature of learning. She asks whether theorists on the subject of cognitive development have historically been wrong in their analysis, or if they were simply speaking to children in the wrong way. Instead of asking questions, Gopnik believes we ought to look at what children do rather than what they say. This calls for children to be provided with rich opportunities for discovery, a movement away from the pressure of academia in children’s early years and instead we should remain steadfast in our belief of the importance of the spirit of exploration.