Nothing brings a parent more joy than when siblings play happily and peacefully together.
It turns out, according to a new study, that there is another reason to celebrate sibling bonding. Siblings who play together learn together.
Learning is a Social Process
Social constructivists view learning as a social process. When individuals interact with each other, they co-construct meaning and knowledge and help each other understand the world.
It makes sense then, that a tremendous amount of learning would occur within the particularly intimate relationship between siblings.
To discover exactly how knowledge transfers between siblings, Nina Howe, a professor of Early Childhood Development and Education at Concordia University, and her colleagues observed children ages 3-7 in their homes playing and interacting with family members.
Television, video games and other distractions that limit personal interaction remained off, but otherwise the researchers placed no limitations on the children’s activities.
Siblings Engage in Many Deliberate Teaching Moments
In transcribing the interactions, trained observers identified “1040 intentional sibling-directed teaching sequences.” While learning is often implicit – a baby drops a ball, watches it hit the ground, picks it up and repeats, thereby learning implicitly about gravity – the study focused only on interactions that began either with one sibling announcing they were teaching the other or asking for information.
The research showed that children choose what information to convey and the best method for teaching it depending on the needs of the learner and the requirements of the situation, using demonstrations to pass on procedural knowledge and explanations to pass on conceptual knowledge. The majority of the teaching sequences involved the older sibling sharing knowledge about the world – how to count, names of objects, or comparing and contrasting two different items.
Younger siblings rarely requested procedural knowledge, but the older ones sometimes offered to demonstrate how to complete a particular task.
In an interview with Decoded Parenting, Dr. Howe talked about a 15 minute sequence that occurred after an older sibling returned from a dance class. She recreated the class for the younger sibling, encouraging her to learn each dance step covered in class.
Parents Can Encourage Learning by Taking a Step Back
Dr. Howe suggests that parents start by understanding that this type of play is a natural activity that does not require parent intervention. Parents just need to set a good context, time and opportunity by giving children uninterrupted, unstructured play time with toys or objects that inspire imagination and conversation.
They can also encourage children to help each other. Instead of answering every question themselves, parents can deflect responsibility to the sibling by saying something like, “Your sister is really good at [whatever], why don’t you ask her to help you?”
In fact, a sibling often teaches better than a parent. Lev Vygotsky, the earliest proponent of social constructivism, explained that learning happens within a zone of proximal development. That is, children learn best when interacting with a more skillful partner, but one whose skills do not lie too far above their own, giving them appropriate “room to stretch.”
A sibling’s abilities are often better, but much closer, to a younger child’s than a parent’s, giving them an achievable model for growth. Additionally, says Dr. Howe, siblings usually spend more time – and more uninterrupted time – playing together than with a parent.
Therefore, siblings have intimate knowledge of what interests the younger sibling, what they like to play with, and their skill level. They can –and do – use this knowledge when teaching.
Children without siblings could benefit from frequent interactions with an older neighbor or cousin. What makes the sibling relationship effective as a social learning parameter is the closeness.
Children have to know each other well to interact in a meaningfully educational way. Dr. Howe believes that for a non-sibling to fulfill a similar type of teaching role, the bond would need to mimic the frequency and intimacy of siblings.
Play Fosters Informal Learning
According to Dr. Howe, one of the most surprising findings of the study is how common this behavior is. Informal learning “happens with great frequency in many families,” she says. The challenge for parents is to allow children the unstructured time and space to help one another learn new skills and information.© Copyright 2014 Nicole Fravel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting