Evolutionary developmental psychology is the application of the basic principles of Darwinian evolution to explain contemporary human development. From this perspective, not only are behaviors and cognitions that characterize adults the product of natural-selection pressures operating over the course of geologic time, but so also are characteristics of children’s behaviors and minds. In fact, although natural selection works at all stages of the lifespan, selection will have greatest effects on early stages of development: getting born, surviving infancy and childhood, and developing to sexual maturity.
If you believe, as all evolutionists do, that natural selection produces adaptations, then there must be adaptations of infancy and childhood, distinct from those of adulthood. Although some adaptations of infancy and childhood may prepare children for life as adults, others were selected to serve an adaptive function at specific times in development, termed ontogenetic adaptations. This means that some aspects of children’s immature functioning are adaptive in their own right, providing infants and children with immediate (and perhaps deferred) benefits.
For example, there is evidence that infants’ inefficient sensory and learning abilities may protect young animals from overstimulation and enhance the learning of species-appropriate content. This is seen in studies of precocial birds that are given premature visual stimulation that subsequently results in improved visual abilities but at the expense of important auditory-learning abilities, and in monkey and human infants whose performance on simple learning tasks is impeded when they started the learning tasks earlier as opposed to later. Such results provide evidence that not all learning experiences are necessarily good for infants – that sometimes, learning experiences will not only be useless for infants who lack the requisite cognitive abilities, but they may actually be detrimental to later learning and development.
These ideas have implications for preschool education. For instance, “educational” DVDs and videos, such as “Baby Einstein” have been touted to accelerate infant cognitive development, but scientific evaluation of such videos with infants much younger than two years of age show that they have either no impact or are actually associated with lower levels of learning. Similarly, preschool programs that emphasize teacher-directed instruction typically provide no immediate or subsequent academic advantage to children compared to those that emphasize developmentally appropriate practices (that is, more play oriented). Moreover, children attending developmentally appropriate programs typically show advantages not only in subsequent academic performance, but also with respect to motivation and psychosocial factors, including liking school better, feeling less stress, and having greater creativity, pride in accomplishment, and self-confidence than children attending direct-instruction programs.
What can we conclude from all this? Natural selection has adapted children’s cognition and behavior to learn from experience – to educate themselves in many respects. Much of what we consider to be “immature” thinking in young children may actually be adaptive ways of gaining knowledge and developing intellectual skills. This may extend beyond childhood to the juvenile and adolescent periods. We should take advantage of children’s cognitive immaturity to foster their education, rather than trying to educate immature thinking out of children.