Altruism for infants

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Those working with children under five should focus on their developing social skills and the ability to empathise with others, according to Professor Colin Blakemore, director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford University.

Scientific evidence now suggests that these vital skills may only be fully incorporated during those years, while the brain is still developing, he told an audience at the Royal Society of Arts. As social skills are practised, they may be altering the structure of the brain.

Children's brains, between the ages of two and five, are programmed to learn about the self, relationships, empathy and altruism. Between the ages of one and four, children develop a sense of themselves and their beliefs in relation to others and also the understanding that other people have different ideas, opinions and feelings. Professor Blakemore said that in the pre-school years the focusof learning should be on collaboration, empathy, social conscience and responsibility. Research shows that concentrating on literacy and numeracy before the age of seven or eight has no lasting benefits, and those who start at seven have often overtaken the early starters by the time they reach 16.

Colin Blakemore told educationists and policy-makers that opting for academic hothousing is a mistake. An important chance will be missed in the two pre-school years if early-years educators don't emphasise the values of co-operation, altruism, collaboration and social duty at a time in their development when children are most responsive to these concepts.

Professor Blakemore's speech can be found at SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEA child's skull houses a brain programmed to develop an understanding of self, relationships , empathy and altruism before the age of five

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