Sunday, August 18, 2013

Do you believe in Santa?

It is interesting to me how my grandson is developing as he approaches his third birthday, so I thought I would do some research on how a child's mind develops and share some of what I found. We can see how children’s minds develop in stages by looking at what they cannot do at different ages. Following the discoveries of psychologist Jean Piaget in the mid–twentieth century, development experts have recognized many ways in which children do not think like adults. For instance, preschoolers consistently believe that a tall glass can hold more than a shorter one, even if the shorter glass is significantly wider, and that there are more books and toys if they are spread all over the floor than if they are stacked away. Not until about school age do children realize that different people can have different knowledge of the world. And researchers are still debating when  children can clearly sort out the real world from what they vividly imagine. Experience plays a role in moving children to the next level of cognitive development, but it seems that the brain has to be ready for that step as well. Parents and teachers can hurry a young child along only so much.

In movement, memory, and other functions, therefore, you will see your child develop preliminary skills, refine them, and then build on them to achieve more advanced skills. Inside your child’s brain at this time, neurons are firing signals, selected synaptic connections are growing stronger, and myelin is coating the nerves to make them more efficient. What educators see is potential: the more your child uses his or her brain, the more it grows. How can you facilitate this process? You can enrich your child’s environment and encourage him or her to explore it (even if that results in a few mistakes).

Child-development experts are recognizing the importance of imagination and the role it plays in understanding reality. Children’s imaginary friends are part of a healthy childhood development, which helps them learn more about their environment and build the connections in their brain to practice independent, autonomous thinking, so they gradually develop decision-making skills and master self-discipline. Parents should encourage their children’s creative and imaginative processes rather than threatening them with punishments.

Dr. Woolley's group at the Children's Research Laboratory has conducted a series of studies involving Santa, the Tooth Fairy and a newly made-up character known as the "Candy Witch" in order to examine the age at which children are able to distinguish between real and fictional entities and how they process contexts and cues when dealing with them.

In one study involving 91 children, Dr. Woolley asked young kids if a number of people and characters, including Santa and the garbage man, were real. She found that 70% of 3-year-olds reported that Santa Claus was real, while 78% believed in the garbage man. By age 5, kids' certainty about the garbage man grew, and Santa believers peaked at 83%. It wasn't until age 7 that belief in Santa declined. By 9, only a third believed in Santa while nearly all reported the garbage man was real.

So, "if kids have the basic distinction between real and not real when they're 3, why do they believe in Santa until they're 8?" says Dr. Woolley.

The researchers found that while children as young as 3 understand the concept of what is real and what isn't, until they are about 7 kids can be easily misled by adults' persuasive words or by "evidence." They hold onto their beliefs about some fantastical characters—like Santa—longer than others, such as monsters or dragons. Most of the kids in the study were Christian, and the numbers of those who believed in Santa would likely be smaller if there were children of other religious backgrounds in the sample, says Dr. Woolley

Logically, from what young kids observe, it makes sense to think that Santa is real, says Dr. Woolley. And Santa and the trash collector share certain characteristics. Both are people whom kids have heard about but have likely never met before. There is proof for Santa's existence—the gifts that appear on Christmas morning—as well as for the garbage man's—he makes trash disappear—even though kids don't usually see them in action. A 5-year-old has the cognitive skills to put together the pieces of evidence, but because the pieces are misleading, he or she comes to the wrong conclusion. Younger children may not have the cognitive skills to put the pieces of evidence together, so may in fact be less likely to believe in Santa's existence. The realness of some other characters, such as Sesame Street's Elmo, can perplex kids because they know Elmo is a puppet, but does that make him real or not?

All children are wired and ready to learn during their progress through childhood; it is important for parents to acknowledge and understand when children are using their imagination.

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