I put myself through college by being a part-time preschool teacher, shepherding a dozen, or more, 3 and 4-year-olds through early education. This meant brokering countless peace agreements over the usage of everything from watercolor sets to ride-on toys (there simply wasn’t enough for everyone to have their own) and I quickly realized that children are hardwired to fight over “things.” Amplified cries of “Mine!” and “Nooo!” often punctuated the classroom din as an implicit call for adult intervention. It wasn’t until I took the entire class on a fieldtrip to the beach that I witnessed something close to harmony. The children all played together without any conflict for 2 straight hours, largely because there was nothing to fight over. There was only sand, surf, and a few broken shells to claim ownership over. At the time (being somewhat young myself) I thought I had found the solution to all early childhood conflict – give them nothing to claim as their own.
According to a report in Scientific American, young children have an innate notion of what can, and cannot be owned. Children as young as three believe human-made objects are owned but naturally occurring things like pinecones are not. The research, which appeared in the journal Developmental Psychology, revealed that children classified human-made objects as owned 89 percent of the time and naturally occurring objects as owned only 28 percent of the time. Researchers conducted an experiment with 3-year olds asking them to look at pictures of a fork, teddy bear, truck, and other human-made objects. They also looked at pictures of a leaf, shell, or rock. The researchers asked: Does this belong to anyone? Most children said “no.”
So this begs the question that if the majority of children see the natural world as something beyond the realm of ownership, why and when does this change? Is there a distinct difference between a natural object (say a little rock) and a bit of territory (a bigger rock)? And there is a difference between “owned” and “claimed” in this territory, as any parent will attest to after watching children fight over found sticks. Does this research reveal anything about developing human nature and our need for ownership? Or is it just showcasing the obvious?