“Childhood” or theory of “the child” are difficult concepts to explore because there is no single accepted definition of childhood, or what constitutes a child. Although it might seem easy to differentiate a child from an adult – physiologically, cognitively or emotionally, childhood can also be regarded as an artificial construct, because historically, and across different cultures, approaches to childhood vary markedly. Simplistically, childhood in the UK starts at birth, ending at the age of 18. This chronological, legalistic approach ignores at least three alternative viewpoints – biological, sociological and psychological. A biological approach would encompass physical maturation processes that differentiate children from adults. The concept of a "biological life-cycle" (progression from birth to death) can be empirically demonstrated. In physical terms at least, a young baby is different to a fourteen year old, whilst a fully-grown adult is different to both. However, because of great variations between individuals, e.g. height, weight, strength, gender, this approach has limitations, because behaviours and learning differ so widely. Secondly, sociologists may argue that human childhood is essentially a social construct where society categorises biological development in terms of ideas such as: Childhood, Adolescence / youth, Adulthood and Old age. The interpretation of such categories varies across societies; "youth" appears to be a relatively modern categorisation in industrial societies with few pre-industrial societies categorising people in this way. In our society we tend to associate childhood with such characteristics as "innocence / naiveté" and old age with increasing physical frailty, loss of mental faculties etc. However, not all societies insist on such categorical associations. Philippe Aries (1962) has, for many years, been considered to be the definitive work on the subject of changing conceptions of childhood. Aries argues that, in Western Europe, the concept of childhood is a relatively modern development in the last 300 years. Aries considers the themes of Industrialisation (and the development of Capitalism) and changes in the structure of family life to be highly significant in the development of a child-centred family which involved a clear and definable concept of "childhood". Aries states that the concept of childhood appeared first amongst the upper classes. The development of the nuclear family and a system of education separate from the family (at least for the upper classes and middle classes) led, according to Aries, to the progressive "removal" of children from adult society. Children began to be treated as "socially separate" and hence conceptions of childhood began to develop around the idea that this was a clear phase in the human life-cycle. Such an approach however, falls beyond the scope of this essay, so I will concentrate on my third approach – the contribution made by Educational Psychology, in particular, cognitive psychology and Vygotsky. The cognitive approach emerged in the 1950's in reaction to the behaviourist (Skinner and Pavlov) approach. Cognitive approaches study how humans take in information, and make sense of it - mental processes such as memory and thinking, and which influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Cognitive psychologists regard the brain as a computer which stores and organises information through five main processes - perception, attention, language, memory and thinking - which we individually and collectively use to operate in, upon and through our environment. For humans, the two most important senses are probably sight and sound, so Cognitive psychology explores the ways in which we see things e.g. colour, distances, and how we understand the things we hear, in order to build up our knowledge of the world. The cognitive approach asks key questions such as how do we remember things, how do we recognise them and how do we interpret...
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