Margaret Donaldson’s book Children’s Minds was first published in 1978 and is as relevant now as it was when fresh off the press– so much so that it has become the “classic” book referred to by those studying the developing minds of children. Donaldson, who has published other books including A Study of Children’s Thinking and who, with Robert Grieve and Chris Pratt edited Early Childhood Development and Education, was a student of French psychologist Jean Piaget. In this book and others, however, Donaldson discusses flaws in the previously accepted wisdom of Piaget and others. Despite coming from an academic viewpoint, Children’s Minds is very readable. Diagrams to present studies carried out to support Donaldson’s theories are clear and followed up with good explanations. I haven’t studied psychology myself, but still found this book very accessible and down to earth– which is, I guess why it’s still popular nearly forty years after it was written.
Donaldson’s main thesis is that young children are traditionally labelled as being poor communicators because they are egocentric, meaning that they have limited ability to “decentre”. One example she uses is of the child who, on their first day of school, is told by the teacher, “…sit there for the present..”. After school this child complains to their parent that “I waited all day for the present, but they didn’t give me one.” This story is one which different adults will view in different ways. Adults who still feel a strong sense of connection with and memory of their own “forever/ childhood years” will empathise with the child– the first day of school is confusing, the child didn’t understand the different uses of the expression “for the present”, or pick up on the tone, which would also indicate more clearly exactly what the teacher meant. Some might see this as a funny story about a child “getting it wrong”, whilst still others might feel the child was “naughty” or “rude”for expecting a present.
Donaldson argues in favour of the view “through the eyes of the child” and says that, whilst we may look at it that the child did not understand the adult (in this case the use of the word “present”), it is also clear that the adult did not understand the child (the child’s point of view). This (backed up with some practical experiments) leads to her assertion that “Children are not at any stage as egocentric as Piaget has claimed… the gap between children and adults is not so great… as had recently been widely believed.”(p.58). She says that this does not mean that children are miniature adults or like adults in every way, but that the differences between children and adults with regard to being egocentric are not so great, and that there are other differences, in other areas, which are greater. (This makes me wonder whether perhaps we adults have just become better skilled at hiding the fact that we are egocentric?)
Donaldson also discusses the importance of experiences which prepare children aged 0-4 for entering school at age 5. She asks what can be done to give all children a chance at good preparation for starting school, given that some will need more help than others in preparing for this transition. “I believe that early mastery of reading is even more important than it is commonly taken to be…. preparation for reading should include… attempts to make children more aware of the spoken tongue.” (pp. 96-97). Donaldson says that reading to a child so they realise the letters grouped together are one word at a time (such as by pointing to the words one by one as we read) is very useful in helping them break down the sounds of their mother tongue, which they would otherwise have not thought about in such a way. She also believes that reading and the process of learning to read are vitally important in “encouraging highly important forms of intellectual self-awareness and self-control.” (p.97).
In Chapter 10, “The Desire to Learn”, Donaldson asserts that all babies have a desire to master their environment and achieve a sense of competence and control over their world. She rejects the notion that babies, children or other creatures attempt to achieve this mastery purely in order to obtain some form of “reward”. Achieving this competence and control is in itself a reward. That is why, she believes, it is vitally important to tap into this innate desire to learn and help children feel confident before the primary school years: once they reach school and believe they are significantly behind their peers, or find learning there a struggle, it can be harder to “close the gap” and to prevent a child from developing a negative, bitter attitude towards education and the education system.
I believe that there is much to be gained, for parents, educators and others in reading Children’s Minds. I enjoyed reading this book and felt it opened my mind to similarities and differences between adult and child perspectives, as well as to the vital importance of pre-school education and experience in preparing a child for life long learning. In many ways, Donaldson was ahead of her time and the results of her experiments match many later findings about the construction of neural pathways in the brain during early childhood (particularly the years 0-3) and how these effect a child in terms of learning and emotional responses. This book is highly recommended by “The Forever Years”
I leave you now with some quotations from other reviewers of A Child’s Mind, followed by some related links to further reading about Donaldson and her work.
In this concise and brilliantly readable book, Margaret Donaldson shows that context is key when it comes to the development of language and thought, and how the right support can ensure children are skilled in these areas before they even start school. …As wise and perceptive today as it was when it first appeared, Margaret Donaldson’s bestselling work is essential reading for anyone interested in child development and child psychology. (Harper Collins)
One of the most powerful, most wisely balanced and best informed books on the development of the child’s mind…Its implications for education are enormous. Jerome Bruner
A book of great, and very general significance…a classic. Jack Tizard
Given a setting and a language that makes sense to them in human terms, very young children can perform tasks often thought to be beyond them. The preschool child learns everything in a human situation. Only in school is he asked to acquire skills—reading, writing, arithmetic—isolated from a real-life context. This transition is difficult. The author suggests a range of strategies that parents and schools can adopt to help children. She argues that reading is even more important than we have thought it to be, since learning to read ca actually speed children through the crucial transition. (Amazon)