Researcher Jose Domingo Villarroel at the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country studied the capacity to differentiate between living and non-living beings and how this relates to environmental awareness.

As many as 118 girls and boys between the ages of four and seven from public primary schools participated in the research and were interviewed. Each interview consisted of two parts. The aim of the first was to analyze the capacity of the children to differentiate between living beings and inanimate objects.

The children were shown eight photos, of which four were close-ups of living beings (a dog, a bird, a tree and a flower); the other four depicted inanimate objects: the Sun, clouds, a car and a motorbike.

The images used in the second part of the interview depicted inappropriate behaviour types and they had all been selected from children's books. The examples of bad behaviour could be classified into three groups: the ones that exert a negative effect on the wellbeing of someone else (taking away someone else's possessions or using violence against one's friends); the ones that do not fit in with social rules (picking one's nose or eating in a messy way) and the ones that harm plants (treading on a flower or carving drawings on a tree trunk using a knife).

"In the first part the responses were the expected ones. In fact, many children, especially young ones, are not capable of differentiating between living beings and non-living ones; for example, they find it very difficult to understand that a tree is a living being, yet they tend to believe that cars and motorbikes are alive," said Villarroel. Children appear to relate the fact of being alive with movement.

In the second part, he found the results more striking, because he spotted a 'paradox'. Apparently, children believe that hurting another child or plants is more reprehensible that breaking social rules, "also in the cases in which they think that plants are not living beings."

"In other words, they are not absolutely sure whether the flower is a living thing; but they think it is much worse to tread on a flower than to slurp your soup or stick your fingers up your nose," said researchers.

According to Villarroel, that paradox suggests that the awareness towards others is developed at an early age and that the development of moral thought is linked to the affective world, in other words, with what they receive from their parents and educators, and not so much through logic or rationality.

The study was published in the scientific journal SpringerPlus.

(Agencies)

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