Children and innovation: Play, play objects, and object play in cultural evolution

Felix Riede, Matthew Walsh , April Nowell, Michelle C. Langley, Niels Nørkjær Johannsen

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Cultural evolutionary theory conceptualises culture as an information-transmission system whose dynamics take on evolutionary properties. Within this framework, however, innovation has been likened to random mutations, reducing its occurrence to chance or fortuitous transmission error. In introducing the special collection on children and innovation, we here place object play and play objects – especially functional miniatures – from carefully chosen archaeological contexts in a niche construction perspective. Given that play, including object play, is ubiquitous in human societies, we suggest that plaything construction, provisioning, and use have, over evolutionary timescales, paid substantial selective dividends via ontogenetic niche modification. Combining findings from cognitive science, ethology, and ethnography with insights into hominin early developmental life-history, we show how play objects and object play likely had decisive roles in the emergence of innovative capabilities. Importantly, we argue that closer attention to play objects can go some way towards addressing changes in innovation rates that occurred throughout human biocultural evolution and why innovations are observable within certain technological domains but not others.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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