Children's ethnoecological knowledge : situated learning and the cultural transmission of subsistence knowledge and skills among Q'eqchi' Maya
Zarger, Rebecca Kristyn
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Knowledge of the biophysical environment is acquired through participation in cultural routines and immersion in a local human ecosystem. Presented here are the results of a study of the cultural transmission of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in Q’eqchi’ Maya communities of southern Belize. Qualitative and quantitative methods provided means to describe learning pathways and distribution of subsistence knowledge and skills among children and adults. Data collection focused on situated learning and teaching of TEK during childhood, as very little research of this type exists. Subsistence strategies and local cognitive categories of flora and fauna were documented using methodological approaches from ethnobiology. Food production and preparation, harvesting of herbs, fruits, and medicines, hunting and fishing activities, and construction of household items were included in the domain of subsistence. Systematic behavioral observation, ethnographic interviews, and participant observation provided data about formal and indigenous educational systems. Learning and teaching processes are shaped by cultural belief systems, ecology, socioeconomic institutions, and gender roles. Methods for describing development of expertise in TEK during childhood included pile sorts, freelists, child-guided home garden surveys, and a plant trail in the primary research site. Children develop extensive knowledge early in life. By the time children are 9 years of age, they know 85% of Q’eqchi’ names for plants near the household and 50% of plants elsewhere. Younger children categorize plants based primarily on morphology, and as they gain experience, utility and cultural salience are integrated. Significant and widely used species are learned first. Older siblings and cousins play an important teacher role for young children, in the course of caretaking and subsistence activities. Parents, grandparents, and other extended kin transfer knowledge of formalized tasks that require specific expertise. Overlapping work and play activities during childhood shape primary learning contexts. Intergenerational differences in subsistence knowledge and skills are shaped by social networks, socioeconomic opportunities, and changes in local ecology. The study integrates a focus on children and an activity-based approach to learning and distributed cognition with research in ethnoecology. Data are being implemented in biocultural diversity education initiatives in collaboration with local educators and parents.