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Professor Pickering on Kid-Friendly Anthropology

Anthropology sparks curiosity in the minds of children, but only if the teacher can weave the intricate and compelling human history into bite-size stories digestible for youth. TU Professor of Anthropology Bob Pickering writes children’s books to introduce children to their ancestors and their place in the world.

“In every culture, we have to meet the same needs. We all need to eat. We all need clothing. We all need to figure out how to get along with each other,” Pickering said. “There are some things that are universal, and I try to tell stories that kids will understand.”

As a graduate student working in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, Pickering had a friend, who’d recently written a children’s book on astronomy and told him the editor needed a kids’ archeology story. Seven hundred and fifty words later, Pickering wrote I Can Be an Archeologist. “That was about as challenging as anything I’ve written other than my own doctoral dissertation,” he said.

Learning to use kid-friendly words to explain complex ideas was a difficult task. However, always up for a challenge, Pickering never stopped writing anthropology for children. “When you are dealing with kids, you have to simplify concepts. That is not the same as dumbing them down,” he cautioned. “It means trying to make good logical connections in a good story. It means starting where they are, not where you’d like them to be.”

In his books, Pickering compares different living circumstances around the globe to broaden their perspective of daily life, from ancient times to modern cultures around the world. From the Arctic to South Africa, children eat, learn and play, but it may look a little different. “Here’s an example of someone who lived in a tropical or an arid environment, and here’s how they learned to thrive, not just exist, using their own knowledge, skills, and ingenuity,” he explained. “They learned to use what the environment offered, how to adjust to climatic conditions, and create the tools they needed.”

Pickering has used this same logic with his own children. Testing his book’s content, “We would run some of the ideas by our daughters and let them read some of the text to make sure that the writing was at an appropriate level and that it was interesting,” he said. “If they asked questions, that was a good sign.”

Although, he explains, not all learning comes from a book:

“If I were advising a parent on how to help their kids do critical thinking and sharpen their observation skills, take them outside, be in nature. Explore.”

Anthropology is a celebration and understanding of what makes humans beautifully unique, but children also learn that humanity is rooted in the same basic needs and desires for wellbeing. “All human beings are part of a culture, and we all learn culture from the day we are born. We learn from our parents, siblings and those people around us,” Pickering said. “By the time kids enter school, they already have learned a lot and are ready to learn about other people.”