Children as young as five years old in Northern Ireland are already aware of the symbols that mark out the region's two political and cultural communities, according to new academic research.
Conducted by researchers Dr Laura K Taylor, Dr Jocelyn Dautel and Risa Rylander from University College, Dublin and Queen's University, Belfast, the research looked at how more than 200 children reacted when asked to label a range of symbols.
Participants were given an iPad and asked to label symbols as being either Irish/British or Catholic/Protestant.
Among the symbols were images of flags, such as the Union flag and the Irish Tricolour, shamrock, and poppies, as well as items used in cricket, hurling and rugby.
The researchers found that the children - who were between five and 11 years old - were more likely to sort symbols by tradition than they would have if their decisions had been made randomly.
The UCD/QUB research paper, called 'Symbols and Labels: children's awareness of social categories in a divided society', is published in the Journal of Community Psychology.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, lead researcher Dr Laura K Taylor said: "How and when children develop an understanding of group boundaries has implications for conflict resolution."
She hoped the research would inform education policy and teaching in Northern Ireland.
"Our research is trying to help understand what it means for children to grow up in a post-accord society. Children today did not grow up in a violent society, so how do they learn about it?
"These findings suggest that, by late childhood, children in Northern Ireland can readily identify and associate symbols with their hypothesised social categories."
Separate school systems, as well as strong family networks and homogeneous lifestyles, shape children's cultural awareness, the researchers suggest.
The UCD/QUB research echoes a 2002 study for the Community Relations Council, which found children as young as three were able to recognise symbols as being linked to either loyalist or nationalist cultures.
That earlier study - carried out by the University of Ulster - found that by the age of six, 69% of the more than three hundred children surveyed could identify flags and parades as belonging to one 'side' or the other.