Stone Age children may have played with toy axes and gone to school, researchers believe.

Archaeologists have studied Neanderthal sites across Europe, collecting bones and artefacts, building a picture of everyday life in prehistoric communities.

Instead of caveman life being nasty, brutish and short, the team believes that it was formed around tightly bonded families, where children were educated, and the elderly and disabled supported.

"The reputation of the Neanderthals is changing. Partly that's because they have been shown to have bred with us – and that implies similarities to us – but also because of the emerging evidence of how they lives," Penny Spikins, a researcher in human origins at York University, told the Sunday Times.

In a paper, she and her colleagues identify three sites, two of them in England, where toy-like hand axes were found.

They believe that Neanderthal children may also have been schooled in how to make tools. At one site in France and another in Belgium, stones were found that had been skilfully crafted alongside others that were inexpertly chipped, as if by learning children.

"Learning how to make hand axes may have been part of the adult sculpting of emotional self-control in children," said Spikins.

She believes that as well as being schooled, Neanderthal children may have played games like peek-a-boo.

"Peek-a-boo and various throwing and swinging play occur in great apes as well as humans, and albeit by implication, perhaps also in Neanderthals," said the paper.

Spikins said that the research may help establish a more nuanced view of Neanderthals, and help overturn assumptions that they were evolution's losers.

"Every species has its day, then gets replaced," she said. "They lasted 250,000 years whereas we have only been here about 100,000. So who was the more successful?"