Early childhood is a time of remarkable physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Infants enter the world with a limited range of skills and abilities. Watching a child develop new motor, cognitive, language and social skills is a source of wonder for parents and caregivers.
The study of human development is a rich and varied subject. We all have personal experience with development, but it is sometimes difficult to understand exactly how and why people grow, learn and change. Developmental psychology seeks to understand and explain how people grow and change through the entire lifespan. Researchers study the enormous range of influences including how genetics shape a child's development as well as how experiences play a role.
Children aren't just growing physically during early childhood; they are also developing new cognitive abilities as they mature.
Early childhood is not only a period of amazing physical growth; it is also a time of remarkable mental development. Cognitive abilities associated with memory, reasoning, problem-solving and thinking continue to emerge throughout childhood. When it comes to childhood cognitive development, it would be impossible to avoid mentioning the work of psychologist Jean Piaget.
After receiving his doctoral degree at age 22, Jean Piaget began a career that would have a profound impact on both psychology and education. Through his work with Alfred Binet, Piaget developed an interest in the intellectual development of children. Based upon his observations, he concluded that children are not less intelligent than adults, they simply think differently. Albert Einstein called Piaget's discovery "so simple only a genius could have thought of it."Piaget created a theory of cognitive development that described the basic stages that children go through as they mentally mature. He believed that children are like "little scientists," actively trying to make sense of the world rather than simply soaking up information passively.
One of the key concepts in Piaget's theory is the use of schemas. According to Piaget, schemas are cognitive frameworks or concepts that help people organize and interpret information. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to or completely change previously existing schemas. For example, a young girl may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a cat. According to her schema, cat's are furry and have four legs. When she first encounters a dog, she might initially believe that the animal is a cat. Once the she learns that this is actually a dog, she will revise her schema for cats and create a new category for dogs.
Stages of Cognitive Development
- The Sensorimotor Stage: A period of time between birth and age two during which an infant's knowledge of the world is limited to his or her sensory perceptions and motor activities. Behaviors are limited to simple motor responses caused by sensory stimuli.
- The Preoperational Stage: A period between ages two and six during which a child learns to use language. During this stage, children do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information and are unable to take the point of view of other people.
- The Concrete Operational Stage: A period between ages seven and eleven during which children gain a better understanding of mental operations. Children begin thinking logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.
- The Formal Operational Stage: A period between age twelve to adulthood when people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.
As a child matures, parents eagerly await important milestones such as learning how to roll over and crawl.
As a child matures, parents eagerly await important milestones such as learning how to roll over and crawl. Each of these represents a part of physical development. The maturation process happens in an orderly manner; that is, certain skills and abilities generally occur before other milestones are reached. For example, most infants learn to crawl before they learn to walk. However, it is also important to realize that the rate at which these milestones are reached can vary. Some children learn to walk earlier than their same-age peers, while others may take a bit longer.
Motor Skill Development
As a child grows, his or her nervous system becomes more mature. As this happens, the child becomes more and more capable of performing increasingly complex actions. The rate at which these motor skills emerge is sometimes a worry for parents. Caregivers frequently fret about whether or not their children are developing these skills at a normal rate. As mentioned above, rates may vary somewhat. However, nearly all children begin to exhibit these motor skills at a fairly consistent rate unless some type of disability is present.
There are two types of motor skills:
- Gross (or large) motor skills involve the larger muscles including the arms and legs. Actions requiring gross motor skills include walking, running, balance and coordination. When evaluating gross motor skills, the factors that experts look at include strength, muscle tone, movement quality and the range of movement.
- Fine (or small) motor skills involve the smaller muscles in the fingers, toes, eyes and other areas. The actions that require fine motor skills tend to be more intricate, such as drawing, writing, grasping objects, throwing, waving and catching.
Physical development in children follows a directional pattern:
- Large muscles develop before small muscles. Muscles in the body's core, legs and arms develop before those in the fingers and hands. Children learn how to perform gross (or large) motor skills such as walking before they learn to perform fine (or small) motor skills such as drawing.
- The center of the body develops before the outer regions. Muscles located at the core of the body become stronger and develop sooner than those in the feet and hands.
- Development goes from the top down, from the head to the toes. This is why babies learn to hold their heads up before they learn how to crawl.
Research has shown that the way parents speak to their children plays an important role in language development.
There is perhaps nothing more remarkable than the emergence of language in children. Have you ever marveled at how a child can go from saying just a few words to suddenly producing full sentences in just a short matter of time? Researchers have found that language development begins before a child is even born, as a fetus is able to identify the speech and sound patterns of the mother's voice. By the age of four months, infants are able to discriminate sounds and even read lips.
Researchers have actually found that infants are able to distinguish between speech sounds from all languages, not just the native language spoken in their homes. However, this ability disappears around the age of 10 months and children begin to only recognize the speech sounds of their native language. By the time a child reaches age three, he or she will have a vocabulary of approximately 3,000 words.
Theories of Language Development
So how exactly does language development happen? Researchers have proposed several different theories to explain how and why language development occurs. For example, the behaviorist theory of B.F. Skinner suggests that the emergence of language is the result of imitation and reinforcement. The nativist theory of Noam Chomsky suggests that language in an inherent human quality and that children are born with a language acquisition device that allows them to produce language once they have learned the necessary vocabulary.
How Parents Facilitate Language Development
Researchers have found that in all languages, parents utilize a style of speech with infants known as infant-directed speech, or motherese (aka "baby talk"). If you've every heard someone speak to a baby, you'll probably immediately recognize this style of speech. It is characterized by a higher-pitched intonation, shortened or simplified vocabulary, shortened sentences and exaggerated vocalizations or expressions. Instead of saying "Let's go home," a parent might instead say "Go bye-bye."
Infant-directed speech has been shown to be more effective in getting an infant's attention as well as aiding in language development. Researchers believe that the use of motherese helps babies learn words faster and easier. As children continue to grow, parents naturally adapt their speaking patterns to suit their child's growing linguistic skills.
Ainsworth defines attachment as “an affection tie that one person forms to another specific person, binding them together in space, and enduring over time … [It] is discriminating and specific.” It is not present at birth, but is developed. In a word, attachment means love. Attachment behaviors such as crying, smiling, physical contact, and vocalizing are the means by which attachment is forged but are not to be equated with the more abstract, underlying construct of attachment. Attachment theory is strongly based on ethological notions. Thus, attachment is seen as serving a biological function, that is, the protection of infants by ensuring their proximity to (attached) adults. The common goal of attached individuals is proximity. Bowlby was influenced by Freud's psychoanalytic theory of development, but argues that there is a primary biological need to become attached to at least one adult, whereas Freud argued that love for a mother was secondary to her satisfaction of an infant's hunger.
L. Kohlberg's work on moral development spans the chasm between intellectual and emotional development. He studied reasoning about hypothetical moral dilemmas, such as whether a person should steal an unaffordable drug in order to save someone's life. He classified such reasoning in six stages. At birth children are considered to be premolar. By the age of 7, most children are in stage 1, chiefly characterized by the belief that people should act in certain ways in order to avoid physical or other punishment. In 2 or 3 years, children reason primarily in terms of doing things for rewards; this is stage 2. Stage 3 involves reasoning focused less on rewards than on maintaining the approval of others. Stage 4 involves reasoning that unquestioningly accepts conventional rules. Actions are judged by a rigid set of regulations, religious, legal, or both. Most individuals do not develop past this point. A few, however, do reach post conventional moral reasoning, stage 5. These individuals think in terms of moral principles. Rarely, a step higher to stage 6 is reached, governed by original abstract moral principles such as articulation of the golden rule. Kohlberg argued that moral development is progressive, without regression to earlier stages.
Intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed. Thinking is done in a non-logical, nonreversible manner. Egocentric thinking predominates. Socially, toddlers are little people attempting to become independent at this stage, which they are commonly called the "terrible twos." They walk, talk, use the toilet, and get food for themselves. Self-control begins to develop. If taking the initiative to explore, experiment, risk mistakes in trying new things, and test their limits is encouraged by the caretaker(s) the child will become autonomous, self-reliant, and confident. If the caretaker is overprotective or disapproving of independent actions, the toddler may begin to doubt their abilities and feel ashamed for the desire for independence. The child's autonomic development will be inhibited, and be less prepared to successfully deal with the world in the future.