What is child development? It's the process that every child goes through and covers everything from physical skills such as sitting and standing, to social and emotional skills such as smiling or forming relationships with others. These skills are known as developmental milestones.
The early years are the most important time to start building a strong foundation for your children as they strive to reach their developmental milestones. Once your baby is born, every day will bring on wonderful changes as she grows physically and mentally Children grow and develop so quickly in the first five years of their lives that it’s important to track where they're at developmentally.
These milestones or skills are built across the main areas of child development which are:
- cognitive development,
- social and emotional development,
- speech and language development,
- fine motor skill development, and
- gross motor skill development.
The 5 Areas of Child Development
So what do they mean and how can we help develop them? Let's explore...
Areas of Child Development: Cognitive Development
As infants grow and reach early childhood, they become more aware of how the world works and have a better understanding of what, where, how, and why. Cognitive development in children is the development of skills and knowledge that help them understand their environment. It’s the development of their thought process - how they process information; how they think and feel; how they determine right from wrong; how they make decisions and solve problems; how they learn new things, and how they perceive the world around them.
Every day, even as adults, we gain more knowledge, learn new things, acquire new skills, form new or different opinions. Children are the same – as they explore their world and are exposed to a plethora of emotions, experiences, and situations, their brains constantly process new information and develop cognitive thinking.
Different Types of Cognitive Development
Cognitive development is often broken down into distinct categories that develop over a period of time, from birth, through to adolescence and adulthood. They include intellect, memory, and reasoning.
What do we know about cognitive development and how intellectual abilities develop? How much are children capable of learning at each stage of their development? Is it limitless or are there parameters? How do they develop the necessary skills to react and interact with the world around them? Is there an order to how their abilities develop?
These types of questions were answered by Jean Piaget. In 1952, the highly respected French psychologist, Jean Piaget, published his pioneering theory on cognitive development in children and introduced the concept of four cognitive stages of childhood development i.e. how and when a child’s intellectual skills are developed. It was controversial in its day as it contrasted against the thinking at the time that children had no cognition until they were able to speak. His theory is now well regarded as being highly influential in what we now understand about childhood cognitive development. The graphic below sets out his stages.
According to Piaget’s theory; cognitive development occurs in a series of four separate, universal stages, which always develop in the same order. Each stage builds upon what was learned in the previous one. So for example, children between the ages of 2-7 can imagine unseen objects (like a monster, or a scary ghost) but have not yet developed skills in deductive reasoning (i.e. to understand that monsters don't really exist). That would happen in the next stage: Concrete Operations (age 7-11).
In short, early foundations pave the way for more complex intellectual processes. Piaget also believed that there are genetic limitations to intellectual development i.e. you can’t “teach” intellect, and not all children are capable of achieving the same level of intellect, but you can present them with the tools that they need to move from stage to stage and to grow intellectually. As Piaget put it: “Intelligence does not by any means appear at once derived from mental development, like a higher mechanism, and radically distinct from those which have preceded it. Intelligence presents, on the contrary, a remarkable continuity with the acquired or even inborn processes on which it depends and at the same time makes use of”. (Piaget, 1963). Albert Einstein called Piaget's discovery "so simple only a genius could have thought of it."
Brain growth is part of cognitive development and as our babies’ brains develop in infancy and early childhood, so does their capacity to remember. Memory plays a hugely significant role in a child’s socio-emotional and cognitive functioning.
As we know, human brains aren’t fully developed at birth. The reason we can’t remember being a baby, yet we can remember every line from our favorite teen movie or song, is due to the way our brain develops, and more specifically, how our memory system develops from babyhood, through to adolescence and adulthood. While the development of memory (short & long-term) is most evident in the first 2-5 years of a child’s life, their memory continues to develop well into adulthood. Moreover, not all parts of the brain develop at the same time – in fact, the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25!
Information processing refers to how we take in and retain information. The Informational Processing Model developed by American developmental psychologists offers a contrasting take on Piaget’s model from two decades earlier. Whereas Jean Piaget’s theory suggests that thought development occurs in stages at a time, the Information Processing Model considers it more as a continuous pattern of development and likens a child’s mental process to a metaphor of a computer processing, encoding, storing and decoding data. The Model theorizes that children process the information they receive using their short and long-term memories, rather than responding solely to stimuli i.e. information they receive through their senses (sensory memory). In other words, children form the majority of their memories through their experiences and by talking about it with others (and their communication skills play a huge part in their ability to recollect events).
By ages 2-5 years, most children will be able to hold their attention for longer periods and recognize and recall information they’ve previously encountered. They’ll be able to recount an experience and reconstruct it in the present day. The formation of their short- and long-term memory helps children understand patterns and sequences of events. For example, they know that a visit to grandma’s involves a specific sequence of steps - a car ride, a short walk up the driveway, past the pond, being greeted by her two dogs, a homemade cookie and some milk for a snack, etc.
Between the ages of 5 and 7, children learn how to focus and use their cognitive abilities for specific purposes. For example, they can memorize lists of words (like “sight” words for reading) or facts. They can memorize letter sounds (phonics) and start learning to read. It’s at this age, where they also develop auditory processing, which is critical for good reading skills.
You can help develop your child’s memory by:
- Helping develop his language skills (see the section below)
- Teaching her songs – repetition is key. The more you play her and sing her favorite songs, the more familiar she’ll become with them. Add actions to match the words
- Asking her to repeat certain sounds or words, teach her colors and numbers and shapes
- Playing familiar games so he can use his recall to figure out what to do and how to do it.
- Developing her recall with age-appropriate questions or give her instructions to follow like; “where did you put the red ball?” “point to the doggy's tail”, or "did you have fun at Amy's house yesterday?"
- Fostering his imagination – he needs to be able to remember things in order to use his imagination! Pretend or imaginative play are great ways to trigger memories and form new ideas.
- As they get older, play memory games like “I went shopping” or use picture/playing cards.
Between around the ages of 2-6, children develop the ability to apply logic to situations as they learn more about how the world works. At the same time, they have trouble solving hypothetical or more abstract problems. For example; if they meet a dog that barks a lot, then they meet another dog that barks a lot, they may come to the conclusion that all dogs bark, as they still see the world in how it relates to them and through their own experiences. The school of thought is that very young children aren't capable of reason and don't show rational thoughts until between 5 and 7 years old, at which point they are better able to make connections between ideas.
There are many things we can do as parents to help promote our children’s cognitive development. This can literally start from the moment they’re born. The more we engage and interact with our children, the more opportunities we present them with to develop the necessary skills and abilities. As with adults, every child is different. For example, some will have excellent memories, others may have weaker memory skills but may show strength in logic and reasoning instead. Celebrate their strengths while gently working on their weaker skills.
Areas of Child Development: Speech & Language Development
The development of speech and language refers to the skills children use to understand and communicate with others. Language development helps your child communicate what they want and how they feel. It also is crucial to their thought process; problem-solving, and forming relationships with others.
It is a critical part of child development and most of the foundations for language development are laid down in the first 12 months of your baby’s life and develop at a rapid rate, especially between the ages of 2-5. Most children will have learned the basics by age 6.
What’s the difference between speech and language?
Speech refers to the making of sounds that become words. At around 2 months, babies first start cooing, and at 6 months they generally start babbling - this is them learning how to make the sounds which will eventually form words. It’s the physical act of talking, even if we don’t understand what they’re saying!
Language, on the other hand, is the use of words (spoken or written) and gestures to communicate and understand others.
They are many ways you can help promote early language development. Build on these skills by:
- Talking to your baby on a regular basis in her language. This is sometimes referred to as parentese or motherse! It’s the high-pitched tone of voice in an exaggerated and repetitive way that resonates well with baby (and is how we probably speak anyway when talking with young babies)! It’s not the same as baby talk per se (which is making sounds like goo goo gaga) which is less engaging for babies and doesn’t promote the same language benefits.
- Naming commonly used objects and activities so they become familiar with everyday words,
- Singing and reading to your baby to attune their ears to different sounds. As they get older, point out pictures in the book and name them. Ask her where things are on the page, like “where’s the doggy?” and praise her when she points to it
- Responding to their sounds and gestures – if he raises his arms to be picked up – pick him up and say “you want to be picked up?” If he makes funny sounds, mimic his sounds – demonstrate to your baby that you appreciate and understand his attempts at communicating.
- Ask her questions, even if she can’t answer you back yet. Give her the choice of a couple of books to read and hold up both books and see how she responds – is she more drawn to one than the other, does she point to one? If so, say something like; “you want to read this one? Ok, let’s read it!”
Areas of Child Development: Social and Emotional (Socioemotional) Development
This is the child's ability to interact with others, and to understand and manage his feelings and emotions. Examples of socioemotional skills are empathy, sympathy, recognizing and expressing feelings, relating to others, etc.
These skills begin in early childhood – from birth, as they interact with their caregivers and form emotional attachments - and will continue growing throughout adulthood. Babies show signs of socioemotional growth by smiling at you when he sees you, waving goodbye when someone leaves, sharing his toys with his sibling, even showing anxiety around strangers (around 7-9 months) or tantrums (around age 2). The positive and negative reactions are all a normal part of their emotional growth.
Healthy socioemotional skills will help your child form and maintain positive relationships, self-confidence, develop self-awareness and awareness of others and their feelings, manage stress and anxiety.
Ways to help your child develop healthy relationships:
- From birth, children need love and attention – lots of eye contact and affection
- Respond to their emotional (and physical) needs, and keep them safe and nurtured
- Model positive relationships and attitudes, express appropriate reactions to situations i.e. show and verbalize empathy if someone is sad.
- Interact with your child through play, stories, and learning
- Validate your child’s feelings, encourage them to share why they’re upset
Areas of Child Development: Fine Motor Skill Development
This refers to the physical skills needed to make small movements i.e. the small muscles, specifically their hands and fingers.
Fine motor skills start developing almost at birth as they grasp reflexively, followed a few months later when they place their fingers in their mouth, and by 6 months old, when they begin to grasp at objects. Fine motor skills involve more precision to perform than gross motor skills (don’t tell a soccer player we said that though!) and requires a number of independent skills (like hand-eye coordination, hand control, body awareness, and patience) to work together to perform the task at hand (no pun intended) and do things like play with toys, dress themselves, feed themselves, draw and write.
Ways to help promote fine motor skills include:
- Giving your child finger food so they can practice their pincer grip
- Playing with a variety of different toys which require fine handling or precision like building blocks, lacing beads, closing lids, pressing buttons, flicking switches, etc
- Art – scribbling, painting, drawing, coloring, writing
- Self-care – zipping up jackets, doing up buttons, putting on gloves and socks
Areas of Child Development: Gross Motor Skill Development
This refers to the physical skills needed to make large body movements i.e. the large muscles, specifically the head, neck, arms, and legs.
The first example of a child developing his gross motor skills is at around 3-4 months when he raises his head when pulled into a sitting position, followed by him rolling over.
Each stage of gross motor skill development leads to the next, as they strengthen the necessary muscles and bones to help them progress from rolling over to sitting, crawling, standing, walking, running, hopping, etc. Some gross motor skills also require eye-hand coordination skills such as throwing, catching, kicking, riding a scooter or a bike.
Ways to help promote gross motor skills include:
- Tummy time! Placing your baby on her tummy so she strengthens the muscles required to lift up her head, encourage her to reach for her favorite toy
- Place a toy out of his reach when he’s sitting or standing to encourage him to move his body to get it
- Get a baby stroller or a shopping cart for toddlers (or any wheeled toy with a high back) that the child can push around and use for balance to help them walk
- Encourage your child to play on a trampoline or on a play structure in the park so she can run, jump, climb, swing, and slide.
- Give her a ball to throw and kick
- Dance! Play "Simon Says"
Play is an important way for a child to develop mentally, emotionally, and physically. Check out our blog post on the Value of Learning Through Play to see how play-based learning can enhance your child's growth and development.
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