Child Development Ideas

Three Big Ideas about Child Development that all Teachers and Parents Should Know

Understanding child development means that we as carers and parents can understand skills and typical behaviours of children within our care, providing an environment which is nurturing and one that will foster growth. Laura Berk (2000) provides a simple definition of child development; “a field of study devoted to understanding all aspects of human growth and change from conception through adolescence.” (Berk: 2000, p4). This paper will look at three important theories of child development that you as a teacher or parent should know in order to understand the changes that take place from birth to adulthood.

When we talk about child development we refer to three stages called development areas;

- Physical development involves the growth and change in a person's body and body functions. In this domain we look at the physiological and motor development as well as the influences of health, illness and nutrition.

- Cognitive development refers to the growth and change of a person's ability to process information, solve problems and gain knowledge. In this area we consider the study of brain development, memory, learning, thinking, language and creativity.

- Social-emotional development involves the growth and change of our interactions with others and our feelings. Included in this area is the study of relationships, emotions, personality and moral development. Whilst we discuss each area of development separately it is important to realise that they do overlap. One domain can influence the other.

Interest in the field of child development began early in the 20th-century. Many theories have been put forward to explain why and how children develop. Theorist Jean Piaget played a major influence on the way we understand children. He explained children's development in terms of their cognitive development in a theory known as Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Piaget believed that children think differently from adults, arguing that it's not that children know less than adults but their thinking skills are qualitatively different. (Droz and Rahmy: 1976). Many of his ideas came from observing his own children.

Piaget was convinced that intellect grows through processes he termed assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation refers to using existing mental patterns in new situations. (Smith and Cowie: 1991). In accommodation, existing ideas are modified to fit new requirements. Thus, new situations are assimilated to existing ideas, and new ideas are created to accommodate new experiences. In his theory children mature through a series of distinct stages in intellectual development.
- Sensorimotor (0-2years): Piaget believed that an infant is born with no way of making sense of the world. Infants use reflexes which act on the world in specific ways so that the child gradually adapts to the world. Motor movements are seen as the basis for the eventual development of intelligence. These slowly become separated from motor activity as the child learns to represent objects, actions and thoughts through play and language. According to Piaget, object permanence emerges during infancy (Droz and Rahmy: 1976). This relates to the understanding that objects continue to exist even though they are out of sight.

- Preoperational (2-7 years):

Piaget describes toddler's thinking as illogical. This is due to two main characteristics of their thinking processes; egocentricism and centation. Piaget sees young children's thinking as egocentric; meaning they can only see things from their point of view. They cannot take into account the ideas or needs of others. Due to their stage of cognitive development their thinking is not yet flexible enough to consider more than one aspect of a given situation. They are now in a stage of self-centred thinking. (Droz & Rahmy: 1976). Centration is the term Piaget uses to describe young children's tendency to focus their attention on a single aspect of a situation or object. This is where Piaget's experiment for the conservation of volume. This stage of development also describes toddlers having improved memory skills, problem solving skills and begin to understand concepts; for example, words such as ‘big' and ‘small', colours and the ability to recite numbers. (Droz & Rahmy: 1976). As children progress into pre-school, children practise mental representations by using mental imagery and language symbols.

- Concreter Operational (7-12years):

The typical school aged child is entering this stage of development. Children begin to think logically however, they tend to need concrete objects to help them solve problems rather than being able to use abstract ideas. (Droz & Rahmy: 1976). Piaget would describe the school age child as less egocentric. According to his theory a child is now able to view the world and themselves from other perspectives. (Smith & Cowie: 1991). Children at this stage have a longer attention span, a better concept of time and distance and their ability to remember improves.

- Formal Operational (12-15years):

Children at this stage break away from concrete objects and thinking is based more on abstract principles, such as ‘honour' or ‘democracy'. (Droz and Rahmy: 1976). Full adult intellectual ability is attained during this stage. For Piaget, the development of scientific reasoning is the pinnacle of development. (Vialle, Lysaght, & Verenikina: 2008, p55). At this stage older adolescents can comprehend math, physics and other abstract systems.

Some critics have faulted Piaget's theory on several grounds but mostly for its vagueness. Some would say that Piaget's theory has limited our perception of children's capabilities- particularly in the pre-school years. Others say there has been too much focus on what children can't do rather than what they can. Hughes (1986) reported in detail, a study involving a box task in which young children displayed significantly superior performance adding and subtracting small numbers compared to formal testing. This study conveyed that counting, conversation and class inclusion success are apparently not beyond the preschooler when specially devised tasks are employed. “The task was real and meaningful for children in the way some of Piaget's tasks are not.” (Johnson: 1987). However, Piaget's work has encouraged us to see children's cognitive skills as being different from those of adults. His theory is valuable for understanding how children think. If we understand how children think and learn we can provide a stimulating environment that will support their learning. Using Piaget's theory of cognitive development, a teacher or parent's role is to provide the stimulation and observe carefully to see when to step in and interact or change experiences. (Slater, Hocking, and Loose: 2003).

While Piaget stressed the role of maturation in cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky focused on the impact of socio-cultural factors. His Socio-cultural theory of cognitive development saw that social interaction and language has a major influence on the development of children's thinking. Vygotsky places great importance on the tole of significant adults such as teachers, parents and also peers.

-The zone of proximal development:

Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children actively seek to discover new principles. However there is emphasis that many of a child's most important discoveries are guided by these significant adults. (Flanagan: 1996). Vygotsky realises that some tasks can be beyond a child's reach. The child is close to having the mental skills needed to do the task, but it may be slightly too complex to be mastered alone. The zone of proximal development means children learn with the guidance and assistance of those within their environment. Parents, teachers or other sensitive caregivers will know when children require assistance, guiding the child to support them in the learning process.

“…the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when a child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers.” (Vygotsky: 1978, as cited in Smith: 1998).

Vygotsky believed that children advance to higher stages of development by being stimulated and guided at the outside limits of their skill by others. Child development is the result of children's competence being challenged and extended with help. (Vygotsky: 1978, as cited in Smith: 1998). But Vygotsky's central interest was in the relationship between language and thought, and he attempted to explain how these interact developmentally.

- Language:

Vygotsky proposed that language plays a critical role in learning. In his view, language and thought at first develop independently, which he called pre-intellectual language and pre-linguistic thought. (Flanagan: 1996). Around the age 2-3years, this changes so that language and thought interact. Children move from a stage where language serves a largely social purpose; the social linguistic stage, to an egocentric stage where they use language to control their own behaviour and thought. Vygotsky noted that preschoolers often talk to themselves out loud as they complete activities and tasks. He called this Private speech. According to Vygotsky, private speech enables children to talk through problems. After the age of seven, this ‘self-talk' becomes silent; also known as inner speech. Throughout life, language serves dual purposes, for thought and for social communication. Since social processes shape language, they also shape thought. (Smith & Cowie: 1991). This emphasises the cultural nature of Vygotsky's approach. Speech is an essential tool to allow children to plan and carry out actions as well as control their own behaviour. It is the basis of the development of consciousness. (Tharp and Gallimore: 1988 as cited in Smith: 1998).

Play is important in the development of consciousness since it enables a child to develop rules based on ideas and meanings and not on objects themselves. (Smith: 1998). Vygotsky thought that imaginative play created a zone of proximal development for the child and that in play he always acted beyond his average age. When a child is confronted with a new problem it is incorporated into play as a means of working through the problem. Vygotsky argued that pretend play has two critical features. First, it creates imaginary situations in which children can learn to delay the immediate satisfaction of their wishes and secondly, it contains rules for behaviour and the opportunity to practise the use of them in imaginary situations. (Smith: 1998). Pretend play allows children to develop the capacity to separate thought from action to control impulses and develop reflective and self-regulatory behaviour. For example, when children use a shell to represent a cup, they are experimenting with the meaning of “cup” and separating this meaning from the type of objects usually associated with it. (Smith: 1998). Vygotsky also believed that by participating in dramatic play children could learn the rules of moral behaviour. The socio-cultural view of play as put forward by Vygotsky is that play is not a spontaneous event which occurs at a particular stage of development. Instead, pretend play arises out of children's experiences within the context of social interaction. Play occurs initially between caregivers and children, from which children learn the rules of pretending through support and guidance. (Berk: 1994, as cited in Smith: 1998).

Vygotsky's views about development provide a social, historical and culturally grounded view of human development and a theoretical framework that provides particular relevance to education. Vygosky argued that children's thinking is highly influenced by interactions and conversations with other peoples. If we want to understand how children think and learn, Vygotsky proposes that we need to observe them when they are relating with others. (Slater et al: 2003). “The expert teacher is central to Vygotskian theory. The teacher's role is to identify the students current mode of representation and then, through the use of good discourse, questioning and learning situations, provoke the student to move forward in his/her thinking.” (Zevenbergen, Dole & Wright: 2004).

Erik Erikson proposed a theory of development that focuses on the emotional and social aspects of development and how these impact on the overall development of the person from infancy to old age. (Slater et al: 2003). He called it a Psychosocial theory of development focusing on the social experiences we have in life that shape our psychological make- up. Erikson was a student of Sigmund Freud and believed that the social interactions an individual experiences has a greater influence on development. (Slater et al: 2003). Erikson identified eight stages of development over the entire human lifespan, each stage marked by a crisis. If each crisis is resolved in a positive way then the child would develop high self esteem and was more likely to respond to the next crisis in a positive way, developing a healthy personality. If the crisis was resolved in a negative way then it was likely the child would develop low self esteem and have difficulty resolving future crisis. (Slater et al: 2003). His theory, particularly the first four stages hold vital considerations for you as a teacher or parent, ensuring that young children develop and maintain a positive sense of emotional wellbeing.

-Stage one (0-1 years) Trust vs Mistrust:

According to Erikson, a critical emotional struggle in infancy is between trust and mistrust. Emotionally healthy babies come to understand they have nurturing, responsive caregivers who meet their basic needs. They view the world as safe and enter into trusting relationships with caregivers and later, other individuals. However, a degree of mistrust is also important to keep infants safe from harm. But for the most part, the emotionally healthy baby is trusting of the world. (Slee: 2002). A critical part of achieving trust from Erikson's view is the ability of infants to come to know and develop an emotional tie with caregivers; also known as attachment. Mary Ainsworth described attachment as “the affectional tie that one person forms to another specific person, binding them together in space and enduring over time” (Ainsworth: 1973 as cited in Slater, Hocking, and Loose: 2003).

- Stage two: (1-3 years) Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt:

Once toddlers have developed a sense of trust with significant adults and understand their basic needs will be met, they are willing to venture away from the safety of parents and caregivers. We see this as striving for control over their environment. (Slee: 2002). Children express their growing self control by climbing, touching, exploring and trying to do things for themselves (Coon & Mitterer: 2007). Offering support, achievable tasks and time, children are more likely to experience success and thus feel autonomous and develop feelings of positive self-esteem. (Slee: 2002). However, if we are impatient, provide tasks that are too difficult or become unsupportive with their efforts, children will develop feelings of shame and doubt about their abilities, resulting in low self esteem.

- Stage three: (3-5 years) Initiative vs Guilt:

In this psychosocial theory of development, Erikson saw the preschool years as a time when children develop a sense of initiative. Preschoolers develop an increasing sense of their own ability and have a desire to make things happen. Through play, children learn to make plans and carry out tasks. Parents can reinforce initiative by giving children freedom to play, ask questions, use imagination and choose their own activities. (Slee: 2002). When encouraged, this sense of initiative will support the development of high self esteem. However, when preschoolers receive negative feedback, prevent play or punished for trying to plan and make things happen they will develop a sense of guilt, thus developing low self esteem.

-Stage Four (6-12 years) Industry vs Inferiority:

Middle childhood is the time to resolve the crisis of industry versus inferiority, according to Erikson. Primary school years are a child's ‘entrance into life', where children begin to learn skills valued by society. His theory states that as children gain positive feedback from developing skills required for their particular culture, they will develop a sense of industry if they win praise for productive activities such as building, painting, cooking, reading and studying (Slee: 2002). This high self esteem will motivate children to challenge new tasks. However, if children receive negative feedback and have trouble developing skills and a sense of inferiority will arise, resulting in low self esteem and less motivation to try new tasks.

Human development is rich, varied, and enormously complex. Therefore we as childcare workers and parents cannot expect that any single theory of development will do. Often, one theory explains some aspects of behavior, while another theory fills in more of the story. Piaget, Vygotsky and Erikson provide us with an introduction to the diversity of child development. These theories of development are important in order to understand the growth of children in a physical, cognitive and socio-emotional context. The early years of a child's life are crucial for cognitive, social and emotional development. (Smith & Cowie: 1991). Therefore, it is important that we take every step necessary to ensure that children grow up in environments where their social, emotional and educational needs are met.


* Berk, L. (2000) Development Through the Lifespan: Observation Guide. Allyn and Bacon. UK.

* Coon, D., and Mitterer, J.O. (2007) Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. USA.

* Droz, R. and Rahmy, M. (1976) Understanding Piaget. International Universities Press, INC. New York. USA.

* Flanagan, c. (1996) Applying Psychology to Early Child Development. Hodder and Stoughton. London. UK.

* Johnson, J.E. (1987) Research and Related Issues: Cognitive Development of the Young Child in The Lipman Papers: Appropriate Programs for Four Year Olds. Pennsylvania State University. USA.

* Slater, A., Hocking, I., and Loose. J. (2003) Theories and Issues in Child Development in An Introduction to Developmental Psychology. Blackwell Publishing. Oxford. UK.

* Slee, P.T. (2002) Child, Adolescent and Family Development. Cambridge University Press. UK.

* Smith, A.B. (1998) Understanding Children's Development. 4th ed. Bridget Williams Books. Wellington, New Zealand.

* Smith, P.K. and Cowie, H. (1991) Understanding Child's Development. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers. Oxford. UK.

* Vialle, W., Lysaght, P., and Verenikina, I. (2008) Handbook on the child development 2E. Cengage Learning Australia. Victoria.

* Zevenbergen, R., Dole, S., Wright, R.J (2004). Teaching Mathematics in Primary Schools. Allen and Unwin. Sydney, Australia.

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