By Milton V. Uecker, Ed.D.
To effectively teach and reach young children, parents, teachers and care providers must know child development. Development is a continuous progression of forward movement, a pattern of growth that takes place in an individual starting at conception and moving across the entire life span. Neurological growth (maturation), physical growth and the environment each contribute to a child’s physical, cognitive, social, spiritual and emotional development. Teachers have little or no influence on maturation or the physical growth, but they do provide environmental conditions and experiences that have a direct impact on the developmental process. Teachers must also know, observe and access development in that instruction should be linked to developmental readiness.
Successful parenting is directly linked to knowing children. Psalm 139:3 states that God, the heavenly Father, has an intimate knowledge of his children. It is this knowledge that is the basis upon which He can so personally and completely meet the needs of those He fathers. This individual acquaintance leads to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:32 that we need not worry about basic needs because “. . . your heavenly father knows that you need them.” Psalm 139:16 extends God’s knowledge across each individual’s life span. This truth is drawn directly from the Hebrew meaning of “. . . all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” All the days refers to each of the stages that one passes through. God has an intimate knowledge of every stage. Knowing the needs of children is foundational to effective parenting. Since early childhood teachers and caregivers are standing in the place of parents, they too must know children. This knowledge comes not only through personal observation over years of teaching, but it is acquired through a commitment to becoming a student of child development. Professionalism in early childhood is characterized by continuous growth in the skills and dispositions of teaching and a growing knowledge of child development. The developmental characteristics discussed within this chapter are chosen based upon their relevancy for the classroom. Because this is an education-centered overview of child development, teachers must still look to child development textbooks for a more comprehensive examination of development
When considering any stage theory it is important to remember that stages are not discrete time periods but rather overlapping phases of growth or a pattern of growth. Each child is believed to pass through the various stages while the timing and rate at which one reaches or progresses through a stage varies.
Development is an integrative process. The child’s experiences and growth in one strand of development (cognitive, physical, social, emotional or spiritual) has impact on other areas or strands. For example, fine motor readiness will affect self-concept when the expectations on the child to write before ready are too great and a child who is cognitively egocentric will have difficulty showing empathy. Because of this all areas of development must be viewed with equal importance if early education is to be successful. Early childhood educators have often erred in placing too much emphasis on cognitive factors. As important as the cognitive is to early education it does not operate in isolation. A successful educational beginning, wherever and whenever that occurs, must address the whole child and the total needs of each child. God demonstrates this in the second chapter of Luke where we observe Jesus at age twelve. Even though Jesus demonstrated an amazing cognitive ability (the teachers were amazed by Jesus’ questions and understanding), he came under his parents’ authority in order to continue growing across the strands of development---cognitive, physical, spiritual and social. Development takes time and experience along with the wisdom and patience from parents and teachers to provide the right experiences at the right time.
Attention to development has two dimensions. The normative dimension is based upon what is to be expected of most children at a given age level. This dimension seeks to meet the needs of a group of children at the same chronological age by recognizing where most children at that age are in a particular aspect of development. At the same time an individual dimension requires an evaluation of each individual child’s place along the continuum since the rate and timing of development varies from child to child. The normative dimension provides teachers with a starting point but it is the individual dimension that demands individualized instruction and outcomes. When studying development it is the normative dimension that is presented. Teachers must remember however that within a given group there will be children who are both ahead and behind the norm creating a developmental age difference of as much as five years (two above and two below) by kindergarten. Individual children may also vary across the strands of their own development, i.e., ahead in social development while behind in motor development.
The information within this chapter serves as a norm-based foundation for an individual’s desire to understand the nature and needs of the young child. It is the pursuit of this knowledge base that in part characterizes an early childhood educator as a professional.
Early childhood cognitive growth will be examined from the perspective of Jean Piaget’s developmental model and recent brain growth research. Piaget’s stage theory became the cognitive focal point during the late 60s and 70s as scores of authors began to apply Piaget’s theory to educational practice, while brain research and its instructional implications is the dominant influence within current literature and practice.
A teacher must understand Piaget in order to read professionally or understand the rationale for many early childhood instructional practices. Early childhood practice relates to two of Piaget’s four stages---Sensorimotor and Preoperational.
During the first two years a child increasingly gains control of reflexive movements and through this control, movement can be purposeful. Because of this the child is able to choose to interact with the environment and people. Control allows for acting upon objects with intent since there is now awareness that he or she can make things happen to external objects (Black and Puckett, 1996). With each new experience the child is confronted with new information that must be assimilated into an existing scheme, the internal general form for a knowing activity (Furth, 1970). The modification of a scheme or creation of a new one is referred to as accommodation. The child’s continual movement from old to new scheme through the activity of assimilation and accommodation is called equilibration. Each child during the sensorimotor period seeks after the new through motor exploration. This exploration is characterized by direct action upon objects and interaction with people. The sensorimotor child’s repetitive activity (4 to 8 months), where a simple activity is repeated over and over is at times an effort to bring about equilibration and at other times the earliest form of memory. After 8 months, an increasing number of actions are based upon imitation. The combination of imitative activity with repeated explorations gradually takes on the characteristics of play. Close observation of early childhood play illustrates the principles of sensorimotor cognition. As the child reaches the end of the sensorimotor stages he or she can think about objects and people that are not present. It is this ability and the emergence of symbolic play (picking up a block, holding it to the ear and saying hello) that marks the transition to the preoperational stage.
The child’s thought during the sensorimotor stage is egocentric. This refers to the child’s inability to take the perspective of another. Everything is viewed from the child’s position alone. This can be observed as the child grabs a toy from another. There is no thought or awareness of the relationship of that toy to the other child. Egocentric thought delays the emergence of empathy, which will be discussed within the context of social development.
Teachers during this stage should be viewed as facilitators. Teachers provide age appropriate objects for exploration, encouragement, and language explanations for what is happening. An observant teacher moves objects within the focus of the child and within the reach of the child. As the object is moved comments like “when we touch the ball it moves” or “this rattles as we shake it.” Interaction is also facilitated by playing alongside the child while thinking out loud about the actions. Egocentric actions should be not be viewed as misbehavior but rather stopped with verbal explanation, “You took the toy from Mary and now she is sad. This one is for you to play with. We will give this one back to Mary.”
The second of Piaget’s stages extends from approximately age two through age eight. Preoperational thought is marked by an ever increasing ability to think through forms of internal representations or symbols. Internal representations for thought are demonstrated through imitation, symbolic play, mental imagery, and language. The child busies himself with representational activities and language exploration (Labinowicz, 1980). However, the nature of thought at this time is considered prelogical (Piaget, 1952). This is demonstrated through the child’s inability to reverse a mental action. The logical relationship between addition and subtraction is not evident (if 2+3=5 then 5-3=2). If a ball of clay is rolled into a snake there is more clay because it covers more area (it is not mentally reshaped into its original form). This inability to see logical relationships is implied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 when he referred to the talk, thought, and reasoning of a child as different from that of the adult. Paul goes on to compare the difference between childish and mature thought to knowing in part as compared to knowing fully (I Cor. 13:11-12).
Preoperational thought is characterized by several easily observable cognitive behaviors. Children are perceptually bound. What is presently seen or experienced always holds greater validity for the child. This was illustrated through the common Piagetian task of comparing two rows of cookies matched one to one. The child recognizes them as being the same. However, if the examiner spreads the cookies in one row further apart, the appearance of a longer liner means that there are now more cookies in that row. The recent statement made by the child that the cookies were the same no longer is evident and thus could not be true.
The inability to focus on only one variable at a time is referred to as centration. Two factors are not considered simultaneously. This is exemplified during a seriation task. As the child attempts to line up a group of wooden rods from shortest to longest, one will observe the preoperational child carefully arranging the tops of the rods in a stair step while the bottom of the rods are not along a common baseline. The focus was on one dimension rather than on the tops and the bottoms of each rod.
Language representations along with other symbols have a single, literal meaning. Preoperational thinkers are like Amelia Bedelia, the immature thinker in the stories written by Peggy Parish. Amelia sees only the concrete literal meaning for all words. If she is asked to dust the house she throws powder around all the rooms and if she is to dress the turkey she outfits the turkey with fancy ribbons. “Why can’t I play football in this coat? It is called a sport coat,” declares the preschool boy in Family Circus. The preoperational child often takes the exhortation to “invite Jesus into their heart” literally and the fear of this physical transaction can result in a conflict within the child’s spirit.
These illustrations of preoperational thought point to the importance of concrete experiences if concepts are to be formed and understood. As the child “moves his or her muscles through each concept,” the language of a more mature thinker prompts the child to assimilate and accommodate a more accurate understanding of the world. Adults should respond to the child’s statements by expanding upon their language with additional ideas and new vocabulary.
The nature of preoperational thought points to the importance of play as a means of promoting and clarifying learning and testing language. As teachers promote and observe play and listen to the child’s language during imitative play, the child’s level of understanding will be revealed. Imitative play demonstrates the representational thinking that dominates cognitive development at this time. A class of preschool children returns from an airport field trip. The teachers are disappointed with what appeared to be a guided presentation that was “above the heads” of the children. Given an opportunity for play later in the day the children demonstrate the relationship between play and learning. The puppet stage became an airport ticket counter, large cardboard blocks were divided out as suitcases, sheets of scratch paper became tickets, and wood blocks became microphones for announcements, telephones, and rubber stamps for marking tickets. Students played the roles of ticket agents, passengers, and security inspectors. As the teachers listened to the role-playing, the language and activity demonstrated the educational impact of the “failed” fieldtrip.
Black, J. K., & Puckett, M. B. (1996). The Young Child. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Furth, H. G. (1970). Piaget for Teachers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Labinowicz, E. (1980). The Piaget Primer: Thinking, Learning, Teaching. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc.
A discussion of cognitive development would not be complete without looking at the development of the brain itself. Brain research consistently affirms the importance of the first four years as critical to the preparation of the brain for the schooling experience. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, when discussing the importance of the early years quotes Felton Earls of Harvard saying, “…by age four you have essentially designed a brain that is not going to change very much more” (Jensen, 1998).
The environmental stimuli during the early years facilitate the growth of the brain’s cortex, the dendrite branches that connect the neurons along neural pathways and even the size of the cells themselves. Neural stimulation through new experiences wires the brain for those activities in the future. According to Jensen, exposure to the sounds of a language, wires for that language. Experience with an expanded vocabulary wires the brain for language skills, being read to wires the brain for learning syntax, vocabulary, and meaning. Because of the connections between motor development and later learning, crawling and other motor activities prepare the child for school success. Every experience impacts the brain. It should be noted that stressful experiences contribute negatively in that “the brain reorganizes itself, increasing receptor sites for alertness chemicals. This increases reactivity and blood pressure, and the child will be more impulsive and aggressive in school” (Jensen, 1998, p. 19). Many children who come to preschool have had inadequate language and motor experiences to prepare them for later learning. It becomes critical therefore that the focus of early childhood be on movement, creative play, and interactive language.
“The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging problem solving” (Jensen, 1998, p. 35). Of particular importance is the rapid growth of dendrite branches in the left hemisphere between age 4 and 7. Problem-solving objectives including the ability to think independently and determining alternate solutions to problems are best realized in an atmosphere where children are encouraged in their efforts to actively explore and find alternative answers to problems (Catron, 1999). Different means toward solutions involve different areas of the brain. The solution might involve paper and pencil, a mental model, mathematics, art, or a verbal explanation. As the child engages in a variety of strategies, a corresponding variety of neural pathways are created. Pathways are created through the activity regardless of the accuracy or quality of the solutions (Jensen, 1998).
Activities that involve the students in observing, divergent and convergent thinking, predicting and testing ideas and classifying should occur frequently within the early childhood classroom (Kostelnik, 1993). These activities are supported by flexible play-oriented environments where teachers are enthusiastic and wait upon the children for answers. The teacher points toward answers through questions as opposed to providing answers through demonstration (Kostelnik, 1993).
Additional Theories of Cognitive Development
Even though Piaget and brain research have had a major impact on early education, a discussion of cognitive development would remain incomplete without considering some additional learning theorists that have influenced early childhood education. These theorists often provide answers to questions that are inadequately addressed by others. A developmental educator searches out truth from within the frameworks of all theorists. Christian early childhood educators, like their secular counterparts, understand that no one theory adequately addresses the complexities of human growth and development. God has given man the ability to observe and use his unique rational ability to search out truth. In addition to the understandings gained from man’s quest for knowledge, the Christian searches the Truth from God’s Word as a source for understanding children and as a benchmark against which to evaluate a given theorist’s ideas.
Development is viewed as synonymous with learning. Experiences shape development through conditioning. Reinforced behaviors when repeated become conditioned responses and from the behaviorist perspective, learning has taken place. Unlike stage theorists, the behaviorist sees the principles of behaviorism as consistent across all ages. Within the behaviorist framework anything can be taught at any time through the process of positively reinforcing desired responses.
Social Learning Theory (Bandura)
Albert Bandura and other social learning theorists reacted to the behaviorist’s treatment of man as a mere animal. This theory addresses man as unique and adds to the principles of behaviorism the influence of a social context on the child’s learning or development. A child is an observer of more mature models. Learning can occur through imitation rather than through pure trial and error. As in behaviorism there are no discrete stages.
Contextualist Theory (Vygotsky)
From the contextualist perspective learning drives development and learning is facilitated through interaction with more competent individuals (mediators). As children involve themselves in activities where they can achieve a task through the mediation of another, they take on the ability to do the task independently. The mediator facilitates learning (development) by pointing out relevant details, asking questions that promote thought, or modeling the thinking process needed for the new skill or activity. The child adopts the speech of the mediator and self-talks his or her way through the activity. As the speech is internalized, learning occurs. Unlike behaviorists who believe any task can be learned through adequate conditioning, the contextualist believes that there are activities that children cannot do even with assistance and should therefore be postponed.
Upon examination of these theorists certain truths from each become evident. In reality the elements discussed by each theorist are operative. Each provides factors that must be considered when addressing the complexities of learning in the young child. At the same time there emerges a pattern of instructional activity that would promote learning within each of these theoretical frameworks. It is this synthesis that characterizes the practices of a student-sensitive approach to learning.
Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A.K. & Whiren, A.P. (1993). Developmentally Appropriate Programs in Early Children Education. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Catron, C.E. & Allen, J. (1999). Early Childhood Curriculum: a Creative-play Model. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
The differences between the major cognitive theorists are illustrated when addressing the question of how language is acquired.
The behaviorist sees language learning as the result of verbal approximations that are reinforced by parents and other care providers. As words and sentences emerge, rewarded language is reinforced and repeated. Over time one’s language develops. The social learning theorist emphasizes modeling and imitation as the dynamic behind the process.
The contextualist sees language development as directly related to cognition. Vygotsky believed that cognition and language develop separately prior to age two. After two, however, the child’s thinking and talking interact and reinforce each other (Caplovitz Barrett, 1994, p. 233). This can be observed as the child talks to himself (self-talk) while exploring something new or trying to solve a problem. The mediator shapes the child’s thinking by directing and modeling thought through verbal interaction with the child. This is referred to as scaffolding since this talk promotes thinking at a higher level. As the mediator's talk becomes the child’s self-talk, both language and cognition develop.
The nativist theory of language acquisition is heavily influenced by the work of Norm Chomsky. As explained by Barrett et al., it is Chomsky’s belief that language is innate or a function of biology. He based this view on the fact that children all over the world learn language with similar timing and sequence. Chomsky believed that this natural inclination toward language learning originates in a language acquisition device (LAD). This LAD, within the context of a language rich environment, facilitates language growth. From babbling to simple recognizable sounds, from a single word to two word phrases that take on the structure of a sentence, from complete sentences to complex sentences, language unfolds across different cultures and languages with similar timing and sequence (Caplovitz Barrett, 1994, p. 232).
The nativist theory forms the philosophical foundation for the whole language approach. Even though this approach has often been criticized as inappropriate for Christian schools, it is perhaps in theory most compatible with a biblical approach. Man was created in the image of God. The first chapter of John refers to Jesus as the Word and that through Him all things were made. Words (language) are therefore a part God’s image and distinguish man as a unique creation. The “word-nature” of Adam is illustrated as he was called upon to name all the animals (Gen. 2:19, NIV). Language, both spoken and written, would be used for communication within God’s relationship to man and therefore a capacity provided for by God.
Regardless of one’s starting point, all language theory ultimately yields to the fact that language learning is a remarkable task, universal in scope, and a mystery when considering the intricacies of the task. However, modeling and language interaction are common facilitators regardless of theory and these methods must therefore have a prominent place in practice.
Caplovitz Barrett, K. (1994). Child Development. New York: Macmillan/Mc-Graw Hill.
Through a process similar to talking, a child progresses through stages of symbol identification (reading) and symbol production (writing). The child who is read to often realizes that symbols represent reality. No sooner has the child begun to talk than he or she recognizes the golden arches and other common symbols. By age three they understand that print has meaning and the child may tell the story while looking at print. As oral reading continues the child realizes that sounds are connected to letters both through observation and the scaffolding of the reader. Many children who are read to regularly, whose visual and auditory discrimination and memory are ready, and whose parents asked questions to challenge the child’s literacy awareness begin reading prior to first grade.
Today it is commonly believed that the nativist process, along with the sequential presentation of phonics within the context of reading, is the most effective method for learning to read. It would also be true that the presentation of phonics would be most effective following the contextualist model of Vygotsky as opposed to a more behavioral approach of isolated drill and practice.
Learning to write, including spelling awareness, proceeds through ordered stages as well. The child moves from representing words with scribbles, to simple pictures, to a mixture of alphabet letters (usually capitals) and numbers. He or she then begins to group letters with a correct letter gradually emerging at the beginning of the cluster. Words are then constructed with a correct initial letter (sound letter correspondence) and then a correct ending sound/letter is added. During kindergarten and first grade the child begins to construct words containing all the sounds heard (phonetically correct spelling). This landmark task is referred to by proponents of whole language as invented spelling. As the child learns to read and a familiarity with words develops, the inclusion of letters that are not heard emerges. Children who have reached this last stage are ready for formal spelling instruction since both the auditory and visual factors that contribute to producing a good speller are present (Gentry, 1984, pp. 15-16). These predictable stages of writing/spelling again testify to the tremendous language capabilities that are emerging during the early childhood years. These capabilities need to be recognized and encouraged by parents and teachers. Teachers should focus on newly demonstrated insights into spelling, what is correct or logical, as opposed to an over emphasis on correcting approximations and errors.
Gentry, J. R. (1984). Developmental aspects of learning to spell. Academic Therapy, 20(1), 15-16.
Provide a variety of hands-on learning materials
Involve all the senses in the learning of new concepts
Expose the children to new places and people
Allow for active exploration of the learning environment
Provide dress-up clothing and a variety of fabrics cut in basic geometric shapes
Build on experiences that are within the context of the child’s immediate world
Practice new skills in a wide variety of contexts before moving to something new
Focus on absolute properties of objects rather than relationships between them
Build on child’s interests in order to promote active involvement
Allow time for children to become comfortable with new skills and ideas before working on and correcting the details
Provide ample time for classroom and outdoor pretending and play
Create a “block” center
Utilize a sand and water table
Provide a variety of media and materials for artistic expression
Allow children to explore a variety of natural phenomena (magnets, objects to float and sink, steam, water, ice etc.)
Let children explore salvaged objects by taking them apart and attempting to put them together again
Avoid showing a model that encourages “look alike” products
Encourage student talk
Have students recall activities verbally
Expand upon a child’s language as a means of learning and encouragement
Ask questions and point out relevant properties of objects and topics being discussed
Model what you want the children to learn
Read to them constantly
Provide an emotionally safe environment so children can take risks
Beware of an overemphasis on one right answer
Introduce and provide “brain-building” foods as snacks
Combine movement with talk and music
Create an environment with a minimal amount of stress
Model thinking by verbalizing the thinking process before the students
Be patient, allow time for a child to develop solutions
The early childhood years include three of four phases of motor development. Growth or change can be observed across three types of movements---stability, locomotor, and manipulative (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 82). Stability involves the child’s movement in response to balance or equilibrium. Locomotor movement is movement that leads to a change in the body’s location (i.e., walking, running, skipping) and manipulative movement is gross or fine motor movement that involves the interaction of the child with an object (i.e., throwing, catching, kicking, writing, cutting).
Movement during this time is reflexive in nature. The child reacts to environmental factors like light and sound. The sucking reflex is the nervous system’s first fully developed motor system and is present at birth. The reflexive stage’s movements are often essential to survival. Even though involuntary in nature, movement at this time is wiring the brain for later stability, locomotor, and manipulative activity. Toward the end of this stage there is the emergence of the inhibition of many reflexes. “Lower brain centers gradually relinquish control over skeletal movements and are replaced by voluntary movement activity mediated by the motor area of the cerebral cortex” (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 84). This change moves the child from mere reaction to movement that involves a processing of sensory stimuli and a subsequent voluntary response.
The rudimentary stage is made up of newly emerging voluntary movements. These movements are the foundational levels of stability (control of neck and trunk), locomotor (creeping and crawling), and manipulative movement (reaching and grasping). By the end of this period, remarkable progress has been made in the child’s ability to balance, manipulate objects, and move around her environment (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 85).
This phase is a focal point for the early childhood educator. It is during this phase that children establish the movement patterns necessary for efficient motor functioning. The development of these patterns is not only important to the child’s physical well being but is (as discussed later) related to the child’s overall learning readiness and school success. Development of fundamental skills is greatly influenced by environment and the classroom is a major sector of the child’s environment. The classroom can provide encouragement along with instruction and time for activity or practice.
According to Gallahue and Ozmun (1989), this phase has three stages, and these are identified by observing changes in the specific quality of the movement patterns. For example, during the initial stage or first attempts at throwing or catching, the observer will notice “movement characterized by missing or improperly sequenced parts, markedly restricted or exaggerated use of the body, and poor rhythmical flow and coordination” (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 87). An overall sense of timing (coordination) is missing. The elementary stage is characterized by better control and coordination while overall movement still remains either restricted or exaggerated. Without instruction and practice, many of the fundamental movements remain at the elementary level. Once at the mature stage, movement will be efficient, controlled, and coordinated. Most children can reach this stage by age five or six, however, “manipulative skills that require tracking and intercepting moving objects (catching, striking, volleying) develop somewhat later because of sophisticated visual-motor requirements of these tasks” (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 87). During the mature stage, the child anticipates the movement with preparation or stance. The pattern within the movement is correct and there is correct follow-through to complete the activity. For example, when throwing a ball, preparation includes a full swing of the arm backward with the opposite elbow raised for balance. During execution, the elbow of the throwing arm moves horizontally and the forearm rotates with the thumb pointing downward; the trunk rotates and the throwing shoulder drops slightly. Upon release there is follow-through of the arm along with a weight shift and step forward with the opposite foot (Gallahue & Ozmun, 1989, p. 268). Early childhood teachers should know the elements of a mature fundamental movement in order to model and evaluate a student’s progress. In addition to observable difference in rate and timing between children, there will also be differences exhibited by an individual child relative to specific motor tasks. Running may be at a more mature level than skipping or elements within a specific movement task (a more developed body stance while striking a ball accompanied by an immature swing and follow-through).
Children should engage in a full spectrum of movement activities in order to encourage and practice fundamental skills. It is also important that children develop the full scope of fundamental movements in preparation for the more specific sport related skills that follow these stages. However, if a child focuses too early on a set of skills typical of one sport, it may be at the cost of the overall accuracy and fluency of other movements. For example, children are sometimes weaker in upper body strength and ability from involvement in fewer activities that require the use of the upper body.