Early childhood is a period of development that spans the ages from 3 to 5 years, between the end of the toddler years and the start of first grade. It is the time in the young child’s life when the foundation is laid for physical, linguistic, cognitive, and social-emotional abilities that will expand throughout life. Yet there is an unmistakable quality to early childhood that makes it one of the most interesting and charming periods of human development.
With the start of the early childhood years, babyhood rapidly becomes a thing of the past. The chubby, big-headed body of the baby becomes transformed into the more sure-footed, slimmer, and proportioned physique of the young child. The three and four-word utterances used for the basic communication of wants and needs now blossoms into grammatically correct and complex sentences. There are great advances in children’s thinking about real-world events, which is often expressed in creative ways through pretend play, drawing, and painting. But children’s thinking is also characterized by a form of egocentrism in which inanimate objects are given human qualities, such as when young children believe that the moon and the sun follow them when they move, that dreams are movies shown on closed eyelids, and that all activity of the world ceases when the child is asleep. This type of thinking is endearing and amusing but can also cause young children to have nightmares and irrational fears of monsters in the closet and alligators under the bed and lead to the need to summon imaginary playmates as friends and protectors.
At the same time, there are great advances in children’s memory capacity, general knowledge about the world, and self-control that will prepare them for the cognitive and social-emotional demands of the first grade. Continued brain development underlies many of these changes, and these new abilities result from a dynamic interplay between genetic inheritance and experiences in the physical and social world.
A table that summarizes the major developmental milestones achieved during early childhood for each of the following behavioral domains of physical growth, motor, language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills is presented toward the end of this entry.
Physical Growth: Size, Proportion, And Brain Development
From age 3 to 5, children grow in a steady manner, gaining about 5 to 7 inches in height and 8 to 10 pounds in weight, or an average of 2.5 to 3.5 inches in height and 4 to 5 pounds each year. Unlike the infancy and toddler years, when the head is bigger in proportion to the rest of the body and “baby fat” gives all children a cherub-like appearance, in early childhood children become taller and slimmer as the proportion of torso and limbs to head starts to even out. At age 2, for most babies, the size of the head is about one fourth of their overall body, whereas the size of the head is about one fifth of the body by age 6.
There is great variation among children in physical growth, with boys growing slightly taller and heavier than girls. In addition to gender, good nutrition, physical activity, and health care are leading factors that can promote healthy growth and prevent malnutrition or obesity. The number of children who are obese today is rising, in part due to inactivity associated with more sedentary activities such as television watching and videogame playing, along with eating greater amounts of processed “junk food.” Associated with higher rates of obesity is a serious increase in the number of cases of juvenile diabetes. While many children in industrialized nations acquire unhealthy patterns of nutrition and inactivity, many young children around the world today, and especially those who live in developing nations, are malnourished due to hunger, and malnourishment not only stunts physical growth, it increases susceptibility to disease and illness.
Brain development is an important aspect of physical growth during early childhood. The brain continues to increase in size and weight, although at a slower rate than previously. New synapses, or connections between neurons, continue to form, and previously established connections become stronger. Some synapses that were present at birth will be pruned away due to inactivity, as experience continues to sculpt the brain. The two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, or the upper layer of the brain, become more lateralized, or specialized, in their functions, with the left hemisphere becoming dominant for many language functions and the right hemisphere dominant for many motor functions. Research shows that there is especially strong electrical activity in the left hemisphere of the brain from 3 to 6 years of age, while electrical activity in the right hemisphere remains at levels constant to those throughout childhood. This increased activity in the left hemisphere may be important for the many advances in language and cognition that appear in early childhood.
Throughout early childhood, the process of myelination, or the appearance of a fatty substance along the body of the neuron, persists and provides insulation to make electrical signals travel faster between neurons. This process continues well beyond early childhood, but continued myelination of the motor cortex is one factor that helps children to acquire more refined gross and fine motor skills.
The Acquisition Of Gross And Fine Motor Skills
During early childhood, children gain increased control of their bodies. This new mastery permits them to engage in a wider range of physical activities than before. At the start of early childhood, at age 3, most young children do not have the level of control over their bodies required for highly skilled actions, but by age 5, children are able to start, stop, and change directions with sufficient skill to be able to play physical games such as tag. Researchers have discovered that activity level is higher during the early childhood years than at any other time in development, which gives young children many opportunities to practice and refine their gross and fine motor skills.
Gross motor skills involve those actions that are performed by using large muscle groups in the body. Boys tend to jump higher and throw farther than girls, most likely because they have greater muscle strength and higher activity levels. However, girls are better than boys in gross motor skills that require skilled coordination of arms and legs, such as balancing on one foot or hopping. During early childhood, the mastery of basic motor skills becomes coordinated into systems of actions that will eventually permit children to master the basic body movements required for the organized sports and games played in school and for after-school sports, such as youth soccer.
Fine motor skills involve actions that are more precise and are performed by using smaller muscle groups, typically in the fingers and hands. Girls tend to acquire fine motor skills faster than boys do and at a higher level of skill, perhaps because girls are less active than boys when it comes to gross motor skills, leaving them more opportunity to focus on the precision of fine motor skills. However, future research is needed to explore this possibility. By the end of the early childhood period, both girls and boys usually have mastered the fine motor skills required for being able to dress themselves, including buttoning, zipping, and tying shoelaces.
Changes In Language Skills
Children’s language skills grow rapidly during the early childhood period. Throughout this process, young children understand the meaning of more words than they can produce. Because of this interesting trend, researchers distinguish between receptive vocabulary, the words that children understand, and productive vocabulary, the words that children can use when speaking. At age 3, on average, children produce between 900 and 1,000 words and have been estimated to understand about 1,200 words. By age 6, when children enter first grade, most have a productive vocabulary of about 2,600 words and they understand over 20,000 words. Researchers estimate that during early childhood most children learn between 5 and 10 new words per day!
It is not just the number of new words that young children learn that is impressive, but also how language permits them to express more complex ideas in ways that increasingly approximate mature language ability. By the end of early childhood, children’s speech reflects almost all aspects of adult grammatical forms. For example, during this time children master pronouns (e.g., “I,” “me,” “you”); possessives (e.g., “Mommie’s,” “Tommy’s”); past, present, and future verb tense; and even plurals, but sometimes young children may over apply grammar rules, for example, when they say, “I have two feets!” As children gain more experience with hearing and speaking language, they learn irregular grammatical forms, so that these types of language errors typically vanish before the start of first grade.
The structure and rules of language differ the world over, yet there are remarkable similarities in language development during the early childhood years. Despite these similarities, there are differences among children in language acquisition. Many factors influence children’s language acquisition, such as their genetic makeup and the extent of experience children have with language, including how much is spoken to them, whether and how parents engage them in conversations, and the degree to which literacy is encouraged through reading books together and structured activities in nursery or preschool.
Because young children learn language at such a rapid rate during early childhood, sometimes they learn words that they don’t understand, much to the consternation of parents who quickly learn that swear words spoken in the presence of young children are often repeated, usually at the most inopportune and embarrassing times! Another interesting feature of language use during this age is children’s use of already-mastered words to express ideas for which they haven’t yet learned the right word. For example, a young child visiting the zoo and seeing an ostrich for the first time might call it a “giraffe bird,” because it has the long neck feature of a giraffe, while also noting that it has feathers like most birds. In this regard, children’s language skills also provide insights into their cognitive abilities.
Advances In Cognition
Perhaps the most notable feature of early childhood is the progress in young children’s ability for symbolic representation, or being able to use words, symbols, gestures, and images to stand in place of, or to re-present, people, objects, events, and actions that are not present. Representational ability permits children to move beyond the here and now, such that children can express their memories of past events and entertain the possibility of events that will happen in the future. Representational ability also permits children to think before acting, which often leads to more deliberate planning in problem solving and fewer attempts at trial and error solutions. Three and 4-year-olds become better at planning multiple-step solutions to problems such as dragging a chair across the kitchen floor to get up onto a counter to open the cabinet door where the cookie jar lives on the middle shelf!
In addition to language acquisition and planned solutions to solve problems, the appearance of pretend play is another example of representation. With pretend play, children progress from using realistic objects, such as picking up a toy phone and pretending to talk to Daddy while he is at work, to using a variety of objects, including a block, a banana, or even a remote control, as a telephone while they fabricate imaginary conversations. Later in the early childhood period, young children engage in dramatic play by constructing scenes with assigned roles, such as “I’ll be the baby, you be the Mommy, and Cookie Monster can be Daddy.” Children enjoy this type of organized play, and it often functions to let them gain mastery and some degree of control over familiar situations in which they often have little control over what happens.
Limitations on Reasoning
Greater skill in thinking and reasoning comes with the growth of representational ability, but with these advances, there are also interesting limitations on young children’s logical abilities. More than 75 years ago, Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss developmental psychologist, described children’s thought in early childhood as being preoperational in the sense that children’s ability to reason was not yet fully operational in the use of logic. For example, when Piaget showed 5-year-olds two identical tall, narrow glasses of water, and then poured the water from one tall, narrow glass into a short, wide glass, children reported that there was more water in the tall, narrow glass, even though they agreed that there was the same amount of water in the two tall, narrow glasses before Piaget started pouring, and there was the same amount even when he poured the water from the short, wide glass back into the narrow, tall glass.
Piaget named this situation the conservation-of water task and explained this surprising response as young children’s failure to conserve the absolute quantity of water despite its transformation from one size glass to a different-sized glass. This is an example of one type of inflexibility in thinking Piaget identified in early childhood. He suggested that this inflexibility leads young children to focus only on one aspect of a problem at a time. In the conservation of water task, young children focus only on the higher water level in the tall, narrow glass without realizing that the lower water level in the shorter glass is compensated by its greater width. Young children are similarly fooled by appearances when they choose a nickel over a dime because it is bigger, or complain that a sibling was given more ice cream if the same-sized two scoops are put in a bigger dish. The trouble children sometimes have with distinguishing between reality and appearance is a unique aspect of early childhood that declines when older children are able to use logic to discover that reality and appearance sometimes differ. For example, a second-grader would tell Piaget that the amount of water is the same in the different-sized glasses and would prove it by pouring the water from the short, wide glass back into the tall, narrow glass.
Related to young children’s inflexibility in thinking is the concept of egocentrism, Piaget’s term for young children’s tendencies to view the world only from their own unique perspective. If a young child is asked what Mommy might like for her birthday, the child is more likely to suggest a desired toy rather than something more suitable for an adult. Egocentrism also leads young children to animistic thinking— attributing human-like abilities and intentions to inanimate objects such as when they express beliefs such as the “sun goes to sleep” at night and explain that they can always see the sun or moon in the sky (when it isn’t sleeping!) because it follows the child.
These observations suggest that, during early childhood, young children are limited in their understanding of the world and in their thinking skills in unique ways. While other researchers have also observed many of the same interesting early childhood behaviors that Piaget described, they have provided different explanations for why they occur, often focusing on young children’s memory.
Information Processing and Memory
Instead of putting as much emphasis on egocentrism as Piaget did, other researchers explain that young children make errors on various conservation tasks, not necessarily because they are limited in their logic, but because the complexities of the task exceed the amount of information that children can remember and keep in mind long enough to think about. In a typical conservation-of number task, where two identical rows of six buttons are lined up next to each other, and then one row is spread out in comparison to the other, 5-year-olds will typically say that there are more buttons when pointing to the row that is spread out, even though both rows contain the same number of buttons. When researchers use a smaller number of buttons in this task—three or four buttons instead of six or seven—young children are not fooled by the appearance of the spread-out row of buttons, and they demonstrate conservation of number by reporting that each row has the same number of buttons.
Many researchers today agree that Piaget underestimated the degree to which memory can affect how young children perform on cognitive tasks. This recognition has led to a focus on memory development during the early childhood years. One aspect of memory that develops during early childhood is short-term memory capacity, the amount of information children can remember and use for short periods of time. When young children hear a string of digits spoken out loud and are asked to repeat as many as they can remember, there is a steady increase from being able to remember two digits at the start of early childhood and up to four digits by age 5. In comparison, most adults remember an average of seven digits, or a range between five and nine.
Together, these advances and limitations in thinking and memory make the period of early childhood one of the most interesting. The unique quality of how children think in early childhood also provides a challenge for those who are brave enough to try to reason with 3to 5-year-olds! Young children’s thinking skills also affect how they form social relationships with peers, gain insight into who they are in relationship to others, and gain self-control over their emotions.
The Formation And Regulation Of Social Relationships And Emotions
During early childhood, the great strides that young children make across all areas of development can also be seen in their social and emotional behaviors, especially in the interesting progress that is made in how they view themselves and others as individuals, along with new skills in learning to control their emotions.
The initial awareness of the self that emerges in the infant and toddler years becomes further transformed in early childhood. Young children now have the ability to form self-concepts, or to think of themselves in terms of how they look, what they like, and what they can do. For example, when children ages 3 to 5 years are asked to describe themselves, they usually say, “I have brown eyes. I like to play. I can jump as high as that tree! Marisa and Taylor are my best friends.” Young children’s self-descriptions are usually overly positive and not always grounded in reality, and it is not until they are school aged that they can move beyond describing themselves in generally positive emotional terms (e.g., “I’m really happy.”) to understanding that it is possible to experience both positive and negative emotions at the same time (e.g., “I was happy to play kickball at recess, but mad because I kept making outs”).
Another important aspect of the awareness of the self can be seen in how children come to understand the concept of gender and how it guides their understanding of gender stereotyped behaviors, including who and what they choose to play with.
At the beginning of the early childhood period, children already can correctly identify themselves as a boy or girl and can also correctly identify the sex of their parents. Once they can do this, they are ready to understand that gender is permanent or that girls become mommies and boys become daddies. Similarly, young children become experts at figuring out gender-stereotyped behaviors, or the socially acceptable behaviors for boys and girls. Often parents are dismayed by how rigid their child’s ideas are about gender-appropriate behaviors, including the belief that boys and girls only play with certain toys, wear clothes of certain colors, and have certain jobs or social roles. However, it takes longer—often not until as late as the second grade—for children to understand that gender remains constant despite outward, physical changes. The strength of gender-stereotyped ideas can lead young children to become confused about a person’s gender when, for example, they see a Scottish boy wearing a kilt; they question whether he is still a boy or whether a girl with a very close cropped haircut is really a girl. Simple superficial transformations in appearance, similar to the transformation of water from one size glass to another in the conservation task, can lead young children to be confused about reality. Thus, while young children understand the permanence of gender over time, they do not yet fully understand that gender remains constant despite superficial changes in appearance until sometime after they enter school.
Gender not only guides young children’s behaviors, but it also exerts a powerful influence on whom children choose as playmates. As early as age 3, young children not only engage in play around gender-stereotyped activities (e.g., boys engage in group games and rough and tumble play, while girls play more quietly in smaller groups at dress-up or pretend play or with art materials), but they tend to play only with same-sex peers. Researchers found that when given their choice of free play, over 80% of the children observed preferred to play with same-sex peers. The tendency to play with same-sex peers is so strong in early and middle childhood that similar trends have been observed in the United States, Europe, Africa, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and in rural as well as in urban areas.
Although playing with same-sex peers is the clear preference, young children are capable of playing with opposite-sex peers and playmates, especially in situations where there is little choice, such as playing with siblings, or when child care providers or preschool teachers structure mixed-sex group play activities. Despite a clear preference for playmates, the ability to take turns in games, cooperate with others, and develop real friendships with peers blossoms in early childhood. A contributing factor to young children’s ability to get along with peers and develop friendships stems from a growing competence in recognizing and controlling their emotions.
Table 1 Table of Milestones of Early Childhood
Emotions and Emotion Regulation
During the early childhood years, parents are often surprised when their young child wakes up crying from a nightmare or expresses fear over monsters in the closet or alligators under the bed. Recent research, based on interviews with 4and 6-year-olds, found that almost 75% of children reported being fearful of ghosts and monsters and being afraid of the dark, bad dreams, wild animals, and getting lost. Many of the fears that young children have may not seem real to adults, but because of their growing representational skills and difficulty in being able to distinguish reality from fantasy, young children are capable of imagining very frightening situations. Such fears can usually be managed with understanding from a sympathetic adult or the intervention of a night light or favorite stuffed animal or blanket, until children learn strategies to control their own emotions.
The ability to understand and control emotions undergoes significant changes during early childhood. The tantrums of the “terrible twos” decrease in number and intensity, although 3to 5-year-olds may still have an occasional emotional outburst or tantrum. Instead of the tantrums of the 2-year-old, 3to 5-yearold children begin to learn strategies for dealing with and controlling their feelings. For example, young children may close their eyes, turn away, or put their hands in front of their faces when they know something scary might be approaching, such as a barking dog or a movie scene. As their language abilities grow, young children also learn to use speech and words to deal with their emotions, from expressing their anger at a parent by shouting, “You’re very mean, Daddy, and I hate you!” to speaking to themselves out loud as encouragement while undertaking a challenging task. Child care providers and parents alike frequently remind young children to “use your words” instead of hitting a playmate in anger over a contested toy.
Early childhood is a truly remarkable period of human development. During this time, parents recognize that their child is no longer a baby and is blossoming into an independent thinking, feeling, speaking, and active young child. Along with significant advances in all areas of behavior, early childhood is unique for the emergence of a foundation for the mature behaviors that will continue to evolve throughout development, ranging from skilled actions, language, and reasoning to social relationships. At the same time, early childhood presents an interesting set of unique qualities, such as wild flights of imagination and creativity, irrational fears, and a type of logic that makes reasoning with a 4-year-old nearly impossible, but amusing when not frustrating.
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