Spoiler alert: the importance of early childhood development cannot be overstated.
Cindy Terebush, author, podcast host and professional development provider, puts it beautifully:
“Experiences in the early childhood years determine the architecture and connections in the child's brain… All of us are who we are, in large part, because of the experiences we had when we were very young.”
To be a better educator, provider and advocate of early childhood education (ECE), we must understand both what’s going on in young children as they’re developing and why these early developments are so crucial.
What actually happens in those early stages of childhood development? What are the long-term effects on a child? What’s the real role of play in early learning?
These domains overlap, but each plays an important and unique role in a child’s growth. In this article, we’ll explore each area of early childhood development so we can be better equipped to teach and serve young children.
Early childhood development ages sometimes refer to zero through eight years old, but we’re focusing in particular on birth to five years old. During this period of life, children see quick and defining growth in cognitive, social, linguistic and physical domains.
High quality ECE nurtures the child as a whole person, creating opportunities each moment for new neural connections, discoveries and development in each of these key areas.
ECE centers and classrooms support early childhood development by offering consistently reliable experiences for learning through exploration, care and play. And that last factor should not be underestimated.
After all, in the words of renowned psychologist Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.”
In fact, in a review of 26 studies of play from 18 countries, the LEGO Foundation found that children showed “significantly greater learning gains in literacy, motor and social-emotional development when attending child care centers that used a mix of instruction and free and guided play.”
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there are a variety of psychological and environmental factors that contribute to early childhood development.
Everything from the parents’ education, family income, and the number of languages spoken in the home plays an important role in a young child’s development.
One of the most crucial factors? Access to child care and preschool.
Given the crucial role of quality child care and preschool in early childhood development, we’ll be focusing on the development factors that are often accounted for in a school or center’s early learning curriculum, including:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.
Here’s a wake up call: when a newborn baby is born, they have all of the brain neurons they’ll have for their lifetime.
In fact, an infant’s brain forms a million neural connections each second, connections that make the brain work for their entire lifetimes.
<< Just think: In the time it took you to read that sentence, somewhere a baby made ten million neural connections. >>
A child's brain grows to 90% of its adult size by their third birthday, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Clearly, brain growth and cognitive development is rapid in children. These fascinating neural developments occur as children explore and make meaning of the world around them.
We love this definition of cognitive development from Help Me Grow:
Cognitive development means how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, problem solving and dispositions, which help children to think about and understand the world around them. Brain development is part of cognitive development.
As adults, we’re not always absorbing information, learning and making meaning. Why? Because our brains were already built to do that early on in life! They worked hard in childhood to help prepare us for adult life.
Children explore and display their cognitive skills in many ways — through their senses, connections with others, and exploration of the world around them.
Examples of intellectual skills that point to cognitive development can include:
Curious about the various learning philosophies in ECE? Don’t miss our guide to Waldorf vs. Montessori: The Key Differences for Educators.
Social development in early childhood can have a significant influence on how a person learns to relate to, connect with, and trust others in their life. It also can affect their sense of self and identity as they grow.
Of course, one of the most crucial relationships in shaping a child’s social development is the one they hold with parents and caregivers. As parents and caregivers respond to and interact with their child, they are literally building the child’s brain.
Consistent, responsive and reliable care also teaches children to trust.
For example, when a child cries, their caregiver will tend to their needs. This simple act teaches children that when they reach out in some way, they are able to have some control over getting their needs met. Much of this goes back to early attachment theory.
According to a research paper published in ClinicalKey by Dr. Theodore A. Stern of Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry:
The foundations for attachment theory are based on research findings in cognitive neuroscience, genetics, and brain development that indicate an ongoing and life-long dance between an individual's neural circuitry, genetic predisposition, brain plasticity, and environmental influences.
The paper goes on to say, “Secure attachments in childhood foster emotional resilience and generate skills and habits of seeking out selected attachment figures for comfort, protection, advice, and strength.”
Ultimately, the way the individuals in a child’s life interact with that child early on writes the blueprint for their social evolution as they grow up.
Examples of social skills in early childhood that make their appearances throughout life include:
Social emotional learning (SEL) is a crucial component of early childhood development. Learn all about it in our ebook all about implementing SEL in early learning settings, including over 15 trusted SEL resources for educators.
Language development begins with sounds and gestures, then evolves into words and sentences.
While this might sound like nothing more than some seriously cute oohs and aahs in the early years, these initial sounds provide the basis for learning to read and write, leading to lasting literacy skills.
Between birth and three years old, children develop a spoken vocabulary of anywhere between 300 and 1,000 words. Language allows them to communicate their needs. It empowers them to describe the world around them, share how they feel, recall an event and connect with others for play and joy.
[ADD FACT IMAGE: Between birth and three years old, children develop a spoken vocabulary of 300 to 1,000 words. Source: StateUniversity.com]
Like so many other elements in their lives, children will begin acquiring language through observation and interactions with caregivers. Language development can overlap with cognitive and social development, as communication and expression is often a key component in all three domains.
In early childhood, language development is fostered through:
Like so many areas of early childhood development, language development is a truly fascinating area.
If you want to keep exploring, don’t miss this excellent article from The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) all about reinforcing language skills for infants and toddlers. You’ll get clear details for how to support each stage of language development in a growing child’s life.
While the rapid advancements of brain development are incredibly impressive in the first years of a child’s life, you can’t overlook the incredible development happening in the body.
Between birth and three years of age, most children will double in height and quadruple in weight. As their bodies grow, so do their muscles, movement abilities, and body-brain connection.
Physical development is related to a child’s ability to use and control their bodies. This involves the development of their gross motor skills and fine motor skills, often starting from the inner body and moving to the outer body.
For example, an infant will more likely be moving its arms, legs and neck but actually be focused on moving their fingers, hands, feet and toes. Caregivers can support their baby’s physical development by placing a toy in a place where the child has to reach out and grab it, or their toddler’s development by visiting a park or helping them eat independently.
As with the other key domains of early child development, physical development is tied in with the other areas. For instance, when a child is mobile, they can explore their environment with more ease, fueling their cognitive development.
Physical development of gross and fine motor skills may look like:
Looking for fun activities to engage multiple developmental areas? Don’t miss this list of small group activities for an inspired early learning classroom!
We’re sad to say that despite previous beliefs, young age doesn’t protect children from the impact of trauma and stress.
Whether trauma in a young child’s life is intentional or unintentional, the effects on the malleable state of their development can be long lasting.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says:
Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are very vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. This area is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected.
Trauma may appear in a child’s life as a result of a variety of circumstances. Some examples include neglect, exposure to family violence, serious accidents, illness and refugee or war experiences.
The good news:
A reliable caregiving figure can make all the difference in building the child’s resilience as they grow and navigate their traumatic or stressful experiences.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration outlines how caregivers can help the children they care about as they navigate trauma:
We wish that children were immune to stress and trauma, but the reality is that’s not the case. Supporting a child’s early development means knowing what signs to look for and how to help.
So just how important is early childhood development?
Considering that this crucial stage of life creates the foundation for the rest of a person’s life experience we’re going to say: pretty darn critical.
ECE expert and social-emotional learning advocate David Adams puts it perfectly when he says, “Our schools don't just exist to make sure students can read, our schools are extensions of society itself.”
High quality child care, underpinned by play-based developmentally appropriate practice actively supports and furthers the incredible development already occurring naturally in young children.
At MomentPath, we’re inspired by all that young children, their brains, and their bodies can do from the very first second they’re born. By understanding what’s happening within a young child in the precious first years of their life, we can serve them, their families and our communities better — today and in the future.
MomentPath started as a way for working parents to feel more connected to their children throughout the workday. Today, it’s blossomed into an experience-driven childcare management software that protects revenue and streamlines center operations for some of the world’s leading early childhood education enterprises.
You can learn more about how we help centers achieve usage rates of up to 90% with parents and teachers by requesting a free demo.