Early childhood spans from birth to age 8 years. This is a time of critical change and development as a child attains the physical and mental skills she will use for the rest of her life. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University compares brain development to the architecture of a house: building a strong foundation during this early childhood period helps ensure a solid structure in the future.
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Child psychologist Jean Piaget developed a theory of cognitive learning to explain why children learn differently than adults. His theory is broken into life stages. The earliest stage, spanning birth to two years, is called the sensorimotor phase. This stage is characterized by learning through sensation and movement. The preoperational stage occurs from about age 2 to 7 years. Children in this stage are very imaginative as well as self-oriented. As a child enters the concrete stage, lasting from about first grade to early adolescence, she learns that others do not necessarily see things the same way she does, and reasoning skills improve.
Linguistic development is dependent not only upon mental development, but also on the physical development of the speech mechanisms, including the tongue and vocal cords. Exposure and interaction are critical to language acquisition. Children frequently spoken to and with acquire language faster and more efficiently than those who are not. According to the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting, “There is strong evidence that children may never acquire a language if they have not been exposed to a language before they reach the age of 6 or 7.”
Children grow rapidly from birth to age 2 years, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Infant and Toddler Health department, the average baby doubles her birth weight by 5 or 6 months. Growth then slows to an average of 2.5 inches in height and 5 to 7 lbs. in weight per year. As their bodies and brains develop, gross and fine motor skills improve, allowing children to complete more complex and intricate tasks. Typically, a child’s activity level is at its highest between ages 3 and 5 years.
Psychological and social development are interconnected. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified various psychosocial stages, composed of basic conflicts, occurring throughout life. The first stage, spanning birth to 2 years, is characterized by trust development; a baby learns whether she can trust her environment based on her caregiver’s response to her needs. The next stage, occurring during the toddler years, is based around toilet training. Children develop a sense of autonomy with toileting success or feelings of shame and doubt with toileting failure. Independence is a crucial aspect of the locomotor stage, spanning ages 3 to 6 years. During this time, children develop initiative but may experience feelings of guilt if they are too assertive.
By age 2, most children experience self-conscious emotions including pride and embarrassment. The toddler years are marked by frequent temper tantrums because children at that age do not have full control over their emotions. As children mature, they develop more effective ways of dealing with negative emotions.