Early Childhood - An Overview


Early Childhood - An Overview

Early childhood covers the period between two and six years. During this period, children’s development is visible as dramatic succession of remarkable changes and milestones in the development of motor skills, cognitive abilities and psychosocial skills. Early childhood is the period children are able to move around in the immediate environment.

Because early childhood children move around exploring and manipulating objects in the environment, there is tremendous stimulation of all the sensory modalities. Perceptual abilities develop further, cognitive functions change, and the appearance of language improves communication. The years between two and six years appear to be a period of newfound authority and control over the world.

In this page, we outline the changes children undergo in physical structure, cognitive abilities and social relationship during early childhood.

We also outline the critical tasks children at this stage of development are expected to master. Finally, we discuss the educational significance of those changes.

At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

· Outline the major motor, cognitive and psychosocial achievements of children in early childhood

· List and explain the major critical tasks childhood children are expected to master.

· Discuss the educational implications of changes that accompany development during

Developmental Landmark

The developmental landmarks would be discussed under the following sub-topics:

1.  Physical Growth and Motor Development

During early childhood, physical growth continues at a steady pace. The growth rate at early childhood is, however, slower than at infancy. In the main, children change significantly in shape and size.

In early childhood, the body becomes less rounded. It becomes more muscular. Towards the end of early childhood, the body fat is less than 50 per cent of body fat at one year of age. The head to body proportion reduces from 25 per cent at birth to about 12 per cent at the age of six years. By the end of early childhood, children’s arms and legs lengthen.

Their physical structure becomes more adult-like. By the end of early childhood, the brain has attained its adult weight.

The brain has generated significantly more neural connections. Neural communication becomes faster and more efficient, especially in the brain areas controlling movement, emotion and thought processes.

Brain lateralisation appears in early childhood. That is, the brain divides into two hemispheres – the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere.

Brain functions such as: language, logic and formal thought are controlled by the left hemisphere. Other brain functions such as music, art, creativity and spatial perception are controlled mainly by the right hemisphere.

Take note that children’s height and weight are usually described in terms of percentile. If, for example, a child’s height is in the 80th percentile, it means that the child is taller than 80 percent of all children of their age, or that the child is shorter than 20 per cent of children of their age.

Nigerian children averaged only 67 per cent of standard height, and less than 60 per cent standard weight. This finding may be related to childhood malnutrition, and impoverished socio-psychological environment which most children in Nigeria live with.

During early childhood, the phenomenal increase in gross motor and fine motor skills take children far from the world they have known.

Refinements in gross motor development enable children to move around, while refinements in fine motor development enables children to grasp and draw. Milestones of motor achievement in early childhood include:

1. Climbing – By the end of early childhood, most children are able to climb down stairs, alternating feet with each step.

2. Drawing – By six years of age, most children are able to copy a square.

3. Pedaling – By the end of childhood children who have the opportunity are able to ride a two wheel bike.

4. Self-care – Most children at this age are able to bathe themselves, dress without help and fasten buttons and shoe laces.

5. Writing – By the end of childhood, most children are able to copy numbers and letters.

The acquisition of motor skills follows a developmental sequence. First is the cognitive stage. Children discover the type of physical skill required to perform a task. This is followed by the associative stage. Children engage in trial and error to correct their own mistakes. Finally, children reach the autonomous stage. In this final stage, children exhibit a fine motor skill without making mistakes. This sequence is played out for each new motor skill children


2. Cognitive Development

Early childhood coincides with Piaget’s pre-operational period of cognitive development. It is marked by profound gains in cognitive and linguistic development. Increased brain growth broadens and deepens cognitive skills. However, as Piaget had pointed out, at this stage,

children’s cognitive structures do not permit them to do mentally what they are able to do physically. We outline here the major landmarks in cognitive achievement of children in early childhood stage of development.

1. Mental Representation

Early childhood children continue to elaborate on the cognitive ability of mental representation which they achieved toward the end of infancy.

The evidence for this may be observed in their love of pretend play. Pretend play is a play in which children flexibly device all kind of make believe objects and events to represent the real objects and events.

Children pretend to talk on telephone, for example. They act like one of their parents. They pretend to be asleep. They imitate a television character.

In all of these, children pretend to do things and act as if imaginary objects exist.

2. Egocentric Thinking

Egocentrism is a form of self-referencing. It is the belief that others think and fell as one does. Children in the pre-operational stage are unable to consider the positions of others. They view the world from their own perspectives. Their actions are characterised by centration; focusing on only one aspect of a stimulus situation; and constrained by appearance.

3. Language

Language develops rapidly during early childhood. Sentence length and complexity, vocabulary, syntax and grammar improve tremendously.

With increased facility in language use, information processing speed increases. Memory and attention span improves.

4. Rudimentary Concepts

By the end of early childhood, children begin to form rudimentary concepts, such as: big and small, boy and girl, day and night. They are unable, however, to understand concepts relating to the physical world such as: space, size, shape, number time and age.

The cognitive achievements outlined above help to improve children’s communication skills. By the end of early childhood, children are becoming more social beings.

3. Psychosocial Development

Early childhood is a critical period for social expansion. Children venture into the world of their peers. They build new relationships, and thereby begin to uncover their true selves. We outline in this section, the major psychosocial achievements of children during early childhood.

1. Self-recognition

Early in this period, around 24 months, children begin to recognize themselves in mirrors, photos and videotapes.

2. Self-definition

Self-recognition engenders the process of self-definition. Self-definition is the ability to notice difference between oneself and others.

By early childhood, children are able to notice the characteristics that make them unique. They are able to achieve this through increased interaction with peers and peer-comparison.

3. Self-esteem

As children interact with other children of their age and compare their unique qualities, a feeling of self-esteem appears. Self-esteem describes the child’s evaluation of self as “good, sweet and likeable” or as “bad and unlikable”. Self-esteem is the root of self-concept which appears and elaborates in the next stage, middle childhood.

4. Gender Identity

Gender identity describes a child’s sense of being male or female. It is an awareness and identification of oneself as male or female. By the end of early childhood, most children have achieved gender identity.

Usually, parents assign roles to children based on gender expectations. Performing gender roles help children to define their own gender. What this means is that by the end of early childhood, children have incorporated into their identity society’s expectations of what maleness or femaleness is. Gender identity influences children’s patterns of play, lifestyle, career choices, parenting beliefs and indeed, the entire worldview of children.

5. Initiative

By the end of early childhood, most children’s activities indicate purposefulness. Children are capable of setting goals and planning their activities. They are able to make plans, set goals, and strive to achieve those goals. For example, they are able to take a wall clock apart to see how it runs; they are able to make a phone call and chat a while; they are able to do the dishes or help a parent wash the car. Play becomes more constructive and cooperative, and social skills become important and continue to bolster.


Developmental Tasks

As children venture into the new worlds of social relationships, they face new challenges. They are expected to master new tasks that are appropriate for their age.

We outline here the major developmental tasks of early childhood stage of development.

1. Learning Sex Differences and Sexual Modesty

The kinds of sexual behaviour the child learns and the attitudes and feelings they develop about sex in these early years may have an abiding effect upon their sexuality throughout life.

By the end of early childhood, children are expected to master gender roles. They are expected to internalise and the significance of these behaviourally, morally and socially.

2. Achieving Physiological Stability

It takes training for the child to achieve physiological stability. The way the child’s body settles and stabilises during early childhood will impact on later poise and elegance. By the end of early  childhood, children are expected to master good pose in posture and stepping out.

3. Forming Simple Concepts of Social and Physical Reality

Maturation and learning aid the child to form a stock of concepts. The child is expected to master sufficient vocabulary to be able to name and identify the different aspects of the social and physical world around them. This forms the basis for conceptual schemes development during middle childhood.

4. Learning to Distinguish Right and Wong, and Developing a


During early childhood, the child is expected to master the warning and punishing voices, and the peculiar displays of affection and punishment of parents. This forms the basis of the child’s conscience and later structure of values and moral character.


Educational Implications

The changes during early childhood in the various facets of development and the accompanying developmental tasks have some significance for educational practice. We outline some of the educational implications of development at early childhood here:

· It is impossible to separate health issues for children from social issues. Malnutrition, cramped and miserable living conditions, and childhood diseases generally coexist. Policy issues in early childhood education should be approached multi-sectorally, involving stakeholders in education, health and social welfare.

· Caregivers should be sensitive to provide developmentally appropriate and growth fostering responses to prompts or signals of children. This will help to enhance the give-and-take in a mutually rewarding exchange with children.

· If parents and caregivers are encouraging creativity and exploration, children see the world as full of opportunities. When parents and caregivers are discouraging or punishing, feelings of guilt can arise and children may be inhibited in their striving to achieve personal control of their world.

· Brain lateralisation is responsible for handedness in children.

The preference to perform motor activities using the right or the left hand depends on whether the right or the left brain hemisphere is dominant. Forcing a child to change handedness confuses the child’s brain functions. On no account should parents or teachers force a child to change handedness.

· The attitude of caregivers toward a child significantly influences the child’s self-esteem. Caregivers should develop a positive attitude toward the child and caregiving to impress on the child that the child is important, special and loved. This way, children build a positive self-image.

· We note that an important part of friendship and any close emotional relationship is the ability to put oneself in another’s place, and vicariously experience the other person’s emotions.

Children learn to be helpful and caring when parents and caregivers are invited to model the skills of empathy feeling.

· In general, caregivers should see children as imaginative and creative creatures that are capable of increasingly sophisticated in thinking and skills if appropriate stimulation and prompts are


Early childhood is a period when children venture into the world. It is a critical period for social expansion and friendship building. Children, in this stage of development, begin to uncover their true selves. Parents and caregivers are expected to know what developmental changes and challenges children go through during early childhood. This knowledge will equip parents and caregivers to understand the child’s behaviour, and to establish an enabling environment for the child’s development.

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