Have you ever watched a toddler exploring their world and wondered – What are they thinking? How are they learning? What will they do next? How can I help them grow? The science of how children learn, grow, and relate to others is called developmental science, or child development. Child development is defined as the pattern of change that begins at conception and continues through adolescence.
Humans have probably thought about how children learn, grow, and relate to others since mothers started having babies, but formal scientific inquiry about child development has only been around for about 100 years, making it a fairly new science. Knowledge gained from child development science is helpful in building strong interactions with children to help them grow to their full potential. In this chapter we will focus on conception through about age 8 years. This unique age span has been determined by developmental scientists as the early childhood period, or the period of life in which the most rapid development takes place.
How Development Unfolds
The young child is a fascinating growing being. Anyone who has spent time with a newborn notices how they smile at a familiar caregiver or figure out how to pick up a rattle and shake it to make a delightful sound. Adults are often captivated at the first time a toddler figures out how to stack blocks to form a tower or when a preschooler hugs a friend who is feeling sad. Likewise, families often treasure such milestones as when a child takes her first steps or learns to ride a bike. These small moments in a child’s life provide adults with glimpses into human behavior and help us to understand what particular aspects are developing within a child. These areas of development are referred to as developmental domains. Developmental domains are specific areas in which growth occurs. There are four main developmental domains in child development:
These domains are not stand-alone categories of development. They interact and overlap in important ways. Development unfolds through interactions between the child, the people around them, and their environment. The child’s environment is the context of the home, school, place of worship, neighborhood, and all the interactions a child has with people on a regular basis. Children require certain triggers from their caregivers and their environment in order to develop. For instance, to develop language, a child needs to be listened to and spoken to by an adult. To learn how to walk, a child needs space, safety and freedom of movement. Development unfolds both naturally and with a thoughtfully planned environment designed by adults.
Role of Environment on Development
The way that children are cared for impacts how they develop. An environment filled with loving, responsive caregivers works wonders on a child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Conversely, an environment filled with toxic stress will slow down healthy development of children and those adults caring for them. Signs of toxic stress include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or witnessing of physical or emotional abuse of another person. Toxic stress, sometimes referred to as childhood trauma, can be detrimental to the early childhood stage of development. It can also impact social, emotional, and cognitive development, lower academic achievement, and lead to long term health-related issues such as cardiovascular problems. It is important to create an environment for the child that includes safe, sensitive, and supportive care.
What things can a caregiver do to help a young child feel safe and secure?