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Child Development

What is child development?

Child development is the physical, cognitive, social-emotional, language, sensory, and moral development from infancy to adulthood. It is shaped by biology (nature) and environment (nurture), impacting one’s mental health and lifelong well-being.​1​

mother reads book to boy helps cognitively develop

What is physical development?

Physical development involves the growth and skill acquisition of the body, encompassing three broad areas: body changes, gross motor skills, and fine motor skills. 

External body changes include increases in the following.

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Height
  • Body proportions
  • Ability to move and control the body

Internal physical development includes bone strength, muscle, and organ systems changes.

Gross motor skills are the following.

  • Sitting up
  • Rolling over
  • Crawling
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Climbing
  • Throwing
  • Catching

These gross motor skills allow children to explore their environment. Changes continue in adulthood to affect strength, coordination, and endurance.

Fine motor skills include the following.

  • Grasping and holding objects
  • Stacking blocks
  • Self-feeding
  • Dressing 
  • Fastening buttons
  • Typing shoelaces
  • Cutting with scissors
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Writing, scribbling, and drawing
  • Turning pages in a book

Puberty marks a major change in the body in the following ways.

  • Hormonal shift
  • Secondary sex characteristics, such as breast development (female) and deepening of the voice (male)
  • Capable of sexual reproduction

Physical maturity is generally complete by the late teens. But some development continues into the 20s, like bone mass growth and brain development.

Genetic factors, nutrition, physical activity, and health conditions contribute to physical growth. To support a child’s physical development, here are 13 strategies.

  • Provide nutritious foods: A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy provides the necessary nutrients for growth and development.
  • Encourage active activity: Daily physical activity tailored to the child’s age and interests can promote muscle and bone strength, coordination, and endurance.
  • Incorporate exercise into daily routines: Walking to school, taking the stairs, and riding the bike regularly on weekends can increase physical activities.
  • Ensure adequate sleep: Sufficient sleep supports growth and development.
  • Promote fine and gross motor skills: Offer toys and activities that enhance both large movements (running, jumping) and small movements (drawing, cutting, fastening buttons) to support motor skill development.
  • Praise and encouarge: Motivate children to persist when developing new physical abilities or learning a sport. Praise, appreciate, encouage, and celebrate successes.
  • Limit screen time: Encourage active play by limiting time spent on electronic devices, which can contribute to a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Provide a safe environment: Ensure children have a safe space to explore and be active without undue risk of injury.
  • Model active behavior: Be an active role model by participating in physical activities yourself. Children are more likely to be active if they see adults around them being active.
  • Encourage outdoor free play: Outdoor free play not only promotes physical activity but also gives children the opportunity to connect with nature and practice risk-taking and problem-solving skills.
  • Participate in structured activities: Enroll children in structured activities such as sports teams, dance classes, or martial arts that can provide both physical exercise and social interaction.
  • Regulate checkup: Check in with the pediatrician regularly to ensure proper growth measurements and that developmental milestones are being met.
  • Monitor developmental milestones: Keeping track of physical developmental milestones helps identify any potential delays or issues early on, allowing for timely interventions if necessary.

While monitoring developmental milestones is important, maintain balance and not become overly fixated on them. Consult your child’s physician if you have concerns about your child’s development.

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development is gaining mental abilities to learn, think, understand, recognize patterns, and solve problems. These capabilities come from a child’s brain development in the following areas.

  • Attention: Concentrating on specific details while tuning out distractions.
  • Memory: Capacity to store and recall information, short-term and long-term.
  • Language: The ability to comprehend spoken words, express oneself, read, and write.
  • Problem-solving: Creating strategies to address difficulties and reach goals.
  • Reasoning: Thinking in a structured way to reach conclusions.
  • Understanding concepts: The ability to understand different aspects of the world, such as time, numbers, spatial relations, and fairness.

Theories of cognitive development

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky are two of the most influential figures in cognitive development, each proposing theories that offer insights into how children develop thinking and learning abilities. Their theories differ in focus and mechanisms, but both have contributed importantly to educational practices.​2,3​

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget, a psychologist, proposed that children move through four stages of cognitive development, each characterized by different ways of thinking and understanding the world. He believed that cognitive development was a continuous process where all children move from one stage to the next, regardless of their environment or culture.

Here are Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development according to a peer-reviewed study by Soran University, published in Education Quarterly Reviews in 2019.

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years): Infants learn about the world through their senses and actions. During this stage, they develop object permanence (understanding that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be seen) and deferred imitation (the ability to reproduce a modeled activity seen before).
  2. Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years): Children begin to think symbolically and use words and pictures to represent objects. However, children have difficulty with the concepts of animism (the ability to distinguish what is alive) and conservation (the ability to recognize that something remains the same amount even if its shape changes). In addition, children at this stage have the limitation of egocentrism (inability to differentiate between their perspective and others).
  3. Concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years): Children are less egocentric and start to understand and solve complex problems. They can understand classification (putting objects into different shapes, values, and sizes) and strength (differentiating strong and weak objects).
  4. Formal operational stage (11 years and up): Adolescents begin thinking abstractly and reasoning about hypothetical problems. They can use deductive logic and understand abstract concepts.

Piaget emphasized that children actively construct their understanding of the world through experiences and interactions, progressing through the stages as they mature and learn.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky focused on the social context of learning and the role of language in cognitive development.

  • Zone of proximal development (ZPD): The difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.
  • Scaffolding: The support given to a learner is tailored to their needs and aimed at helping them achieve a higher level of understanding or skill.
  • The role of language: Vygotsky believed that language is a critical tool for cognitive development, both for communication purposes and as a way of thinking.

Vygotsky’s theory emphasizes the fundamental role of social interaction and cultural context in developing cognitive abilities, suggesting that learning is inherently a social process.

To support a child’s cognitive development, here are 10 strategies.

  • Provide a stimulating environment: Fill the child’s surroundings with stimulating materials like books, puzzles, and toys that encourage exploration and problem-solving.
  • Encourage play: Play is crucial for cognitive development. Encourage structured play (games with rules and objectives) and unstructured play (free play) to promote creativity and imagination.
  • Read together: Reading to children from an early age introduces them to language, helps build vocabulary, and develops listening and comprehension skills. Ask questions about the story to encourage critical thinking.
  • Teach critical thinking: Encourage children to ask questions and explore the answers together to promote critical thinking in children. This fosters curiosity and a love for learning.
  • Engage in conversations: Talk with the child about their day, interests, and observations. This helps develop language skills and teaches them to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Offer choices: Allowing children to make choices fosters decision-making skills and helps them understand the concept of cause and effect.
  • Introduce problem-solving activities: Games and activities that require problem-solving encourage logical thinking and persistence.
  • Encourage creative activities: Activities like drawing, writing stories, and building with blocks support creativity and can enhance visual-spatial reasoning and fine motor skills.
  • Limit screen time: While some educational programs and apps can be beneficial, limiting screen time and ensuring it doesn’t replace active play and human interaction is important.
  • Be patient and positive: Provide positive reinforcement and patience as children learn and explore independently. Celebrate their successes and encourage them through challenges.

Understanding cognitive development guides parents in setting age-appropriate expectations and fostering supportive learning environments. It helps early identification of potential challenges, enabling targeted interventions.  However, recognize that children develop at individual paces. The focus should be on celebrating their progress and nurturing a stimulating learning atmosphere.

What is social-emotional development?

Social-emotional development involves the growth of abilities to understand and manage emotions, form and maintain relationships, and develop a strong sense of self. It lays the foundation for mental health and academic success, as children with strong social-emotional skills are more equipped to handle life’s challenges and excel in school. Emotional regulation also fosters positive behavior and is crucial for building healthy future relationships and achieving success in personal and professional spheres.

Here are 15 skills acquired through socio-emotional development.

  1. Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions, values, strengths, and limitations.
  2. Self-management: Regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations, managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself.
  3. Self-efficacy: Having a growth mindset and believing in their abilities.
  4. Emotion regulation: Identifying, managing, and healthily expressing emotions.
  5. Social awareness: Understanding the perspectives of others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and empathizing with them.
  6. Relationship skills: Establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation, resistance to inappropriate social pressure, resolving conflicts constructively, and seeking help when needed.
  7. Responsible decision-making: Making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior.
  8. Empathy: Having empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  9. Communication: Effectively conveying one’s feelings, thoughts, and needs respectfully and confidently.
  10. Cooperation: Working with others towards common goals, compromising, and sharing.
  11. Resilience: Coping with stress and bouncing back from setbacks, challenges, and adversities.
  12. Conflict resolution: Identifying and resolving disagreements constructively and respectfully.
  13. Assertiveness: Communicating feelings, needs, and thoughts in an open, honest, and respectful manner.
  14. Optimism: Maintaining a hopeful mindset and positive outlook.
  15. Help-seeking: Identifying when support is needed and accessing resources and assistance effectively.

A 2009 longitudinal study by Uppsala University in Sweden, tracking 96 individuals from infancy to age 21, identified the following critical factors influencing social-emotional development.​4​

  • Temperament: Infants with temperaments such as low manageability and high negative emotionality were likely to show heightened externalizing behaviors by ages 4 and 8-9.
  • Attachment: A bond that develops between the infant and caregiver in early life. An attachment that is secure is associated with better social competence.
  • Environmental factors: Other factors affecting a child’s emotional development include stress, non-parental care quality, and socioeconomic status (SES).

What are Erikson’s stages of development?

Erik Erikson’s stages of development outline eight stages that individuals go through throughout their lifetime, each characterized by a specific crisis that must be resolved:

  1. Trust vs. mistrust (Birth to 18 months): In this stage, infants learn to trust their caregivers and environment if their basic needs, such as food and affection, are consistently met. If not, mistrust may develop.
  2. Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (18 months to 3 years): Toddlers learn to exercise will and do things for themselves, or they may doubt their abilities if they are overly controlled or criticized.
  3. Initiative vs. guilt (3 to 5 years): Preschool children learn to initiate activities and interact with others. If discouraged, they may feel guilty about their needs and desires.
  4. Industry vs. inferiority (5 to 12 years): School-aged children develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their skills and abilities or may feel inferior if they do not meet expectations.
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (12 to 18 years): Adolescents explore their identity and sense of self. Success leads to an ability to stay true to oneself, while failure results in role confusion and a weak sense of self.
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young adulthood): Young adults seek close relationships and intimate love, or they may feel isolated and lonely due to not forming meaningful bonds.
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle adulthood): Adults create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or contributing to positive changes that benefit others. Failure to achieve this leads to feelings of uselessness and stagnation.
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Late adulthood): In this final stage, individuals reflect on their lives and feel a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment, leading to wisdom. If they see their lives as unproductive or are not proud of their past, they may experience despair and regret.

What is language development?

Language development is how children learn to understand language (receptive language) and communicate through spoken words, gestures, or even sign language (expressive language). 

The 10 key elements involved in language learning are the following.

Phonetics and Phonology: Understanding and producing the sounds of a language (phonetics) and knowing the sound system and rules (phonology).

  1. Vocabulary: Building a bank of words and their meanings is essential for expressing ideas and understanding others.
  2. Grammar: Learning the rules for structuring sentences, including syntax (sentence structure), morphology (word forms), and semantics (meaning).
  3. Pragmatics: Understanding how context influences the meaning of language, including the use of language in social contexts for communication.
  4. Listening comprehension: Understanding spoken language is foundational for effective communication and further language development.
  5. Speaking: The ability to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas coherently and fluently.
  6. Reading: Recognizing written symbols and understanding written text, which involves decoding, comprehension, and fluency.
  7. Writing: Expressing ideas through written symbols, which requires knowledge of spelling, grammar, and composition.
  8. Social interaction: Engaging with others through language accelerates learning by providing real-life contexts and purposes for language use.
  9. Cognitive development: The underlying mental processes that enable problem-solving, memory, and thinking, which support understanding and using language.

Some kids are early talkers; others are late talkers, taking their time. Focus on steady progress and positive interactions. Talk to your doctor if you’re worried about your child’s language development

What is sensory development?

Sensory development is how children learn to take in, process, and respond to information from their senses. This development is crucial for children’s overall growth, as it lays the foundation for learning to interact with the world around them. Sensory development begins before birth and continues as children grow, enabling them to refine their abilities to perceive and understand sensory information.

Here are the 7 most common senses.

  • Visual: The ability to see, recognize patterns, and distinguish between shapes, sizes, and colors.
  • Auditory: The ability to hear and distinguish different sounds, tones, and volumes, which is essential for language development.
  • Tactile: The ability to feel and respond to touch, texture, temperature, and pain, which is important for physical and emotional security.
  • Gustatory: The development of taste preferences and the ability to distinguish different flavors.
  • Olfactory: Recognizing and differentiating between smells can influence taste preferences and emotional responses.
  • Vestibular: Sensing their body’s position and movement in space. This helps with balance and coordination.
  • Proprioception: The awareness of where their body parts are to one another, allowing for smooth, controlled movements.

Sensory experiences are critical for cognitive, emotional, and social development, as they help children learn to interpret and react to different situations and environments. A positive sensory environment allows children to learn and develop fully. Through sensory play, children develop attention, memory, and decision-making skills, which are foundational for more complex learning and interactions.

What is moral development?

Moral development is how children acquire and refine their principles of right and wrong, ethics, and values, learn to differentiate right from wrong, develop a sense of justice, and nurture ethical conduct. Moral development is important because it affects individuals’ relationships, social functioning, decision-making, and meaningful life.​5​

One of the most prominent theorists in moral development is Lawrence Kohlberg. He proposed the following stage-based theory.

  • Pre-conventional level: Decisions are based on avoiding punishment or seeking rewards.
  • Conventional level: Societal norms and laws are upheld
  • Post-conventional level: Universal ethical principles are recognized and valued. 

This progression reflects a deepening understanding of the complexities of moral issues, an increasing ability to empathize with others, and a commitment to justice and fairness. 

Moral development is influenced by various factors, including family, culture, education, and social interactions, and it plays a critical role in shaping an individual’s character and societal contributions. To support a child’s moral development, here are 9 strategies.

  • Model ethical behavior: Children learn moral values and behavior by observing the actions of adults they trust and admire.
  • Discuss moral dilemmas: Engage children in discussions about moral dilemmas and ethical scenarios to help them think critically about right and wrong. This encourages them to consider different perspectives and the consequences of their actions.
  • Encourage empathy: Help children understand and share the feelings of others. This can be done through reading stories, role-playing, and discussing how others might feel in different situations, fostering a deeper sense of empathy and compassion.
  • Praise moral behavior: Recognize and reinforce when a child acts in a morally positive way, such as sharing, being honest, or showing kindness. Positive reinforcement encourages them to continue behaving ethically.
  • Teach conflict resolution: Guide children in resolving conflicts fairly and respectfully. Teaching them to listen, communicate their feelings, and find a compromise supports the development of just and equitable interpersonal skills.
  • Volunteer together: Participating in community service or volunteer activities can help children learn the value of helping others, contributing to their community, and understanding broader social issues.
  • Set clear expectations and consequences: Establish and communicate guidelines for right and wrong behavior in your family or classroom. Consistent consequences for unethical behavior help children understand the importance of moral actions.
  • Encourage perspective-taking: Help children see situations from multiple viewpoints and take perspectives to appreciate diversity and understand the impact of their actions on others.
  • Parenting and discipline: Parenting and discipline approach reflects the values parents want to instill.

What is asynchronous development?

Asynchronous development occurs when different areas of development progress at different rates or are out of sync.

Asynchronous development is often seen in gifted children. Their cognitive abilities might far outpace other areas like physical development or emotional maturity. However, it can also happen in any child.

Variations in development is not a disorder but a normal phenomenon. It is important to avoid misunderstanding this development type and labeling children with uneven growth in different areas.


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    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *