The Importance of Early Childhood Development

Healing emotional pain: 10-week program

The Importance of Early Childhood Development

The Importance of Early Childhood Development

We like to talk about our child’s development. When talking with family and friends, we may share their progress with walking, talking or doing puzzles. When talking with health and education professionals, we may discuss their progress towards developmental milestones. Their achievements are exciting. They are also very important – especially in the early years of a child’s life.

Development in early childhood lays strong foundations for life-long learning and well-being. Therefore everyone involved with young children – from parents and caregivers to professionals in health and early childhood education – seeks to provide opportunities and experiences that will facilitate optimal child development.

Information about the processes and milestones of early child development helps us to provide these opportunities and experiences. That’s what this discussion is about. It provides a general explanation of the processes, domains and milestones of early childhood development and discusses ways in which we can contribute to our child’s success.

It is a broad discussion of current professional research literature and is intended to provide information not advice. If you, or someone you know is seeking advice or support regarding a child’s development, you should seek expert professional advice.

What is early childhood development?

Early childhood is generally considered to be the period from birth (some suggest before birth) to approximately eight years of age (UNICEF, 2023). Early childhood development refers to the way a child grows, changes, and develops during these years. This development is the result of the brain building neural pathways. A newborn baby has millions of brain cells (neurons) but very few of these neurons are connected. Baby’s brains develop neural pathways through everyday interactions with their environment. It is the neural pathways that enable us to learn to do everything from thinking to talking to walking.

Why is early childhood development important?

Early childhood is a period of rapid development. In fact, a child’s brain develops more rapidly during this period than at any other time in their life. Strong neural pathway development in this period lays the foundation for the learning that children need to become well-functioning adults. Research suggests that experiences and interactions during early childhood can have lifelong physical, social, and emotional consequences (WA Department of Health, 2023). It is therefore important that young children have a stimulating, interactive environment.

What influences child development?

Early child development depends on many factors, including genetics, the environment and relationships (VeryWell Mind, 2023).

You have probably heard discussions about the relative influence of genetics and the environment – the nature/nurture debate. You might wonder how these elements affect a child’s early development. This is a complicated area and debate is ongoing. However researchers generally agree that development is shaped by interaction between genetics and the environment. While genetics may underpin a child’s development, that development is significantly influenced by other factors. These include a stimulating environment, good health and social interaction with loving caregivers.

Early Childhood Development Stages, Domains and Milestones

Researchers and professionals divide early childhood development into a number of stages. While there is some variation in how these are classified, it is generally agreed that children go through predictable, recognisable stages.

As they progress through each stage children learn increasingly complex skills and knowledge. This occurs across five domains. These are cognitive, social, emotional, communication, and physical domains. Milestones within each domain help to track a child’s development. A milestone is an identified skill that is expected to be acquired within a specified time period. They are used to help determine if a child’s development is typical or is delayed. It should be noted, however, that while children’s development does tend to happen in the same order, children develop at different rates. Some will progress toward some milestones quickly, while others will take longer.

Stages of development and milestones might therefore best be thought of as guidelines rather than rigid targets.

The following is a general overview of the cognitive, social, emotional, communication, and physical domains and associated early childhood development milestones. For a comprehensive list of these domains and milestones refer to the Early Years Learning Framework Practice Based Resources – Developmental Milestones (Community Childcare Cooperative Ltd. NSW,2023). The examples of milestones used here are from this publication.

Cognitive Development

What are cognitive skills in children?

Cognitive development in children is about core brain functions we use to acquire, manipulate, store, and use information. They include memory, problem-solving, and critical thinking. We use these abilities every day to make even the simplest decisions. When shopping at the supermarket for example, we use reading, memory and critical thinking to choose between similar products. They are essential for understanding and interacting with our world.

However we are not born with fully functioning cognitive abilities. They develop and change as we grow and mature. Examples of cognitive milestones at different stages of early child development include:

0-4 Months

  • Eyes track moving targets for a brief period
  • Is interested in patterns, edges, and contrasts with light/dark and faces

3-5 years

  • Follows simple rules
  • Can recount a recent story

Emotional development

The emotional domain refers to a child’s developing capacity to experience and manage their emotions. It includes learning to recognise, understand and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.  A baby may demonstrate emotional awareness by responding to parent’s facial expressions. Older children may begin to show concern for someone who is upset or unhappy.

0-4   Months

  • Bonding with parents
  • Shows excitement as parent prepares to feed

2-3 years

  • Begins to show guilt or remorse for misdeeds
  • Demands adult attention

Social Development

Social skills enable children to interact with others, form positive, loving relationships, and develop a sense of who they are and where they fit in the social world. As with all developmental domains, social skills develop and change as children develop, grow and mature.  For example:

0-4   Months

  • Alert and preoccupied with faces
  • Moves head to sound of voices

2-3   years

  • plays with other children
  • simple imaginative play

Language and communication development

This domain is about the skills a child needs to communicate with others. It includes expressive communication – the ability to share wants, needs, thoughts and ideas through speech and/or other forms of communicating. It also includes receptive communication which enables a child to understand what is being said to them and what is being asked of them. Language skills and communication begin with the baby making sounds and gestures, gradually progressing to words and sentences. Examples:

0-4   months

  • Cries
  • When content makes small throaty noises

2-3   Years

  • Refers to self by name and often says ‘mine’
  • Uses simple sentences and phrases

Physical Development

Physical development includes gross motor and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills control and coordinate whole body movements such as running, jumping, and climbing. They develop progressively. For example, from rolling over, to sitting up, to crawling and walking. Fine motor-skills control small muscle groups such as those in hands, wrists and fingers. They enable small physical actions such as doing up buttons, picking up toys and using eating utensils. Gross motor-skills generally develop before fine motor control.

0-4   Months

  • Begins to roll from side to side
  • Able to grasp object put into hands

2-3   Years

  • Walks, runs, climbs, kicks and jumps easily
  • Holds crayon with fingers

Connected Domains

While each developmental domain has been discussed separately, in reality this is not the case. The brain is a highly interconnected organ, with the different domains overlapping and interacting across all domains. For example both cognitive and communication domains are involved in developing a child’s ability to understand and use language.

How you can help

As a parent, you are the most important person in your child’s life. How you interact with your child during early childhood development can be immensely significant for their development. You can support your child’s development by spending lots of time playing, talking, listening and interacting with them.

Play

Play is fun. It is also one of the key ways for a young child to learn and develop. It provides opportunities to explore, observe, experiment and solve problems. While children learn and develop through playing by themselves or with peers, it is important for parents to support and participate in play activities.  Time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you helps your child learn key life skills.

Communication

Good communication involves listening and talking in ways that make children feel important and valued. This can build a child’s expressive and receptive communication skills.

Positive Relationships

Parents are generally the first relationship experience a child will have. Nurturing relationships are the foundation of healthy child development. Developing a loving, supportive and happy relationship will lay strong foundations for a child’s future life. They underpin the child’s confidence and capacity to form relationships in the neighbourhood and local community.

Summary

Early childhood development focuses on the way children grow, change, and learn from birth to approximately eight years old. This early development creates strong foundations for life-long development, learning and well-being. It is therefore important to provide support, opportunities and experiences that will facilitate optimal development in early childhood.

Researchers and professionals divide early childhood development into a number of stages. While there is some variation in how these are classified, it is generally agreed that children go through predictable, recognisable stages.

As they progress through each stage children develop increasingly complex new skills and knowledge. This occurs across five domains. These are cognitive, social, emotional, communication, and physical domains. Domains are not discrete areas of development. They interlink at every stage. Children generally don’t progress in one area without progressing in another

Milestones within each domain help to track a child’s development. However children learn and develop at different rates. Some will reach some milestones more quickly, than others. Milestones might be best thought of as a general guide rather than a target that must be reached by a particular age or age range.

Everyone involved with young children – from parents and caregivers to those involved in health and early childhood education – seeks to support the child and provide opportunities and experiences that will facilitate optimal child development.

This discussion is a general overview intended to provide information not advice. If you are concerned that their child is not meeting developmental milestones they should seek professional support from an early education or health professional.

References

Community Childcare Cooperative Ltd. NSW (2023), Early Years Learning Framework Practice Based Resources – Developmental Miestones

HubHello (2023), Five domains of developmental milestones https://www.hubhello.com.au/post/the-5-domains-of-developmental-milestones

Queensland Government (2023) Early Childhood Education and care https://earlychildhood.qld.gov.au/early-years/activities-and-resources/resources-parents/play

UNICEF Data (2023), Early Childhood Development,           https://data.unicef.org/topic/early-childhood-development/overview/

VeryWell Mind (2023), How Genes Influence Child Development, https://www.verywellmind.com/genes-and-development-2795114

Western Australia Department of Health (2023), Child Development https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Child-development

Harvard University (2023), What Is Early Childhood Development? A Guide to the Science (ECD 1.0) https://developingchild.harvard.edu/guide/what-is-early-childhood-development-a-guide-to-the-science/

Please note that the information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not substitute professional medical or mental health advice. If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or needs assistance, please reach out to a mental health professional or helpline in your country or state.

About the editor, Holly Jade

Holly Jade is a Social Worker / Counsellor at Counselling in Melbourne with the following qualifications: BA Social Work, BA Arts, Accredited Holistic Therapist.

Holly works with a wide range of clients, from children to adults, relationships and parenting.

Find out more about Holly here.

How to find a psychologist that's right for you

Take the first step - speak with a psychologist today

call 1300967734
Scroll to Top

Download your free eBook

How to find a Psychologist that's right for you.

Healing emotional pain: 10-week program

Please select your location

Melbourne CBD

903 – 530 Little Collins St Melbourne CBD, VIC 3000

Glen Waverley

861B Waverley Road, Glen Waverley, VIC 3150 (second level)

Docklands

Shop 4, 860 Collins St Docklands, VIC 3081

Online appointment

Online Counselling sessions are available.