What Is Early Childhood Development?

Early childhood development is the study of human growth from birth to five years of age. During this period, children are expected to learn skills within four different stages that may affect later development. One early childhood development stage is cognitive, referring to thinking patterns and learning capabilities. Social and communication stages typically determine how a child interacts with other children and adults through relational and speaking capacity. Physical development refers to the use of skills such as gross motor movements — large muscle groups — and fine motor movements — hand movement.

The age range where early childhood development occurs might vary among theories. Some theories of early childhood development define this period from birth until a child is eight years old. Other theories espouse that development begins in the prenatal period, and continues through age five or eight.

Generally, each stage of early childhood development is considered the most important phase of human growth. This is because reaching or not reaching certain milestones during this period can impact later growth stages. Missed milestones could indicate a disturbance that delays advancement.

While every child is expected to pass through these stages, science does not predict that each will have the same experience. Rather, each stage may serve as a guidepost for parents and teachers to identify delays that could lead to problems in the child’s development. Likewise, understanding these stages can help recognize that the child is developing normally.


Typically, cognitive development includes thinking processes that affect a child’s intellect and mental capacity. Cognitive development usually determines how a child organizes information through mental awareness of surroundings. During the first year of life, children begin to understand their environment through senses, recognition, and exploration. An example of this is dancing at the sound of music.

Many children also learn through social interactions with others as they begin to distinguish familiar faces. Within this stage of development, children might initiate playing with peers. Interactions with adults such as parents and teachers might become more animated, even as some children begin to exercise independence.

How children communicate is usually viewed as another developmental milestone — especially as children learn to speak verbally. Communication skills are often developed when a child begins to speak a few words and understand words from others. Development of communication skills usually predicts how well children can comprehend details of a story or a conversation.

According to the general theory of the physical stage, a child should experience milestones of certain bodily behaviors. Developing the physical ability to control normal body movements could include walking, running, and writing. Progressing through the physical development stage might determine how well a child learns to use her body.



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