From birth to age 5, children undergo rapid development. During this stage, they learn to talk, crawl, walk, behave and process. This period - usually referred to as early childhood development - is essential for a child's physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.
Every child's development will ultimately depend on their parents, family members, and other caregivers. But teachers and other childcare professionals learn about early childhood development to assist with the changes a child experiences during these important years.
Understanding and tracking a child's development can help identify developmental delays, especially if they’re at risk.
Let’s learn more about how early childhood development works.
What is early childhood development?
Early childhood development (ECD) is a rapid and critical development period from birth to five years. Quality nurturing care during this period - including adequate nutrition, access to quality healthcare, and early childhood education - is vital for children's physical, cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development.
Stages of early childhood development
Early childhood is a time of development across all areas. During this time, the dependent newborn grows into a young person who can care for their own body and interact effectively with others. For these reasons, the primary developmental task during this stage is skill development.
There are specific changes that occur during early childhood development. These changes can help parents track whether the child is developing at the correct pace. Failure to reach these developmental milestones may indicate developmental disorders or genetic conditions.
Newborn to three years
Newborns react automatically to external stimuli during the first two months of life. For example, they can see close-up objects, turn toward sounds, and cry to get attention. By the third month, newborns can smile; after that, they use their senses to navigate their environment.
A significant moment in early childhood social-emotional development is around age one when babies form attachments. Attachment theory suggests that a child's early experiences with caregivers shape their experiences later in life. The quality of emotional attachment developed early in life may serve as a model for later relationships.
Children between one to three years can stand alone, climb, walk without help, and have sufficient hand-eye coordination to catch and throw a ball.. Physical changes in early childhood accompany a rapid shift in the child's cognitive and language development. At this stage, they use two or more words together, can follow simple instructions and show simple problem-solving skills.
Three to five years
At this stage of early childhood development, children can experience more refined motor abilities. For example, achievements in gross motor skills may include the capacity to skip and balance on one foot.
Children can develop a vocabulary of between 1,000 - 1,500 words between the ages of three to five years old. In addition, they can use language to learn about and describe their surroundings. Five-year-olds can also form five-to-seven-word sentences, remember to use the past tense, and tell familiar stories with the help of pictures.
From the ages of three to five, social-emotional skills development includes peer relationships, gender identification, and developing a sense of right and wrong.
Why is early childhood education important?
Children benefit significantly from early childhood education in the long run. If a child is emotionally and socially well-adjusted, that can affect more positive and productive learning. But if a child experiences fears, anxiety, or significant stress, these experiences will hamper their education regardless of their intelligence.
So, when discussing healthy development in the early years, especially when preparing children for school success, we cannot separate cognitive development from social and emotional development.
Other benefits of early childhood education includes:
Improved academic performance
According to studies, children participating in early childhood education programs perform better in grades K-12– likely because children have already begun learning math and reading fundamentals before kindergarten.
Children who participate in early childhood education have better social skills. Children learn essential life skills such as sharing, listening, and taking turns with other children.
Preschool teachers lead lessons using a variety of games, stories, rhymes, and other activities that encourage children to interact socially and appropriately. Play is essential for children to learn the social skills they will need to interact with others throughout their lives.
Using social skills, children learn how to manage emotions. When children are in a group, their listening skills improve. Because there are more children in the classroom, children learn the value of sharing.
Keeps children healthy and active
Education experts support developing curricula and programs emphasizing learning through physical activities. Children attending schools emphasizing the importance of movement learn to be healthy and active.
Early childhood programs expose your child to activities that allow them to be active and explore their surroundings. The most important goal for children, whether participating in active sports or playing tag with friends, is moving. In the long run, providing activities encouraging an active lifestyle benefits children.
Early childhood education vs. early childhood development
Early child development refers to a child's physical, social-emotional, communication, and cognitive development. In contrast, early childhood education refers to the learning environment that young children are exposed to as they develop. Education includes activities that help a child gain social, physical, behavioral, and cognitive understanding.
Early childhood education professionals work in research, education, social work, or psychology. Preschool teachers and childcare center directors are examples of early childhood education professionals.
Professionals in both fields share the goal of understanding how children grow and develop when it comes to early childhood education vs. early childhood development. In addition, they want children to be healthy and happy, and have the resources they need to succeed.
Experts in early childhood education and child development are concerned with creating safe learning environments. They also want to provide essential resources to families with children with disabilities, disorders, or diseases.
Professionals in both fields strive to eliminate negative educational experiences and poor parenting practices. They advocate for well-educated teachers and smaller class sizes that allow teachers to form one-on-one relationships with children. They also advocate for consistent family involvement in a child’s learning.
Early childhood education and development are critical for promoting young children's success later in life. Healthy development in various skills in the early years of life builds the foundation for all future development. By understanding the importance of early childhood development, families and childcare providers can provide the proper support during these critical years.
If you're looking for activity ideas that promote growth across developmental domains, check out our free list of activities!