Every parent knows children’s growth and development proceeds at an astounding pace in the early years of life. But, what, exactly are children learning? What is normal childhood development, and how can parents help?
Early childhood educators and psychologists divide development along four general categories, called “domains.” These domains develop concurrently, and growth in each one starts at birth and continues through adulthood.
The Social/Emotional domain refers to understanding and responding to one’s own and others’ emotional needs. Infants learn to recognize familiar faces and respond to their caregivers’ emotions. Young children learn to express their own needs and desires, ask for assistance, and deal with frustration as their emotional maturity grows.
Important social functions, such as learning to share, negotiate, and take another’s point of view prepare a child for school and workplace success. Parents can help children develop in this area by playing games that involve turn-taking; modeling appropriate expression of emotions; and using dolls, puppets, and other small toys in role and pretend play.
The Cognitive domain refers to growth in intellectual ability. The child’s brain is learning to organize and process information, problem solve, and generalize. While the cognitive domain has obvious links to math and science, it also refers to attention and concentration. Babies learn object permanence and cause and effect by paying attention to the same object over time.
Parents can help children develop cognitively by helping children observe and classify their world, and helping them find the answers to their many questions. Puzzles, blocks, and logic games (like Rush Hour and Hopper) also help stretch cognitive functioning.
The Language domain governs communication, or how a child expresses him or herself and learns how to listen to others. This interplay between listening and speaking is essential. Much (receptive) language learning happens before infants can speak, when they are learning the sounds that make up their parents’ language. Additionally, much communication, even for adults, is non-verbal.
The most important way for a parent to help a child learn language is to speak to and listen to children, using increasingly complex sentence structure and vocabulary. Games, such as Simon Says and Bingo, that require children to listen to and follow a series of instructions will also help them develop language skills.
The Physical domain encompasses both fine and gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are generally large motions – running, throwing a ball, balancing; while fine motor skills are much smaller – writing, using a fork, buttoning a sweater. Both involve coordination with the eyes and develop only with repeated practice.
Outdoor play is the perfect way to practice fine and gross motor skills. Scooping sand or water, drawing in dirt with a stick or on concrete with chalk, and stacking objects work the small muscles in a child’s hand. Jumping, climbing, and balancing on playground equipment; throwing balls; and carting toys around in a wagon all build gross motor skill.
Domains are Interrelated
Most tasks involve accessing more than one domain at the same time. For example, building a block tower involves both the cognitive skill to understand principles of balance and the physical skill to place the blocks. If two or more children are building the block tower together, then the task also involves the language skill to communicate the design plans to each other.
When a child is learning to read, all four domains are involved. Language is the most obvious, since reading and writing are forms of communication. Deciphering the printed “code” is a cognitive skill, and the tracking of that code with the eyes and the fingers involves physical coordination. Reading also involves the social/emotional domain both in an individual’s ability to persevere and take risks learning a new skill and in the individual’s ability to relate to and understand book characters’ motivations.
Domains Influence Early Childhood Development
In addition to the domains being interrelated, growth in one domain can influence growth in another. For example, the physical skill of crawling opens up a whole new world for babies to explore cognitively. Likewise, the emotional attachment an infant develops to a caregiver influences cognitive and language growth. Helping a child progress through stages of early development, therefore, involves stimulating growth physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
Children’s Medical Services: Special Services for Children with Special Needs. Developmental Domains & Typical Sequences of Development.(2012). Accessed May 21, 2013.
UNICEF. Early Learning and Development Standards for Children from 0-6 Years. (2009). Accessed May 21, 2013.