When parents talk about early childhood, they are generally referring to toddlers and preschoolers. However, educators, developmental psychologists, and cognitive scientists have a much broader view of this stage of development, referring to the period from birth to age 8 as early childhood.
Piaget is the Father of Developmental Psychology
The term early childhood and its age range have their origins in Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. According to La Fondation Jean Piaget, he revolutionized how scientists observe the thoughts and behaviors of infants and children. Piaget is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and his work has greatly influenced the fields of education, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. He based his theory of how the human brain grows and learns – everything from language to logic to mathematical thinking – on his own extensive observations of young children at play.
The Sensorimotor Stage of Cognitive Development
Piaget theorized that human cognitive behavior and problem solving fit into four distinct and linear stages of development. The first stage for any human is the sensorimotor stage, in which babies use their bodies to explore and learn about the world immediately surrounding them. According to Piaget, children under 2 are generally limited to learning about the things they can actually touch, see, hear, smell, and feel.
The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development
In the second, or preoperational stage, children are capable of understanding that symbols can stand in for objects that are not actually present. Pretend play is therefore, a highlight of this stage. Because children between two and seven can grasp symbolic representation, it is during this period that language learning – the most important symbolic system a human can acquire – is most intense.
However, this understanding of symbols does not extend to abstract thought. In other words, children at this age tend to see the world as it relates to them. They are egocentric, and often unable to take another person’s point of view. Objects are thought to be fixed in the moment they were last seen by the child. This last characteristic explains why many preschoolers and kindergartners are surprised that their teachers do not live at school.
The Concrete Operational Stage of Cognitive Development
Around age 7 or 8, according to Piaget, children start to develop logical reasoning. Before this age, children base their actions and beliefs on intuition rather than experimentation. It is this switch to the concrete operational stage – where children readily accept laws of physics, classification, and deductive reasoning – that marks the end of early childhood and the beginning of pre-adolescence.
The Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s final stage of development begins in adolescence and continues through adulthood. At this stage, humans are capable of abstract reasoning and moral/judiciary thinking. In other words, they can imagine a situation, process several different solutions, and come to a rational conclusion based solely on past and related experiences.
It is also at this time that people grasp abstract symbolism – where one symbol can stand for another or for an idea – and are therefore ready to tackle complex math like advanced algebra and calculus.
Neuroscience Backs Piaget’s Observations
We now know that many of the behaviors Piaget was observing were the direct result of changes in the human brain that occur at specific ages. The brain, unlike other organs, undergoes constant changes from birth through adulthood which affect the way it functions. For example, Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child points out that the brain creates 700 new neural connections per second in the first two years of life. All of the nonverbal exploration babies do during the sensorimotor stage is vitally important to human development.
Another important brain development involves a fatty protein called myelin. As myelin coats nerve fibers in the brain, the insulation speeds nerve impulses and improves the connections between axons. Myelination is most active during the first two years of life. This creation of many new neural pathways coincides with the transition from Piaget’s sensorimotor to the preoperational stage. Additionally, at age 3, the brain has more cells than it ever will at other time in a human’s life, allowing the child the cognitive flexibility that allows them to understand cause and effect – a hallmark of the preoperational stage.
However, myelination of the prefrontal cortex does not start until somewhere between ages 8 and 10. The prefrontal cortex controls “executive functioning,” or the ability to connect past experiences (whether personal or learned) with present actions. Executive functioning allows the brain to remember details, organize information, systematically weigh options, and strategize. Myelination of the prefrontal cortex marks the beginning of the formal operational stage, where learning can be a purely mental action, rather than needing to arise from a direct experience.
Educational Implications for Parents
Piaget’s theories of learning can enhance a parent’s understanding of how their child learns. If “early childhood” extends from birth to age eight, the implications for learning are clear. Children at the preoperational stage learn best from firsthand experiences rooted in the environment surrounding them. Parents should nurture their children’s natural curiosity and encourage their hands-on explorations.
Five Numbers to Remember About Early Childhood Development. (2013). Prepared by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. PDF accessed July 2013.
Jean Piaget Society. (2013). Accessed July, 2013.