Child development refers to the sequence of physical, language, social, cognitive and emotional changes that occur in a child from birth to the beginning of adulthood, through a child progresses from dependency on their primary caregivers to increasing independence. According to the World Health Organisation, “the early childhood period is considered to be the most important developmental phase throughout the lifespan. Healthy early child development (ECD)—which includes the physical, social/emotional, and language/cognitive domains of development, each equally important—strongly influences well-being, obesity/stunting, mental health, heart disease, competence in literacy and numeracy, criminality, and economic participation throughout life. What happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s developmental trajectory and life course.”
Biological, psychological, and social (socio-economical, socio-environmental, and cultural) factors all play a significant role. Development is influenced both by environmental facts and the child’s innate learning capacity. In the first five years of life, the human brain develops more and faster than at any other time in life. A child’s early experiences, such as relationships and the things that a child sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes, all play a part in stimulating his brain and creating millions of connections. This is when the foundations for learning, health, and behavior throughout life are laid down. During this time period, play becomes especially important as the main way of learning and developing is through play. Play becomes the very basis and medium through which a child explores, learns and grows their skills in every domain – social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and language and communication. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children engage and interact with the world around them, from a very early age. Play allows children to create and explore a world that they can master, conquering the unknown while practicing adult roles. As they master their world, they develop competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and resilience that would be needed to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.
The major domains of development include physical, socio-emotional, language and cognitive domains. The physical domain covers the development of physical changes, growing in size and strength, and the development of both gross motor skills and fine motor skills. This domain includes the development of the senses and using them. The cognitive domain includes intellectual development and creativity. Children develop the ability to process thoughts, pay attention, develop memories, understand their surroundings, make and implement plans and accomplish them. The social and emotional domain includes the growth of a child in understanding and controlling their emotions. They also identify what others are feeling. The child develops attachments to others and learns how to interact with them. They develop the ability to cooperate, show empathy, and use moral reasoning. Children and adolescents develop many relationships, from parents and siblings to peers, teachers, coaches, and others in the community. Children develop self-knowledge during this stage and they learn how they identify with different groups. Their innate temperament also comes into play. In the language domain, both language usage and communication come into play. The ability to communicate with others, for example, grows from infancy. Aspects of language include phonology (creating the sounds of speech), syntax (grammar, how sentences are put together), semantics (what words mean), and pragmatics (communicating in social situations both verbally and non-verbally). Children develop these abilities at different rates. Development in each of these domains are interlinked and interwoven, and any delay in one area has an impact on the acquisition of skills in others. The brain is a highly interrelated organ, and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.
Observing and monitoring child development is an important tool to ensure that children meet their developmental milestones, which serve as a useful guideline of ideal development. Checking a child’s developmental progress at particular age markers against these arbitrary time frames gives an idea of whether or not a child is on track for their age. Early detection of developmental challenges helps make early intervention possible, which is crucial for minimizing the impact that developmental delays can have on a child’s skill development and subsequently on their confidence, or serve as an indicator of a possible future diagnosis. However, it is important to be aware that while child development has a predictable sequence, all children are unique in their developmental journey and the times frames that they meet the many developmental milestones.
Child development can be actively enhanced through targeted therapeutic intervention and home-based practices. These are especially impactful during the childhood years, as it encounters the critical period, during which experience exerts a particularly strong influence on neural circuit formation. The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years. interventions. Supportive relationships and positive learning experiences begin at home but can also be provided through a range of services with proven effectiveness factors. Therefore, early preventive interventions will be more efficient and produce more favorable outcomes than remediation later in life. A balanced approach to emotional, social, cognitive, and language development can help prepare children for success in school and later in the workplace and community.