Early Child Development

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Over a period of six decades, Jean Piaget conducted a program of naturalistic research that has profoundly affected our understanding of child development. Piaget called his general theoretical framework "genetic epistemology" because he was primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. Piaget had a background in both Biology and Philosophy and concepts from both these disciplines influences his theories and research of child development.


The concept of cognitive structure is central to his theory. Cognitive structures are patterns of physical or mental action that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development. There are four primary cognitive structu res (i.e., development stages) according to Piaget: sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations. In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions. Intelligence in the preoperation period (3-7 years) is intutive in nature. The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage (8-11 years) is logical but depends upon concrete referents. In the final stage of formal operations (12-15 years), thinking involves abstractions.


Cognitive structures change through the processes of adaptation: assimilation and accomodation. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events in terms of existing cognitive structure whereas accomodation refers to changing the cognitive structure to make sense of the environment. Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accomodation. In this sense, Piaget's theory is similar in nature to other constructivist perspectives of learning (e.g., Bruner , Vygotsky ).


While the stages of cognitive development identified by Piaget are associated with characteristic age spans, they vary for every individual. Furthermore, each stage has many detailed structural forms. For example, the concrete operational period has more than forty distinct structures covering classification and relations, spatial relationships, time, movement, chance, number, conservation and measurement. Similar detailed analysis of intellectual functions is provided by theories of intelligence such as Guilford , Gardner , and Sternberg .




Piaget explored the implications of his theory to all aspects of cognition, intelligence and moral development. Many of Piaget's experiments were focused on the development of mathematical and logical concepts. The theory has been applied extensively to teaching practice and curriculum design in elementary education (e.g., Bybee & Sund, 1982; Wadsworth, 1978).




Applying Piaget's theory results in specific recommendations for a given stage of cognitive development. For example, with children in the sensorimotor stage, teachers should try to provide a rich and stimulating environment with ample objects to play wit h. On the other hand, with children in the concrete operational stage, learning activities should involve problems of classification, ordering, location, conservation using concrete objects.




1. Children will provide different explanations of reality at different stages of cognitive development.


2. Cognitive development is facilitated by providing activities or situations that engage learners and require adaptation (i.e., assimilation and accomodation).


3. Learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of given age; avoid asking students to perform tasks that are beyond their currrent cognitive capabilities.


4. Use teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges.


A major issue in child development is the extent to which educational intervention can impact the pattern of growth. The High/Scope Perry Preschool study, which began in 1962, has now reported results through age 27. These findings indicate significantly improved social responsibility and educational performance in adult life by children who participated when compared with the randomly assigned nonparticipating group of children. A benefit-cost study found a return of $7.16 for each dollar invested. However, such outcomes are found only from specific, high-quality operations. The longitudinal High/Scope Curriculum Comparison study found that children who had experienced a highly intensive academic program were significantly less socially responsible at age 23 than were children from programs that encouraged individual choice and initiative. These studies indicate that children at ages 3 and 4 are at a sensitive period in their development toward stable adult-behavior patterns. High-quality early education programs can significantly improve adult adjustment and performance. However, such programs need to involve the child in active experiences and independent decision-making to be effective.


Three randomized, controlled early intervention trials were designed to improve cognitive development and social competence in high-risk young children from birth to 3 years of age. Two of the projects (Abecedarian and CARE) enrolled infants from economically and socially low-resource families and the other project (IHDP) was an eight-site randomized controlled trial with 985 low birth-weight and premature infants and their families. IHDP families varied widely in their economic and social resources. Results consistently indicated positive effects of the intervention on child IQ during the first 3 years of life. Children from the lowest resource families consistently benefited the most from the early intervention.


United States interest in the potential early childhood programs have for improving outcomes for children is shared by policymakers and researchers in many other nations. Throughout the world, enrollments in preschool and child care programs are rising. This article reviews international research documenting how participation in early childhood programs influenced children's later development and success in school. Studies conducted in 13 nations (Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom) are included, along with key features of each nation's provision of early childhood programs. The article summarizes conclusions that are supported by research in various countries, indicating that participation in preschool promotes cognitive development and school success, although the specific type of program attended matters little. Preschool experience helps low-income children narrow, but not close, the achievement gap separating them from more advantaged children. International evidence also suggests that maternal employment and reliance on child care do not harm children and may yield benefits if the child care is of good quality.


I. Review


How behavior theory pans out when it is applied to certain social groups. How children differ from adults in the perception and use of the environment.


II. Objective


Reflon significant spaces from our childhood


Relate our personal feelings to theoretical concepts about how children relate to environments.


Focus especially on theories that address play.


III. Human Development Theory


Before we do that, there is one more general issue that I would like to introduce. It is the issue of human development. Human development theory is concerned with how we change physically, psychologically and socially over the period of our lives. (Hand out summary chart)


We want to look, especially, at the early and late phases of life, since that is where we are not.


IV. Exercise


Take out a sheet of paper. Think about a special place that you had when you were a child. Draw a sketch of that place.


Write down the key words describe the physical environment of that place.


Write down the key words that describe the way that place made you feel.


Are there any people that are explicitly connected wityour memory of this place?


Would anyone care to describe their favorite place to us?


How about someone else.


Do you think there are any commonalties in these descriptions?



V. Environmental Autobiography


The technique we have just been using is called environmental autobiography. When expanded a little, it becomes a good tool to get people to think about their current environmental preferences and where they may have come from.


I am more interested today in getting you to remember how you thought and felt about the world when you were younger.


VI. The Role of Environment in Growing Up


A. Robin Moore is a landscape architect who has studied designing for children extensively. Moore begins his thinking about child/environment relationships within the framework of social ecology. Under this view a child's development rests on a series of relationships that cover a spectrum from family relationships to global politics.


Moore says:


The ecological approach emphasizes the importance of recognizing the local-global connections in policy formulation and raises the issue of whether child development is seen as a consequence of these systems, or whether the systems themselves are designed to implement a consciously adopted child development policy.


In the view of social ecology , all of "the child's potential interactions with the world of objects, natural phenomena and people...are controlled by institutions. The most influential are those with direct influence over the quality of children-environment interactions: family, school, housing industry, local government, planning and design professions


B. The role of the environment in helping children to grow up has been subject to much debate. The basis of the argument has been the degree to which personality is innate "genetically hard wired" versus being learned behavior due to acculturation.


C. This question has been galvanized by those interested in the definition and study of play behavior. By looking a theories of play proposed within the last century we can trace the debate and still derive conclusions meaningful to design.



VII. Classical Theories of Play (1890's to present)


A. 1870-90 Surplus Energy Theory


Play occurs when an organism has more energy than needed for work. Once the need of hunger is satisfied excess energy is expended through play.


B. 1915 Relaxation Theory


Play serves the need of relaxation and relief from mental fatigue


C. Recapitulation Theory


Play responds to primitive instincts inherited from former life forms.


D. Instinct-Practice Theory


Higher life forms require a period of immaturity to practice adult behavior before it becomes mandatory for survival.


E. Contemporary Theorists-- hold that each of these previous attempts is inadequate to describe the range of play behavior that can be observed



VIII. Contemporary Theories


A. 1930-50 Psychoanalytic Theory


Sigmond Freud developed the idea of cathartic play. That is, play is a mechanism by which the child substitutes fantasy for reality, thereby enabling the child to cope with unpleasant experiences.


A follower of Freud, Erickson added to the model and theorized that play is developmental and allows the child to add new understandings of the world at each stage.


Autocosmic Play- orientation to geography in the world


Microsphere Play- ego centered play in a small world of manipulated objects


Macrosphere Play- play related to socialization


This developmental conception of play remains in good use today by is expanded by the other contemporary theories.


B. 1960 Paiget Cognitive Theory


Paiget's conception of play is based on his structuralist view of knowledge that involves interchange between the organism and the environment.


Paiget says that people develop structures that allow them to cope with information about the world around them. When new information comes in that does not fit the structure, the choice is to reject the new information, or develop new schema to explain the altered state of information. He argues that play is the mechanism by which children develop new models of understanding.


In play the primary concern is to adapt reality to self (assimilation), in imitation the paramount objective is to adapt the self to reality (accommodation)


C. 1932 Social Theory of Play


Parten observed children at play and categorized the types of behaviors observed.


Unoccupied behavior--occupying oneself in non-play behavior


Onlooker behavior--watching specific others in play


Solitary play--playing alone and independently with toys that are unique


Parallel play--playing independently but with toys that are similar


Associative play--playing with others but without subordinating individual interests to the group


Cooperative play--playing with others under group rules


E. Although contemporary theorists agree that they have not come up with a comprehensive explanation of play behavior, there is agreement in all camps to the idea that play related to developmental stages.


There is also general agreement that play is important to physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual health and development.


Buhler's system is in easy to understand terms and is parallel to several others:


0-24 months- Functional games- large and small motor practice-- physical skills


2-7 years--Construction games-manipulating the world -conceptual skills


2-7 years--Make believe games-adaptation to adult world


7-11 years--Collective games--socialization


It is important to note that these stages are more additive in nature than progressive. That is, as children begin a new stage they continue with activities from the previous one(s).


F. Physiological Aspects-- There is much written on this topic that should be attended to in scaling design to children and limiting access to children who are not old enough to assume the risk involved in their choices.


IX. Consequences for Design


We can draw many inferences about designing for children from these various explanations of the need for play. Here are a few of the major ones.


A. Range--We need to understand something about the structure and scope of children's environments.


1. The actual size of that environment grows rapidly from birth to the teenage years. For an infant less that 4 months old the limit of the environment depends on where you place the child. They don't go anywhere by themselves. A sixth grader who rides a bicycle has a vastly expanded range.


2. The environmental range of children can be broken into subcomponents. Robin Moore speaks of Habitual Range, Frequented Range and Occasional Range.


3. We need to understand that the immediate home/neighborhood environment is the Habitual Range and it deserves the most attention in design. Playgrounds and schools are nice, even important, but the design of the Habitual Range is crucial. The importance of play theory extends well beyond the 'playground'.


B. Scale--the physical environment should be safe and properly sized for children. How far from Mom- or other caregiver- will the typical toddler venture. The range of a normal city block is way too big. For a 5th grader it may be just right.


C. Safety--My daughter when she was 2 could and did go to the top of a swinging bridge 35 feet off the ground in a carnival amusement. Age and judgment don't always synch.


The risk involved in activities can be controlled by design and this assists the care giver.


D. Variety--we should attempt to build environments that offer children opportunity for the full range of play behaviors required at each age/stage of development. Key concepts here are opportunities for:


differing social settings


manipulation of the environment


variety of activity types


E. Interactions and Conflict-- interactions are individual opportunities for a child to do an activity in a playground. (e.g. jump of the slide and run to the ladder) The number of interaction opportunities should be adjusted to the expected population. Two or more interactions per child have proven to reduce conflict amonchildren. As interactions per child decrease, incidents of aggressive behavior among children increase.




Brainerd, C. (1978). Piaget's Theory of Intelligence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Bybee, R.W. & Sund, R.B. (1982). Piaget for Educators (2nd Ed). Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill.


Flavell, J. H. (1963). The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.


Gallagher, J.M. & Reid, D.K. (1981). The Learning Theory of Piaget and Inhelder. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.


Piaget, J. (1929). The Child's Conception of the World. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.


Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgement of the Child. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.


Piaget, J. (1969). The Mechanisms of Perception. London: Rutledge & Kegan Paul.


Paiget, J. (1970). The Science of Education amd the Psychology of the Child. NY: Grossman.


Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. NY: Basic Books.


Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1973). Memory and intelligence. NY: Basic Books. Wadsworth, B. (1978). Piaget for the Classroom Teacher. NY: Longman.


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