According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 43% of children age 5 years or less in low and middle-income countries do not realize their full development potential due to their adverse childhood experiences. Also, a survey from National Center for Education Statistics in the United States shows that 38% of children aged 5 or younger receive regular care from parents only, and the remaining 62% are taken care of by other relatives (24 percent), non-relatives (17 percent), or center-based programs (34 percent). Can these childhood experiences in care-giving affect the children in the long run?
Research on child development says yes.
From our daily experiences, we have gathered much about how fast children grow, both physically and mentally. We know that the first steps of our baby lead to their increased sense of curiosity and exploration. They will walk and crawl around the house, picking up random things from the ground and putting them in their mouth! What is the reason behind their exploratory adventures? Do all babies grow the same way, or does it depend on the environment they are brought up in? Is there any way we can influence? These are some of the questions that we will cover in this chapter.
But first, did you know that in the pre-Aristotelian times and until as late as Middle ages, it was believed that babies were commonly considered as the miniature forms of adults…till Jean Piaget busted this myth! He said that children were different from adults, especially in their thinking. He viewed childhood as a unique period of growth. He began observing different activities of children—like what they think, what they do, how they behave, how do they talk, etc. right from their infancy to their adolescence. He observed children in his neighborhood over many years, including his own, and came up with a theory on the cognitive development of children.
Cognitive development means how children think, identify, explore, and interact in their environment (their house or school, playgrounds, etc.). It covers the entire spectrum of child development from babbling in their first month to when they form proper sentences at the age of 4, and beyond.
Let us now look at Piya’s father's situation to understand better about cognitive development.
Piya’s dad is cleaning the base of her highchair for the 50th time today! He seems to believe that his 15-month-old Piya loves to drop food from her highchair. Not only food, but she also drops anything within her reach---toys, spoon, plate, just to watch how it falls on the floor. It looks like she is experimenting with observing what noise or the size of the mess is created when she drops different things on the floor.
Piaget would have agreed with the father’s belief that Piya is conducting her little experiments to know more about the world. According to him, children, and especially infants, learn through a simple equation: action=knowledge. That is, how they act reflects the knowledge they have. Here are the stages, given by Piaget, in brief.
Sensorimotor Stage: Early Signs of Cognitive Growth
How many times have you noticed the baby pick something up from the ground and put it in their mouth?! This action is part of the first stage wherein the baby starts coordinating different body movements to perform a single activity. They also start paying attention to the outside world. They will take the rattle and shake it differently to hear the different sounds it makes. In this stage, the baby becomes capable of forming mental representations or symbolic thoughts.
Preoperational Stage: Keeping our Minds Busy
In this phase, children begin to form memories and entertain imaginations. They can grasp symbolic concepts like, a toy car can represent a real car but is not actually one! They are able to make sense of time (past, present, and future) and start believing in “what you see is what you think.” For example, if a kid only knows about a cat, any four-legged animal will be a ‘cat’ throughout this period.
Concrete and Formal Operational Stages: Logic Rules
You will observe that children aged 7 to 11 years old start developing their own personalities. In this sense, they become aware of events around them and their own feelings. They also start noticing how others feel and behave. For example, a child will look for the best time to ask for toys or treats from parents. Your child can also read your mind!
The fourth and the last stage is the formal operational stage for children aged 11 and above. The child will solve problems logically, look at the world more rationally, and even plan for their future.
These stages are continuous and are common to all children. But, keep in mind, that there are always individual differences when it comes to their development. So, what causes these individual differences? The role of genes is an obvious answer, but our role is also equally important.
According to the World Health Organization, the brain develops unbelievably fast in the first few years of a child’s life. Their interactions with us shape their developing brains which is a foundation for their physical, social, emotional, and mental health. We must do a lot of things to help them understand the world better—like reading stories, playing with them, singing rhymes, and a lot more, on a daily basis. We understand that because of our work and household commitments, especially in the recent COVID times, we are unable to spend quality time with our kids. But we have solutions that are easily achievable!
Keep talking with your baby while pointing out commonly used things: For example, “look at this plate. The plate is where we keep our food during meal-time.”
Encouraging your baby to explore toys and move around: For babies, exploration means learning from experiences. The more they explore, the more curious they get, and the more they will have a thirst for knowledge.
Exposing your child to books and puzzles will also develop healthy play habits in your children. Solving puzzles will improve their cognitive skills—problem-solving, coordination, thinking, and reasoning skills, and will also give you some space to finish your assignments.
Expanding your child’s interest in learning activities: For instance, if your child takes an early interest in animals, stream documentaries about nature.
Be and answer your child’s “why” questions: Your answers will reinforce your child’s curiosity that will help them with future learning and academics.
In summary, we reviewed how children’s mental abilities, or cognition, expand over time. We also realized the importance of our role as caregivers in our children’s mental development that will help them in the long run. This awareness will help us ensure that our children get the best of parenting environments to reach their fullest potential.
“Together we may give our children the roots to grow and the wings to fly.”
Goswami, U., & Bryant, P. (2007). Children's cognitive development and learning.
Miller, S. A. (1988). Parents' beliefs about children's cognitive development. Child development, 259-285.
Paul, R., & Singh, A. (2020). Does early childhood adversities affect physical, cognitive and language development in Indian children? Evidence from a panel study. SSM-Population Health, 12, 100693.
Pulaski, M. A. S. (1971). Understanding Piaget: An introduction to children's cognitive development.