The first cry, the first smile, the first fall, the first lie, the first theft… We just need to close our eyes and think about our little ones lifting their head for the first time, rolling over, or struggling to take the first steps and it all comes back so beautifully that it seems like it happened only yesterday! Development most often occurs in rather predictable stages. Although every child develops in a unique way, all children are expected to interact with their environment at an age appropriate level. With this understanding of typical child development, we need to look at a few important areas.
Physical Movement and Motor Skills: The first area is related to physical development and motor skills. When a child turns over, or pulls him or herself to a standing position for the first time, we see physical and motor development in action. This area of maturity involves the growth and development of the body and brain and how they interact with one another. Milestones such as reaching, sitting, crawling, walking, running and jumping are part of our their mastered skills.
Thinking, Learning and Cognitive Development Skills: Cognitive development involves the mental and intellectual growth of the child. Like with other areas of development, cognitive development occurs in stages. From the very early sensorimotor stage in early infancy where a baby learns about his or her environment through the senses, to the capacity for abstract thinking found in the formal operational stage of adolescence and adulthood, children progress through these stages depending on level of maturity, experience, and other factors such as interaction with caregivers. Mastery in various tasks of learning, memory, reasoning and problem solving are evidence that a child’s cognitive development may be on target.
Communication and Language Development Skills: Language is the means by which we communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs and wants with one another. It is our most human characteristic, essential to all human relationships. There are many different ways that people use language to communicate. Speech, gesturing, sign language and writing are a few. Technically, language is the code made up of a set of rules that include what gestures, utterances, or words mean and how to combine these to express thoughts or desires. The ability to communicate begins early in a newborn’s life and like other areas of development, follows predictable patterns. From early cries to indicate needs, to the development of babbling, then single words and ultimately complex sentences, human beings are designed to communicate with others.
The Senses: Vision, Hearing and Touch (Including Sensory Integration): Infants and young children first learn about the external and internal world through their senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell as sensory information is transmitted to the brain. Sensory Integration involves the ability to take in the information gathered through the senses from the internal and external world and put it together in a meaningful way. The complex interplay between the various senses is necessary as the child learns about, acts and responds to the environment in appropriate ways. For example, a baby’s sense of sight will help him or her reach out for a rattle on the table. The sense of touch will enable him to feel for and grab the rattle and to determine how much pressure to exert to hold and shake the rattle. The sense of hearing will allow the baby to distinguish the sound made by the shaking rattle. As all of this sensory information is processed, the child learns how to interpret and respond to various environmental cues.
Social Development Skills and Emotional Development Skills: Human beings need relationships in order to survive and grow. Our little ones’ first relationship is with their primary caregiver, most often the mother. It is in the context of this environment that their social development and emotional development occur. In a good enough relationship, the primary caregiver and baby learn to respond to one another. The infant coos. The mother coos back. The baby smiles. The mother smiles and talks to her child in response. The baby giggles in delight. They hold each other’s gaze in a playful exchange of mutual pleasure. As our children mature, the exchange becomes more sophisticated. They imitate their mother as she talks on the phone and offers hugs of affection. With the help of the mother’s attuned response, the young children begin to put their emotions to words. The tightness in the tummy is understood as feeling scared. Laughter becomes associated with feeling happy. What were once only known and felt as bodily sensations, now become understandable feelings. This is the development of affect.
Self-Care, Daily Living Skills and Adaptive Development: Adaptive development refers to the ability of developing children to take care of themselves in age appropriate ways. Mastered skills progress in the area of feeding, for example, from feeding self through scooping up food to using two fingers pinched together to pick up food, and later using a spoon or fork. Later children acquire more sophisticated self-care skills such as teeth brushing or being able to prepare simple snacks.