Cognitive development refers to a series of mental processes that allow children to respond to and interact with the outside world in an effective manner. The word development denotes a period of continual change. Each child displays characteristics and abilities that are invariably different to those of any of their peers.
Piaget was one of the first scholars to examine behaviour during the developmental years and he tells us that children play an active role in their own growth path, constantly receiving information from the outside world and taking meaningful action based on external stimuli.
What is going on when your child is looking, observing and touching?
The sensorimotor stage relates to all the experiences perceived through the five senses from birth up until age two. One of children's first instincts is to put their hands or objects in their mouth and to grasp anything around them. Gradually, they begin to form their first habits (they experiment by shaking an object or repeatedly dropping a beaker from their high chair) until finally, by trying out a series of actions and seeing how the end result differs each time, they succeed in understanding the nature of the various objects and how they work.
Just think about how many different ways a child can use a single object... A banana might be used as a telephone, a magic band or a tennis racket.
But can children do everything by themselves or do they need help from a grown up?
Vygotsky talks about a proximal development goal, or the difference between that which a child can do on their own as compared to that which they can do with adult help. Just think about a child left on their own with a ball. They definitely won’t get bored, but if there were a grown-up there, the adult presence would stimulate the child to use the ball in a variety of different ways (rolling, tossing, hiding and spinning it...). The child's intelligence is forged and grows thanks to the relationship with an adult who provides their expert support.
Is it true that children are able to understand and learn lots of things from a very early age?
Recent scientific evidence suggests that the time between birth and age three is when children have the utmost brain plasticity. During this developmental phase, a dense network of neural connections is formed in the brain, making the child unique and distinctive. This is why not all children of the same age have the same abilities!
Today, we talk about harmonious development to signify that huge amount of experience and abilities that the child builds day by day. Social factors, relationships with adults and friends, movement skills, language and communications interact together throughout the life of the child who is then able to respond to the demands of their environment in a balanced serene manner.
What can we do when problems arise? What constitutes a red flag?
Over the past few years, there has been growing interest amongst specialists in monitoring the development of children since the earliest months of their lives. It is quite frequently teachers and educators who realise when something is wrong. Early observation of abilities in children allows us to pinpoint any weaknesses or cognitive delays, taking effective measures as early on as possible.
How do you bring children's abilities to the fore? What words should you use to nurture them?
We all have our strengths and weaknesses. As adults we are able to defend ourselves against criticism and negative comments. But, just imagine a child who still isn’t able to process their thoughts or completely understand what adults really want to say. Every single word, look or change in our tone of voice conveys emotions to our children and a negative attitude can humiliate them and damage their self-esteem.
It is the responsibility of the grown-up to provide youngsters with constant encouragement because support and trust are necessary if children are to keep growing with a positive serene outlook and a desire to share with others.
Camaioni L., Di Blasio P. Psicologia dello sviluppo (Psychology of development) Il mulino, 2002
Karl Ernst & Walter Bucher. Educazione fisica, scuola dell’infanzia volume 2 (Physical education, kindergarten volume 2)Le Boulch J. Educare con il movimento (Educating through movement) Armando publishing house, 2003