Definition of Early Childhood Development

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You've probably heard the words "early childhood development" before. Perhaps a doctor mentioned it while discussing your child's growth, or you read about the importance of early childhood development in a magazine. But what exactly does "early childhood development" mean?

When is Early Childhood?

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics defines early childhood as the period between one and five years of age, including both the toddler and preschool years. Children's bodies and brains grow rapidly during this period of life.

What is Early Childhood Development?

  • Early childhood development refers to the many skills and milestones that children are expected to reach by the time they reach the age of five. These milestones include learning how to run, how to talk using simple sentences and how to play with others.
    In most cases, this type of development occurs naturally when parents and children spend time playing, preparing dinner or looking at books together.
    Preschools and Head Start programs provide activities based on early childhood development guidelines. You can also find toys and books for both children and parents that promote developmental goals.

Why is Early Childhood Development Important?

  • Early childhood development lays the foundation for future learning. By the time children reach kindergarten, they are expected to have specific social, cognitive and motor skills to handle the demands of classroom learning.
    Each stage of development connects to the next. For example, your two-year-old should be able to hold a marker or pencil and scribble. By the time she's three, she should begin drawing simple shapes like circles and squares. Later, as a four- or five-year-old, she should be able to draw simple pictures and write some letters.
    Developmental delays often appear early on, before a child enters school. Identifying and addressing developmental delays as soon as possible can help a child be on the same developmental level as peers and prevent future problems in school.

How Can I Help My Child's Early Development?

  • You can help your child by understanding the developmental milestones at each age. The American Academy of Pediatrics (see Resources) offers a comprehensive list of milestones for every age between infant and five years old.
    Be sure to talk to your child's doctor if your child seems to be developing more slowly than other children her age. The doctor can arrange for your child to undergo a developmental screening to identify any delays. While it can be hard to accept that your child may have a problem, the sooner you intervene, the better.

Early Childhood Development Controversies

  • Some parents, wanting to speed up their child's early development, seek out toys, videos and other materials that are marketed to promote early learning. Whether these items work or not is up for debate.
    In August 2007, Drs. Zimmermann, Christakis and Meltzoff published a study in the Journal of Pediatrics, concluding that educational videos could decrease early language development in children. Educational DVD makers and many parents responded that the study was flawed and shared their own stories about how educational materials helped their children.
    Quoted in a Time Magazine article on August 6, 2007, Christakis suggested that spending face-to-face time with your child will have a greater impact on her development than watching educational videos.

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