Child development

What is child development? Child development is a process every child goes through. This process involves learning and mastering skills like sitting, walking, talking, skipping, and tying shoes. Children learn these skills, called developmental milestones, during predictable time periods. Children develop skills in five main areas of development:
  • Cognitive Development: This is the child's ability to learn and solve problems. For example, this includes a two-month-old baby learning to explore the environment with hands or eyes or a five-year-old learning how to do simple math problems.
  • Social and Emotional Development: This is the child's ability to interact with others, including helping themselves and self-control. Examples of this type of development would include: a six-week-old baby smiling, a ten-month-old baby waving bye-bye, or a five-year-old boy knowing how to take turns in games at school.
  • Speech and Language Development: This is the child's ability to both understand and use language. For example, this includes a 12-month-old baby saying his first words, a two-year-old naming parts of her body, or a five-year-old learning to say "feet" instead of "foots".
  • Fine Motor Skill Development: This is the child's ability to use small muscles, specifically their hands and fingers, to pick up small objects, hold a spoon, turn pages in a book, or use a crayon to draw.
  • Gross Motor Skill Development: This is the child's ability to use large muscles. For example, a six-month-old baby learns how to sit up with some support, a 12-month-old baby learns to pull up to a stand holding onto furniture, and a five-year-old learns to skip.

What is a developmental milestone?
A developmental milestone is a skill that a child acquires within a specific time frame. For instance, one developmental milestone is learning to walk. Most children learn this skill or developmental milestone between the ages of 9 and 15 months.

Milestones develop in a sequential fashion. This means that a child will need to develop some skills before he or she can develop new skills. For example, children must first learn to crawl and to pull up to a standing position before they are able to walk. Each milestone that a child acquires builds on the last milestone developed.

What are typical milestones, or skills, children learn at different ages?
We now know that our brains are not fully developed at birth. In fact, a baby's brain weighs about one quarter (1/4) of what an adult's brain weighs! The brain grows very rapidly during the first several years of life. During this time, a child is learning all sorts of new skills.

Because children usually acquire developmental milestones or skills during a specific time frame or "window", we can predict when most children will learn different skills. The pages below describe the types of skills children usually learn at different ages.

What if a child does not meet a developmental milestone?
Each child is an individual and may meet developmental milestones a little earlier or later than his peers. You may have heard people say things like, "he was walking before he turned 10 months, much earlier than his older brother" or "she didn't say much until she was about 2 years old and then she talked a blue streak!" This is because each child is unique and will develop at his or her own pace.

However, there are definitely blocks of time when most children will meet a milestone. For example, children learn to walk anytime between 9 and 15 months of age. So, if a child is 13 months of age and not yet walking, there is no need to worry if he is crawling and pulling to a stand. He has acquired the skills he needs to learn to walk and may begin walking soon. However, if you have a child 15 months of age who is not yet walking, it would be a good idea to talk with a child's pediatrician to make sure there aren't any medical or developmental problems since age 15 months is outside of the normal "window" or time frame in which children learn to walk.

In this section, we will provide you with some information about these "windows" or blocks of time when children usually develop a skill. We also will share with you some warning signs or "red flags" to watch for that may mean a child is not meeting developmental milestones.

However, whenever you have questions, do not hesitate to ask a professional like a child's doctor, nurse practitioner, or a trained child development or behavioral specialist. There are also several clinical specialists who are specifically trained in various areas of development who can be consulted. These include speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, developmental psychologists and audiologists.

How can I help a child meet these developmental milestones?
As parents and caregivers, we all want our children to succeed and be the best they can be. We know from research that two factors influence how a child succeeds and grows: genes and environment.

One of the factors that influence our child's development is their genetic makeup or "genes." Some people refer to this as "nature." Genes are the genetic material parents pass onto our children. Children are born with their "genes" in place. These genes act like a blueprint for what characteristics a child may have. For example, genes determine if a child will have blue eyes or brown eyes; they also determine if he will be left- or right-handed.

The other factor that influences child development is the environment. This includes experiences children have in their home, school and community environments. Some people refer to this as "nurture." The environment can either improve or harm a child's genetic blueprint. For example, malnourished children who live in third world countries may not reach their IQ potential because of the impact of their environment on their brain development.

We often think we need to run out and buy special toys, music and games to stimulate our child's development, but we have to remind ourselves that it is more important to provide the following, every-day activities you can do with a child to encourage brain development.

  • Give a child lots of love and attention. No matter what a child's age, holding, hugging, and listening are important ways to show a child they matter.
  • Interact with a child by talking, singing, playing, eating, and reading with a child. A child will grow up feeling special and important to you. You will also learn a lot about a child's interests and skills.
  • Read, read, read. Research has shown that children who are read to by their parents and caregivers have a larger vocabulary than other children. Reading also provides children with new perspectives about the world we live in.
  • Learn some simple care-giving skills for helping a child to learn how to behave. The most important care-giving skills are having consistent rules, rewarding behaviors you want to see a child do more of, and having consequences for behaviors you do not want a child to continue to do.
  • Limit TV time and video time to no more than 1-2 hours of educational viewing per day.

Toddlers: 3 to 5 Years

At this age, a child believes that everything revolves around her. She is the center of her world. Her world is full of magic. Her imagination is working all the time. She is also learning to be a good companion to other children her age. Preschool, day care or playgroup provides a great opportunity for a child to learn appropriate social skills.

How a child eats:
  • Make eating fun to avoid "food jags" and pickiness by preparing food in fun shapes or with different dipping sauces (e.g. cheese spreads, yogurt, etc.)
  • A child is capable of helping with some meal preparation such as: pouring cold beverages, mixing, breaking eggs, mashing potatoes, and squeezing juice.
  • Watch a child when he eats and avoid giving him foods that he might choke on. Examples include "hard to chew" food like steak, "small and round" food like hot dogs, grapes, peanuts, popcorn (hot dogs and grapes can be cut into strips), and "sticky" food like peanut butter (peanut butter can be mixed with plain yogurt to decrease stickiness).
  • Children should stop sucking their thumb by 4 to 5 years. Thumb sucking beyond this age is strongly discouraged because it can cause dental problems, calluses, infections and social teasing. Ask a pediatrician or dentist about how you can help a child quit this habit.

How a child uses his hands (a child's fine motor skill development):
  • A child will learn to hold his crayon better. Fat pencils and crayons help him to start drawing and pretend writing.
  • A child will learn how to button his clothes and zip and unzip by himself.
  • A child may offer to help with household chores. He may learn to pour liquid from a pitcher into a cup. Spilling at this age is normal though, so make sure your expectations are in line with what he can do.

How a child moves (a child's gross motor skill development):
  • A child will learn to throw and catch a large ball.
  • Hopping, climbing and skipping are activities that a child may love to practice.
  • A child will learn to pedal a tricycle during this period. Make sure she wears a helmet.
  • A child may be more prone to accidents because she may be more adventurous.
  • Protect a child from falls by making sure play equipment is safe and supervising a child.

How a child communicates (a child's speech and language development):
  • Asking "why" is a favorite activity for a child during this period. A child wants to know what causes the events around him.
  • A child will learn to respond to the question "why" in his own fashion and may ask "Why?" over and over again.
  • A child will learn to listen to the explanations of others with interest.
  • A child's vocabulary continues to grow rapidly.
  • A child is pronouncing words better, but may still leave out or substitute some sounds (especially "L" or "R").
  • A child's imagination and his increased ability to remember the past make him an interesting storyteller.
  • A child can recite familiar stories you have read. Reading is all about playing with words and sounds through rhymes, songs and stories.

How a child explores (a child's cognitive development):
  • A child should be able to answer questions like "What do you do when you are sleepy or hungry?"
  • A child will learn to know different shapes by name (circle, square, triangle) and colors (blue, red, yellow, green).
  • A child will, by age 5, know how to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • By setting firm and consistent limits for a child, you will begin to teach a child the difference between right and wrong. He may still seem to "lie" on occasion, but he will believe this lie really is the truth.
  • A child will have a difficult time knowing the difference between reality and fantasy during this period.
  • A child will have a better understanding of the concepts of past, present and future by the end of this period.
  • Playing pretend will ready a child for reading. If a rock can "be" an egg, then a group of letters can stand for a word.

How a child is growing emotionally (a child's social and emotional development):
  • During this period, a child may develop new fears especially about unfamiliar sights and sounds.
  • A child will learn to share with others, most of the time.
  • A child will learn to follow simple rules in games like "hide and seek", but will always want to win and be first. Playing "fair" comes later.
  • A child will enjoy playing make believe games.
  • A child may be very easily influenced by what he watches on TV. He may try to act as if he were his favorite character. Supervise what he watches.
  • Your support and guidance will help a child begin to gain control of his emotional, aggressive, and sexual impulses.
  • You may notice that a child will approach other children and begin to play with them.
  • Be aware that a normal part of a child's development during this period is sexual exploration of one's own body. A child will learn about what is appropriate from your messages to him.

Loving and playing with a child:

  • Playing "house" will give a child opportunities to practice imitate your activities and to try different roles.
  • Make outdoor playing time part of a child's daily routine. Visit playgrounds or parks and go for walks.
  • A child's curiosity leads her into exciting new experiences and increases learning.
  • Read to a child regularly, every day if you can.
  • A child's interest and attention will be your guide as to what level story is "right" for him.
  • Remember, some children may not be toilet trained until they are four years old.

Childhood: 5 to 7 Years

As a child begins school, each day becomes an adventure and a time of discovery. This period of childhood is the time each child begins to learn skills needed to become a self-sufficient person. Each child has his or her own personality that influences each step of learning and development. Physically, this is also a time of tremendous growth. A child will grow about 7 lbs. and 2 1/2 inches each year during this time. Muscular strength, coordination, and stamina increase, though a child may be somewhat clumsy at this time as his height and weight increase so rapidly.

How a child eats:
  • A child is capable of measuring ingredients and using simple kitchen utensils such as an eggbeater, grater, and vegetable peeler. Practice basic skills until they are mastered before allowing a child to try advanced tasks. Make sure to carefully supervise activities in the kitchen.
  • Watch a child when he eats and avoid giving him foods that he might choke on. Examples include "hard to chew" food like steak, "small and round" food like hot dogs, grapes, peanuts, popcorn (hot dogs and grapes can be cut into strips), and "sticky" food like peanut butter (peanut butter can be mixed with plain yogurt to decrease stickiness).
  • A child may begin to lose her "baby" (primary) teeth around age 6. It is very important that a child see a dentist regularly to ensure the growth of healthy permanent teeth.

How a child uses his hands (a child's fine motor skill development):
  • A child will learn how to use a pencil to make shapes (like a square) and then to make letters, words and sentences.
  • A child will be drawing people, houses and trees with more detail than before (for example: at least 6 body parts when he draws a person).
  • By age 7, a child will be able to tie his shoes (if given the opportunity to learn; with all the Velcro shoes and slip-ons around these days, it may happen later!).

How a child moves (a child's gross motor skill development):
  • A child will be able to do a series of motions in a row in order to do a complicated motor activity like pumping herself on a swing, skipping, jumping rope, or swimming strokes.
  • A child will develop more visual-motor coordination and be able to catch bounced or thrown balls more easily. The balls can be smaller now.
  • A child will be able balance on one foot for 10 seconds.

How a child communicates (a child's speech and language development):
  • A child will be able to recognize opposites, define objects by their use, and use relatively good sentence structure.
  • By the time a child turns 7, she will be able to say "v", "j", "sh," "ch", "r", "l", "s", "th" and "str" sounds like in the words "victory", " judge", "shush", "child", "rabbit", "little", "six", "thirteenth", and "street"
  • A child understands the rules of conversation and is able to talk and then listen.
  • Be a good listener yourself and encourage stories.

How a child explores (a child's cognitive development):
  • This is the time for learning the fundamentals of reading, writing, and basic math.
  • A child is eager to learn and has a strong desire to please adults.
  • Children at this age can be both cooperative and competitive. Both can promote learning.
  • A child may focus on only one part of a situation. For example, a child of this age may believe that a tall, narrow bottle of soda contains more soda than a short, wide bottle with an equal amount because one is taller than the other.
  • A child may believe that objects have feelings. For example, a child of this age might feel sorry for a car that has a lot of passengers in it.
  • A child will understand the concept of today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
  • A child will be able to follow two-step directions. For example, if you say to a child, "Go to the kitchen and get me a trash bag" they will be able to remember that direction.
  • A child will know his full name, age and address.
  • A child will be able to answer who, what, when, where, why questions.

How a child is growing emotionally (a child's social and emotional development):
  • Developing self-esteem is a central issue at this age.
  • A child is learning to use standards like grades or home runs to measure his performance.
  • Home is still very important and is the foundation for a child to become independent.
  • Increasing separation and independence from parents are healthy steps in a child's development, so going to grandma's or a friend's house is important.
  • Children at this age tend to identify with parent of the same sex.
  • A child is beginning to compare herself against other people's expectations.
  • A child is becoming aware that she is one of many people in the world. Up to this time, most children are focused primarily on themselves. Sometimes, this makes a child seem less outgoing than before.
  • A child may enjoy being with you and at home more at age 5 than she did at age 4. By age 8, a child will probably be more focused on his peers.
  • A child is developing the social skills to make friends.
  • A child is a wonderful mimic. He imitates both good and bad adult behavior.
  • A child is able to communicate well with others without your help.
  • How other children perceive a child will affect his self-image.

Loving and playing with a child:

  • A child will love board games and other types of games at this age. Let yourself be a kid again and play with him!
  • A child will start to be able to think about the world from someone else's perspective. Before age 5, she was pretty much focused on her view!
  • During this time, a child will start to gravitate toward playing with children of her own sex.
  • A child will become very interested in the difference between truth and lies. Be open and honest with a child. Praise a child appropriately, but remember to not overdo it. Children can see through false praise.
  • A child often develops modesty around this time. Respect a child and his individuality.
  • At the same time that a child develops modesty, he may also become more interested in his genitals and begin fondling them. This is a good time to calmly discuss sexual differences between boys and girls, acknowledge that masturbating "feels good", and then establish family rules about touching (where and when appropriate).
  • Take time to listen. Take what a child tells you seriously.
  • This is a good time to give a child responsibilities within her ability.
  • Read, read, read! Encourage a child to read at the level he is comfortable. Practice and success help a child love reading.
  • Keep reading aloud. You can read the higher level books a child is not quite ready to read by himself but will enjoy for the action and story line.

Middle Childhood: 7 to 12

When they start school, children enter "middle childhood" and remain there until they reach adolescence. This will help caregivers and other adults look at the general characteristics of children ages 7-12, consider special concerns of parents and caregivers, and give practical tips.

Between the ages of 7 and 12, the child's world expands outward from the family as relationships are formed with friends, teachers, coaches, caregivers, and others. Because their experiences are expanding, many factors can alter children's actions and impact how they learn to get along. Some situations can create stress and affect self-esteem. The middle childhood period is a time to prepare for adolescence.

Children develop at various rates. Some children in middle childhood seem very mature while others seem very immature. During this stage, behavior may depend on the child's mood, his or her experience with various types of people, or even what happened that day.

Parental concerns

Parents with children in middle childhood may begin to re-evaluate what kind of parent they have been up to this point. With children entering school, parents may be wondering if their child has what it takes to "make it" and succeed. Up to this point, children have always looked up to parents as the source of information, but now children judge parents more and label their actions differently. Parents struggle with how to support their children's independence while understanding the child's new connections with others (friends and teachers). With children's natural curiosity and expanding knowledge, parents often find children question them more, and they are asked to respond in greater detail to larger issues, such as why they must work overtime, why some people act unfairly, or even why there is war. Children continually struggle to understand new information that is difficult to understand.

In middle childhood, children typically spend less time with their families and parents, and families spend less time in caretaking, reading, talking, teaching, and playing. Less monitoring and fewer verbal cues are needed, particularly for routine tasks (such as baths or brushing teeth).

As children get older, behavior can be managed with verbal reasoning, deprivation of privileges, appeals to child's sense of humor, or reminders of the consequences of his or her actions.

In addition to typical development, daily life challenges are normal. For example, most children will attend school. With school comes many transitions. Being afraid of new situations or feeling peer pressure are predictable stressors. Other stressors are not as predictable. Any disruption of what is considered normal for the child causes stress.

Developmental Aspects of Middle Childhood

Social and emotional development
  • There are signs of growing independence. Children are becoming so "worldly" that they typically test their growing knowledge with back talk and rebellion.
  • Common fears include the unknown, failure, death, family problems, and rejection.
  • Friends may live in the same neighborhood and are most commonly the same sex.
  • Children average five best friends and at least one "enemy," who often changes
  • from day to day.
  • Children act nurturing and commanding with younger children but follow and depend on older children.
  • Children are beginning to see the point of view of others more clearly.
  • Children define themselves in terms of their appearance, possessions, and activities.
  • There are fewer angry outbursts and more ability to endure frustration while accepting delays in getting things they "want."
  • Children often resolve conflict through peer judges who accept or reject their actions.
  • Children are self-conscious and feel as if everyone notices even small differences (new haircut, facial hair, a hug in public from a parent).
  • Tattling is a common way to attract adult attention in the early years of middle childhood.
  • Inner control is being formed and practiced each time decisions are made.
  • Around age 6-8, children may still be afraid of monsters and the dark. These are replaced later by fears of school or disaster and confusion over social relationships.
  • To win, lead, or to be first is valued. Children try to be the boss and are unhappy if they lose.
  • Children often are attached to adults (teacher, club leader, caregiver) other than their parents and will quote their new "hero" or try to please him or her to gain attention.
  • Early in middle childhood, "good" and "bad" days are defined as what is approved or disapproved by the family.
  • Children's feelings get hurt easily. There are mood swings, and children often don't know how to deal with failure.

Physical Development
  • Growth is slower than in preschool years, but steady. Eating may fluctuate with activity level. Some children have growth spurts in the later stages of middle childhood.
  • In the later stages of middle childhood, body changes (hips widen, breasts bud, pubic hair appears, testes develop) indicate approaching puberty.
  • Children recognize that there are differences between boys and girls.
  • Children find difficulty balancing high energy activities and quiet activities.
  • Intense activity may bring tiredness. Children need around 10 hours of sleep each night.
  • Muscle coordination and control are uneven and incomplete in the early stages, but children become almost as coordinated as adults by the end of middle childhood.
  • Small muscles develop rapidly, making playing musical instruments, hammering, or building things more enjoyable.
  • Baby teeth will come out and permanent ones will come in.
  • Permanent teeth may come in before the mouth has fully grown, causing dental crowding.
  • Eyes reach maturity in both size and function.
  • The added strain of school work (smaller print, computers, intense writing) often creates eye-tension and leads some children to request eye examinations.

Mental Development
  • Children can begin to think about their own behavior and see consequences for actions. In the early stages of concrete thinking, they can group things that belong together (for instance babies, fathers, mothers, aunts are all family members). As children near adolescence, they master sequencing and ordering, which are needed for math skills.
  • Children begin to read and write early in middle childhood and should be skillful in reading and writing by the end of this stage.
  • They can think through their actions and trace back events that happened to explain situations, such as why they were late to school.
  • Children learn best if they are active while they are learning. For example, children will learn more effectively about traffic safety by moving cars, blocks, and toy figures rather than sitting and listening to an adult explain the rules.
  • Six- to 8-year-olds can rarely sit for longer than 15-20 minutes for an activity. Attention span gets longer with age.
  • Toward the beginning of middle childhood, children may begin projects but finish few. Allow them to explore new materials. Nearing adolescence, children will focus more on completion.
  • Teachers set the conditions for social interactions to occur in schools. Understand that children need to experience various friendships while building esteem.
  • Children can talk through problems to solve them. This requires more adult time and more sustained attention by children.
  • Children can focus attention and take time to search for needed information.
  • They can develop a plan to meet a goal.
  • There is greater memory capability because many routines (brushing teeth, tying shoes, bathing, etc.) are automatic now.
  • Child begins to build a self-image as a "worker." If encouraged, this is positive in later development of career choices.
  • Many children want to find a way to earn money.

Moral Development
Moral development is more difficult to discuss in terms of developmental milestones. Moral development occurs over time through experience. Research implies that if a child knows what is right, he or she will do what is right. Even as adults, we know that there are often gray areas when it comes to making tough decisions about right and wrong. There are a lot of "it depends" responses depending on the particular situation.

Most adults agree that they should act in a caring manner and show others they care about them. People want to come into contact with others who will reinforce them for who they are. It is no different for children. To teach responsible and caring behaviors, adults must first model caring behaviors with young children as they do with other adults. While modeling, focus on talking with children.

This does not mean talking at children but discussing with them in an open-ended way. Work to create an air of learning and a common search for understanding, empathy, and appreciation. Dialogue can be playful, serious, imaginative, or goal oriented. It can also provide the opportunity to question why. This is the foundation for caring for others.

Next, practice caring for others. Adults need to find ways to increase the capacity to care. Adults generally spend time telling children what to do or teaching facts. There is little time to use the newly developed higher order thinking and to practice caring interactions and deeds.

The last step to complete the cycle of caring is confirmation. Confirmation is encouraging the best in others. A trusted adult who identifies something admirable and encourages the development of that trait can go a long way toward helping children find their place in this world. Love, caring, and positive relations play central roles in ethics and moral education.

Practical Advice for All Adults Working with Children in Middle Childhood

Social and emotional development
  • Encourage non-competitive games, particularly toward the beginning of middle childhood, and help children set individual goals.
  • Give children lots of positive attention and let them help define the rules.
  • Talk about self-control and making good decisions. Talk about why it is important to be patient, share, and respect others' rights. Adults must pick battles carefully so there is limited nagging and maximized respect while children build confidence in their ability to make decisions.
  • Teach them to learn from criticism. Ask "how could you do that differently next time?"
  • Always be alert to the feelings associated with what children tell you.
  • Give children positive feedback for successes.

Physical Development
  • It is important to help children feel proud of who they are and what they can do. Avoid stereotyping girls into particular activities and boys into others. Let both genders choose from a range of activities.
  • Encourage children to balance their activities between high energy and quiet activity. Children release tension through play. Children may be extremely active when tired. Encourage quiet reading, painting, puzzles, or board games before bedtime.
  • Regular dental and physical check-ups are an important part of monitoring a child's growth and development. This allows parents to screen for potential problems. If a child accidentally loses a permanent tooth, finding the tooth and taking it and the child to the dentist may save the permanent tooth.

Mental Development
  • Rapid mental growth creates many of the positive as well as negative interactions between children and adults during middle childhood. Some of the ways adults can help children continue to develop their thinking skills are:
  • Adults can ask "what if..." or "how could we solve this" questions to help children develop problem-solving skills.
  • Reading signs, making lists, and counting prices are all exercises to practice sequencing skills.
  • Asking children if you can help them think about ways to talk with other children can provide limited guidance as they negotiate social relationships.
  • Picking focused times to talk - without distractions - allows adults and children to converse and listen.
  • Each stage in life is a time of growth. Middle childhood is a time to bridge dependence with approaching independence. The time of wonder and spontaneity is fading, replaced by feeling self-conscious and on guard. The new ways children act are ways they are exploring their future potential. Some behaviors will pass, but they must be experienced in order for the child to grow and be ready to face the stage of finding his or her identity during adolescence.

A few cautions about TV: Too little physical activity can affect weight in children. Too many aggressive acts on TV can affect mood and actions, and children can begin to think that what they see on TV is the "norm." Limiting the amount of television watched and monitoring what is watched can help parents assure that the TV that is seen relates to their family's values.

There is no magic age at which a child is ready to be left alone. Parents should consider carefully the child's willingness to be left alone, the child's day to day responsibility, the child's ability to anticipate and avoid unsafe situations.

Children want to feel useful and have a sense that they are contributing to the family. To help children learn household responsibilities, parents might allow children to choose from a list of chores. Paid chores should be in addition to what is generally expected. For example, brushing teeth, taking a bath, and keeping a room clean may be expected. Drying dishes, putting away folded clothes, or emptying trash cans may be chores that earn allowance and contribute to the family.

Money becomes more important since children now understand how it is valued in our society. Earning an allowance is a two-way agreement; children do agreed upon work with little reminders in exchange for agreed upon money or goods. Charts with pictures to check-off chores help children remember what to do. The older children get, the more capable they are, but remember to choose age-appropriate duties.


Funding for this program provided by the Department of Health and Human Services