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Chapter 7
Physical and Cognitive Development in the Pre-School Years

Factors Affecting Development During the Preschool Years


The start of intellectual and social interaction

Practice/preparation for child’s formal education

Great growth and change during this period


weight, height, brain, motor skills


intellectual development, language

Physical Growth

Preschool age children’s physical abilities advance significantly (compared to infancy stage).

Children grow steadily during the preschool period.




Averages mask individual differences in height & weight.

By the age of 6, boys are taller and heavier, on average, than girls.

There are profound differences in height and weight between children in economically developed countries and those in developing countries. WHY?

Nutrition, healthcare

Differences in height and weight also reflect economic factors within the U.S.

Children whose families are below the poverty level are among the shortest of all preschool age children.

Changes in body shape and structure occur during the preschool years.

Boys and girls become less chubby and roundish and more slender (no more potbelly).

Arms and legs lengthen.

Children grow stronger as muscle size increases and bones become sturdier.

The sense organs continue to develop.

Body proportions are more similar to those of adults (relationship between head and body more adultlike).

Nutrition: Eating the Right Foods

The growth rate slows during this age, thus preschoolers need less food to maintain their growth.

Encouraging children to eat more than they want to may lead to increased food intake.

Nutrition, continued

Increased food intake may lead to OBESITY, defined as a body weight more than 20 % higher than the average weight for a person of a given age and height.

Obesity is more common among older preschoolers than it was 20 years ago.

Obesity is brought about by both biological (genetics, responsiveness to sweets) and social factors (parental encouragement).

Nutrition, continued

It is important not to force children to eat too much in the mistaken belief that they need more food.

Children tend to be quite adept at maintaining an appropriate intake of food.

The best strategy is to ensure a variety of foods, low in fat and high in nutritional content.

Children should be given the opportunity to develop their own natural preferences for foods.

Health & Illness During the Preschool Years

The majority of children in the United States are reasonably healthy.

For the average American child, the common cold is the most frequent, and most severe, illness.

The proportion of children immunized in the U.S. has fallen during some portions of the last two decades.

Injuries: The Dangers that Preschoolers Face

The danger of injuries during the preschool years is in part a result of children's high levels of physical activity (they can get around on their own now).

Poison, drowning in tub/pools, falls, burns

Some children are more apt to take risks than others, leading to more injury.

Boys have higher injury rates.

Economic and ethnic differences exist in injury rates.

Living in poverty environment = 2x higher risk

Cultural differences in supervision, gender roles

The Growing Brain

The brain grows at a faster rate than any other part of the body.

By age 5, children's brains weigh 90 % of average adult brain weight.

Brain growth is so rapid because of the increase in the number of interconnections among cells, and the increase in myelin (the protective insulation that surrounds parts of neurons).

There is also significant growth in the corpus callosum (nerves connecting the hemispheres).


The two halves of the brain become more differentiated and specialized.

The left hemisphere focuses on verbal competence (speaking, thinking), and considers information sequentially (focus on parts).

The right hemisphere concentrates on nonverbal areas (spatial relations, music, emotional expression), and considers information more globally (focus on wholes).

The two hemispheres of the brain act in tandem (work together) despite specialization of hemispheres (they are interdependent, not independent).


Links Between Brain Growth & Cognitive Development

Neuroscientists are just beginning to understand how brain development affects cognitive development.

It seems that there are periods of childhood during which the brain shows unusual growth spurts that have been linked to advances in cognitive ability.

Spurts at age 1 ½ to 2 years of age: linked to language increases.

Motor Development

Both gross and fine motor skills become increasingly fine-tuned during this age.

Preschoolers' level of activity is extraordinarily high.

According to research, the activity level at age 3 is higher than at any other point in the lifespan.

Motor Development, continued

Girls and boys differ in certain aspects of motor development.

Boys, because of increased muscle strength, tend to be somewhat stronger.

Girls tend to surpass boys in tasks of dexterity or those involving the coordination of limbs.


Some major gross motor skills in early childhood





Table 7-1--Emphasizes how gross motor skills improve with time.

Fine motor skills are also
developing during this period.

Using utensils to eat

Cutting things with scissors

Tying shoelaces

Drawing shapes


Require much more practice than gross motor skills.

Cognitive Changes: Intellectual Development

Piaget's Stage of Preoperational Thinking

Piaget saw the preschool years as a time of both stability and great change.

Preschoolers are in the PREOPERATIONAL STAGE, from age 2 to 7:

Characterized by symbolic thinking

Mental reasoning emerges, use of concepts

Less dependence on sensorimotor activity for understanding the world

Preoperational Thinking, continued

A key aspect of preoperational thought is symbolic function ( the ability to use symbols, words, or an object to represent something that is not physically present).

Using word "duck" as a symbol for an actual duck

Understanding that a toy duck represents an actual duck

Symbolic function is directly related to language acquisition.

The Relationship between Language
and Thought

For Piaget, language and thinking are interdependent (advances in language during the preschool period = advances in thinking).

Language allows preschoolers to represent actions symbolically.

Language allows children to think beyond the present to the future.

Language can be used to consider several possibilities at the same time.


Piaget’s Preoperational Stage

CENTRATION - the process of concentrating on one limited aspect of a stimulus and ignoring other aspects.

A major characteristic of preoperational thought

The major limitation of this period because it leads to inaccuracy of thought.

The cause of the children’s mistake is allowing the visual image to dominate their thinking (appearance is everything).


Preoperational Stage, continued

CONSERVATION - the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to the arrangement and physical appearance of objects.

Children in the preoperational stage do not understand that quantity can remain the same even though the substance or object is rearranged.

For example, water poured from a tall skinny glass into a short fat glass – they will typically base their idea of amount on the height of the glass.

This is one aspect of centration.

Types of Conservation Problems


Rearranging elements

The type of conservation task grasped the earliest!


Altering shape (clay, water)


Altering shape, configuration


Rearranging figures


Altering shape


Altering shape (water in container)

Preoperational Stage, continued

Preschoolers are unable to understand the notion of TRANSFORMATION -The process in which one state is changed into another - because they ignore the intermediate steps.

They are unable to understand or fill in the sequences of change.

Preoperational Stage, continued

Egocentrism, the inability to take the perspective of others.

EGOCENTRIC THOUGHT, thinking that does not take into account the viewpoint of others, takes two forms:

Lack of awareness that others see things from different physical perspectives.

Failure to realize that others may hold thoughts, feelings, and points-of-view different from one's own.


Not intentional/inconsiderate—just lack of understanding that everyone doesn’t view things like they do.

Egocentrism is at the root of many preschool behaviors, for example, talking to oneself and hiding games (if I can’t see you, then you must not be able to see me).


A number of advances in thought occur in the preoperational stage.

INTUITIVE THOUGHT – (ages 4-7) the use of primitive reasoning and avid acquisition of knowledge about the world

Leads children to think they know all the answers for how the world operates, but no logical basis yet.

(Advances in thought occur in the preoperational stage, continued)

Children begin to understand functionality - the concept that actions, events and outcomes are related to one another in fixed patterns.

Pushing pedals moves bike faster, remote button changes channels on TV.

(advances in thought occur in the preoperational stage, continued)

They begin to understand the concept of identity - that certain things stay the same regardless of changes in shape, size and appearance.

Clay stretched out is the same amount of clay rolled into a ball

According to Piaget, understanding identity necessary for children to develop an understanding of conservation (which is required for the child to transition to the next stage in his theory).

According to Vygotsky, children's cognitive abilities increase when information is provided within their ZONE OF PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT (ZPD), the level at which a child can almost, but not fully, perform a task independently, but can do so with the assistance of someone more competent.


The assistance provided by other is called SCAFFOLDING, the support for learning and problem solving that encourages independence and growth.

The aid that more accomplished individuals provide to learners comes in the form of cultural tools ( the actual physical items such as pencils, paper, calculators, and computers).

Language Development

During the preschool years, language skills become more sophisticated.

Young children begin this period with reasonably good linguistic (language) capabilities, but gaps in both language production (speech) and comprehension (understanding).

By the end of the preschool years, they can hold their own with adults—language skills develop.

Language Development (continued)

Between late twos and mid-threes, sentence length increases.

SYNTAX (the ways words and phrases are combined to make sentences) doubles each month.

Preschoolers acquire new vocabulary at rate of nearly one new word every 2 hours, 24/7, through process known as FAST MAPPING - new words associated with their meaning after only a brief encounter.

By six, the average child has a vocabulary of 14,000 words.


Language Development (continued)

By age three, children use plurals and possessive forms of nouns (boys/boy's), employ the past tense (adding -ed), use articles (the/a), and can ask and answer complex questions ("Where did you say my book is?").

Preschoolers begin to acquire the principles of GRAMMAR, the system of rules that determine how our thoughts can be expressed.


Some more aspects of language development during the preschool years…

Preschoolers engage mostly in PRIVATE SPEECH, speech by children that is spoken and directed to themselves.

Vygotsky argues that private speech facilitates children's thinking, helps them control their behavior, solve problems, and reflect (private speech = cognitive development).

20 to 60 % of what children say is private speech.

Language development during the preschool years (continued)

SOCIAL SPEECH (speech directed toward another person and meant to be understood by that person) increases.

Children speak to others rather than babbling or speaking to themselves.

They want others to listen.

They become frustrated when they are unable to make themselves understood.

They adapt their speech to others.

Language Children Hear at Home

Hart and Risley (1995) researched the effects of poverty on language.

They studies subjects of different economic levels as they interacted with their children over a 2-year period.

Economic level was a significant factor in the amount of parental interactions, types of language children were exposed to, and kinds of language used.

Poverty was also related to lower IQ scores by age five.

The longer children lived in poverty, the more severe the consequences.



Television: Learning from the Media

The average preschooler watches more than 21 hours of TV a week.

The consequences of TV viewing are unclear.

Children do not fully understand the plots.

They may have difficulty separating fantasy from reality.

Some information is well understood by young viewers, i.e. facial expressions.

Yet, much of what is viewed is not representative of events in the real world.


Television may be harnessed to facilitate cognitive growth.

Sesame Street is the most popular educational program in U.S.

Viewers have significantly larger vocabularies.

Lower income viewers are better prepared for school, score higher on tests of cognitive ability, and spend more time reading.

Early Childhood Education

Three-quarters of children in U.S. are enrolled in some kind of care outside the home.

Major factor is working parents.

Evidence suggests that children can benefit from early educational activities.

"Good" preschools have clear cognitive and social benefits, and children from impoverished homes may benefit the most.

However, the U.S. lags behind other countries in the number of high quality centers available, as well as in affordability.

There are a variety of early education programs.

Child-CARE CENTERS are places that typically provide care for children all day, while their parents work.

Some are home-care.

Others are provided by organized institutions.

Community centers, churches, synagogues,etc.

Often more stable/regulated

Early Education Programs, continued

PRESCHOOLS ("nursery schools") provide care for several hours a day, and are designed primarily to enrich the child's development.

More limited time (only 3-5 hours per day).

Mainly serve those in middle and higher socioeconomic levels.

Montessori preschools

Early Education Programs, continued

SCHOOL CHILD CARE is a child-care facility provided by some local school systems in the United States.

Almost half the states in the U.S. fund prekindergarten programs.

Often targeted at disadvantaged children.

Often high quality care.

Characteristics of High Quality Programs

Well-trained teachers and care providers

No more than 14 to 20 children per group

No more than five to ten 3-year-olds, or seven to ten 4- or 5-year-olds per caregiver

Carefully planned curriculum aimed at promoting sensory, motor, and language development, as well as fostering positive social interaction

There are pros and cons of attending early education programs.


Verbal fluency

Memory and comprehension



Knowledge about the social world

Disadvantages in some (low quality) programs:

Less polite

less respectful of adults

Sometimes more competitive and aggressive

In the United States, the best-known program designed to promote future academic success is Head Start.

Is Head Start successful?

Does "Head Start" truly provide a "head start"?

Although graduates of Head Start tend to show immediate IQ gains, these increases do not always last.

BUT participants are more ready for future schooling and have better scholastic adjustment, spending less time in special education, less likely to be held back.