Understanding Early Childhood Development Back »

This article was written by Marilyn Rasmussen, former SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Specialist.


Early childhood is generally defined as ages from birth to eight with an emphasis on the ages between 5 and 8. At age five, many children begin their formal education in the school setting. Meanwhile, they also begin joining in other group activities where informal learning occurs, such as, afterschool groups, teams and clubs.  For adults who guide, coach or mentor children in these organizations, it is important to plan activities thoughtfully and intentionally based on the developmental characteristics of early childhood.

In the physical realm, children ages 5-8 are in a slow, steady period of growth, and they are striving to master physical skills using both small and large muscles. They are especially working on developing fine motor skills and coordination. Practice and repetition will help lead to mastery, but keep in mind that each new skill may take time to learn.  “Learning time” is unique for each child, and adults working with children should respect each child’s efforts.

Socially, children are developing friendships, and enjoy playing in a mixed group of boys and girls.  Small groups work best and there is still need for “alone” time. Children are moving from dependence on parents to dependence on other adults, so teachers, leaders and coaches become important. 

During early elementary school years, children are wrapped up in self, and need the approval of adults to reinforce their self-image. Their emotional well-being is threatened by extreme or harsh criticism .  There is a strong desire for affection and attention from the new adults in their world. Children also need to experience accomplishment, so cooperative projects and games where every child experiences some measure of success are encouraged.

A child’s thinking skills during early childhood are concrete, that is, they gain information and knowledge from activities that are real and tangible.  “Doing” is very important. The process is more important than the product.   One developing thinking skill is learning to sort things into categories.  Collecting-type activities hold a fascination for many youth and help to cultivate good math skills.

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