Each child is unique, and while we can be guided by an understanding of some general patterns of development from pre-birth into early childhood, progression is uneven and unfolds differently for each individual child. The complex differences for each child mean the pathways toward maturity should be seen more as dancing around a ballroom than climbing a ladder. A child’s growth, development and learning are interrelated in complex ways from the moment of conception all the way through infancy to early childhood and beyond. Experiences during the early years strongly influence a child’s future development, as development and learning build on what has already been acquired.
Development is a continuous process which is influenced by many factors. Development refers to the processes through which the body, brain, abilities and behaviour of the infant, child and adult become more complex and continue to mature throughout life. Development involves cognition, memory, attention, language and communication as well as feelings, relationships and sensory-motor skills. Although development is often considered in terms of different aspects, it cannot really be compartmentalised since one domain very often influences the development of other domains. It is important to consider the whole child at the centre of the many influences on development.
The baby’s brain is not simply a fixed structure which develops in a genetically pre-determined way. It depends on external stimulation from experience to form neurological connections. Babies and children are not passive in the process of development, but are actively stretching their own capacities as they observe and interact with other people, objects and events in the world.
Factors which influence development
Emotional health and wellbeing
Early relationships strongly influence how children develop, and having close, secure attachment to their carers is important for children’s healthy development. Positive relationships support wellbeing and the gradual development of self-regulation. When adults tune in to children’s signals and respond sensitively and consistently to meet their needs, children can feel safe, relaxed, and loved. Regular patterns of activities which create routine and help children to know what to expect next also foster a sense of security and self-confidence.
Physical health and wellbeing
Being physically healthy includes having nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, appropriate clothes; healthcare; mental stimulation; movement and activity; rest and sleep; access to the outdoors and loving relationships. Focus on the health and wellbeing of children should be in the “here and now” and not exclusively on longer-term outcomes. It is important to provide opportunities for children to develop sensory integration, balance and coordination, and large and fine motor skills, through their play indoors and outdoors. Accessibility of all environments for children with complex health conditions or disability should be ensured. Poverty and inequality have an impact on health, wellbeing and life chances.
Children develop in different ways and rates of development vary from child to child, and from time to time. Each child’s unique history, including their experiences and opportunities, is important as the starting point for supporting their development and learning. Many factors, such as low birth weight, child temperament, a recent move or their family being under stress, can also affect a child’s development. Emphasis must be on enhancing children’s sense of self and on supporting what children can do, rather than focussing on what they cannot yet do.
Child as an active learner
Children are innately driven to become more competent, and they find and embrace the next stages in their development and learning, meeting challenges and practising to develop their skills and independence. The emotional and physical environment should enable and encourage children’s agency as they make decisions, take risks and try things out, build their competence and confidence through repetition, and feel satisfaction at their own achievements, as well as accepting what doesn’t work.
The adult’s role as co-regulator is critical in a child’s development of self-regulation (children’s ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviour). As they observe and interact with their peers and adults, children gradually move from the experience of being supported in managing their feelings, thoughts and behaviour, to developing the ability to regulate these more independently. Sensitive and skillful adults play a key role in supporting development and learning, through observing children and deciding when to step back and when to offer support, encouragement and stimulation for children’s own efforts. Children’s language is enriched and enhanced by back-and-forth exchanges with practitioners who respect and respond to children’s conversation.
Experiences in the world
Children build on their experiences; the wider and deeper their exposure, the greater potential they have for secure development. Children need opportunities to practise what they know, to consolidate and apply learning from one context to another, and to develop new knowledge and skills. Children will build on experiences in the natural, built and virtual worlds.
Culture and community
Development and learning are enhanced when there are connections and relationships between early childhood settings, home and other places and spaces in children’s lives. Connections across environments support children to bring their interests and “funds of knowledge” that may provide an anchor for them and an impetus for their learning. Children and families need to feel secure, accepted and that they belong – both within and beyond a setting. Diversity of communities must be respected and celebrated, widening each child’s sense of belonging and sense of place in the community, while the uniqueness of each family, regardless of differences, is acknowledged and honoured.