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How Environment Impacts Early Childhood Development

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

This lesson explores how environment impacts cognitive, emotional, social, physical and language development in children ages two to five and provides examples of environmental factors.

Nature vs. Nurture

You've probably heard the old argument over nature versus nurture. It centers on whether nature (heredity and the genetic predisposition to specific traits) or nurture (the environmental surroundings and upbringing) is primarily responsible for the development of children. To understand individuals who seem to have a predisposition toward mental illness or socially aberrant behavior, it is commonly said that 'nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger.'

Let's take a look at what kinds of environmental factors (or nurture) can impact early childhood development and in what ways.

What Do We Mean by Environment?

Environmental factors that impact child development usually fit into categories like:

  • Social environment: the child's relationship with others at school and in the community
  • Emotional environment: how well families meet the child's relational needs at home
  • Economic environment: the family's ability to provide financially for the child

The physical environment may also impact development through exposure to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or environmental toxins like lead. The child's home, neighborhood, state and even earth may be part of the physical environment. Children may have been exposed in utero to some of these environmental factors, but the symptoms may manifest as difficulties in preschool age development.

Let's focus on some specific examples of which environmental factors have different kinds of impacts on the five developmental domains including: cognitive, emotional, social, physical and language development.

Cognitive Development

Daniel lives in poverty and has never had many stimulating toys. He often goes to bed hungry and can't think clearly sometimes. He is preoccupied mentally with surviving and hasn't had the chance to do many fun learning activities or much of anything besides exist.

The cognitive development of preschool children from age two to five is affected by their social, emotional, economic and physical environment. If children do not have adequate social interactions at school and in the community, they don't have the opportunity for practical applications of their learning to promote healthy cognitive development. Without loving support from family in schooling efforts, children are less likely to succeed. Preschool children whose families have economic hardship may struggle with adequate nutrition that would promote brain development. If children are being exposed to a dangerous physical environment, this exposure may have consequences on brain growth during the critical preschool years.

Emotional Development

Josh is the youngest in a foster home with five other kids. His foster brothers and sisters tend to bully him and his foster parents don't seem to notice or care because all they do is argue. He never knew his real parents and worries he will never know what a loving family is like.

From age two to five, children are affected by the different environmental factors that impact healthy emotional development. Without a healthy social and emotional environment, children will not feel safe about taking risks and exploring the world, and this kind of emotional security is critical for those developmental skills. Children who struggle with an unstable situation at home can develop attachment issues that can impede their emotional development and lead to mental health issues later on. This is made worse if the economic environment is also unstable, because those children will not have access to the level of care they may need.

Social Development

Laura is an only child whose parents did not have the means to send her to preschool. When she gets to kindergarten, she lacks the social skills to take turns or speak up in class. Laura's environment, like other preschool age children, affects social development.

Most obviously children's social environment will have an impact on their social development. Ask any kindergarten teacher how quickly they can identify which of their new kindergarteners had previously been to preschool. Social development from age two to five can be impeded by a lack of access to healthy social environments to practice social skills outside the home. When there are challenges in the economic environment, it may be less feasible to provide preschool opportunities to all children. Families who struggle financially may rely on similar aged relatives and kids in the neighborhood to socialize preschool age kids, with no structured curriculum like that of a preschool class.

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