What Is Child Development? - Definition, Theories & Stages

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  • 0:35 Theories
  • 1:33 Infancy
  • 2:30 Early Childhood
  • 3:23 Middle Childhood
  • 4:26 Adolescence
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Child development is the period of physical, cognitive, and social growth that begins at birth and continues through early adulthood. This lesson discusses the theories, stages, and major milestones of child development and ends with a quiz to test what you have learned.

What Is Child Development?

Have you ever wondered how you learned to crawl and then walk? How about language? How in the world do human beings learn to talk? Developmental psychologists seek to answer these types of questions.

Child development refers to the process through which human beings typically grow and mature from infancy through adulthood. The different aspects of growth and development that are measured include physical growth, cognitive growth, and social growth. Child development focuses on the changes that take place in humans as they mature from birth to about age 17.

Theories of Child Development

Throughout history, there have been many theories on how we develop throughout childhood. Some of the most recognized include those developed by Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky.

Sigmund Freud devised a psychosexual stage theory of development. He believed that children move through specific stages of development due to innate unconscious sexual drives. Freud's stage theory ends at adulthood.

Erik Erikson also created a stage theory of development, but his is a bit different from Freud's. Erikson focused more on social relationships as a driving force in development and referred to the developmental tasks as psychosocial stages. Erikson's theory is one of the most comprehensive and covers human development from birth through old age.

Lev Vygotsky's theory of development also focuses on social interactions as important in development. His theory views children in an apprentice role with parents mentoring them through developmental tasks.

Stages of Child Development: Infancy

Most everyone agrees that babies are cute, but what is going on with babies developmentally? The period of infancy begins at birth and ends at two years of age. It's the most rapid period of growth throughout the lifespan. During this period of child development, human beings go from being helpless, reflexive babies to toddlers who can communicate and reason.

Specific physical milestones during this period include rolling over, sitting up, crawling, and walking. Fine motor development takes longer to develop, which is why babies generally cannot write or create refined drawings. Cognitive milestones include early problem solving and increased sensory awareness and perception. Social milestones that usually occur during this period include the development of a sense of self-awareness, or that prior to the age of 12 months, we really do not understand that we exist apart from our mothers or other caregivers.

Stages of Early Development: Early Childhood

When we think of early childhood, we usually think of ABCs and 123s. This period of early childhood development lasts from two years of age through six years of age. Physically, our center of gravity shifts from the breastbone, where it was when we were infants, to the belly button. Our physical growth occurs much more slowly during this period as compared to the rapid growth that took place during infancy.

We also increase dramatically in our fine and gross motor skills and are now able to run, jump, climb, and balance. We can also write letters and create very detailed drawings due to fine motor development. Cognitive processing speed increases, which allows us to advance in thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving, as well as master our native language. Social development advances as we learn to understand our own emotions and those of others; our earliest playmates tend to be chosen based on availability.

Stages of Child Development: Middle Childhood

Middle childhood typically takes place from ages 6 through 12. Physical growth continues and spurts of rapid growth in height and weight may occur. Fine and gross motor skills continue to develop, and we become stronger and faster than ever before. This time is known as the school years, as children are usually focused on traditional education at this point in development. Cognitive development allows for advanced and refined communication between both hemispheres of the brain, which enables us to use advanced logic and problem solving skills more efficiently. As a result, children in middle childhood begin learning advanced math techniques. Increased participation in competitive team sports is common during middle childhood.

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