What Is Early Childhood Development? - The 3 Foundations of Your Child’s Growth

21 February 2018

what is early childhood development

In the 1970’s when I was a graduate student and single parent, I had to enroll my 2-year-old daughter, Claire, in daycare. My parents cared for her on the nights I had classes, but preschool was my only option while I taught school during the day. Back then, preschool was often seen as a negative thing. I heard, “Too bad she has to be in daycare” a lot. The more I learned about child development while getting my PhD, the more I knew early education and child care outside the home was a positive experience for young children. As more women have entered the workforce in the US over the last few decades, preschool has become the norm. We’ve experienced what a positive difference early education has made in our children’s lives-- and our communities' wellbeing. But no matter if your child is cared for in or out of your home, caring for preschoolers is best when it's based on the principles of child development. So today I’m going to share with you exactly what early childhood development is all about.

Early childhood development involves understanding how a child grows in their early years of life. Early childhood is defined as the time period from birth through age 8. Within this time period, including all the many things involved, educators consider 3 major areas, or domains of growth that every child experiences: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor. These 3 areas are traditionally part of all early childhood programs in the US. While I’ll cover each of these areas separately below, they are all part of the whole of your child’s early childhood development. 

Cognitive Development, or the cognitive domain, refers to mental development.  Your child’s language development, including speech, listening, reading and writing are part of the cognitive domain. The ability to hold a tool and make marks as in scribbling are included in this area as well. The foundation for all of these cognitive skills are established in early childhood, from birth to age 8. That's why the preschool years are so very important, since the basis for all of your child’s future cognitive learning is established during this time. If you’d like to learn more about how cognitive learning is part of your preschooler’s language and writing skills, check out my blog series, Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development and A Child’s History of Scribbling. If you need more ideas about supporting your little one’s cognitive development, check out my blog, Preschool Learning - Prime Times for Brain Development.


Affective Development refers to the feelings a child has about herself. A good feeling about oneself, or self-esteem, is also developed in your child’s early childhood years. From the earliest times of life, a baby can sense being loved by how he is held, how he is spoken to, and how daily needs are met. Preschoolers learn that they are competent and worthy individuals by how the adults in their lives treat them. As a preschooler grows, their ability to express personal feelings needs to be encouraged by adults. One of the best areas for preschoolers to express their own feelings is in creative activities. You can find easy ideas in any our Skilly-do activity types such as Constructing, Painting and Moving.

The affective domain also includes your child's social growth. Preschoolers are learning how to be members of a group, first as a member of a family. In preschool programs, children learn how to be members of a group outside of the family. Learning the give and take of being in a social group is a critical learning in your child's early years. As children move on to formal schooling, these abilities are necessary for a successful transition. You can get more tips about how to begin preparing for primary school in my blog series, Get Ready for Big School here and ways to support their creativity in my blog, Talking with Young Children About Their Creations.


Psychomotor Development refers to the physical growth experienced by your child during their early childhood years. Psychomotor development is the easiest development to see, since we can easily observe the remarkable physical development of babies. Their physical development proceeds in a predictable pattern, as your child progresses from physical dependency to increasing independence. Going from little body control to the ability to walk is a clear example of the pattern of growth in psychomotor development. My blog, The Promise of Your Child’s Early Development - Make the Most of It has more helpful information and tips for your child’s physical developmental sequence, from large to small, and from top to bottom.

Another key part of your child’s psychomotor development is called sensorimotor learning. This kind of learning involves your child’s body and their senses -- sensory-- as they are used in doing-- motor. As children grow physically, they also grow mentally. That is why in the early childhood years, your child learns by doing. Their mental development takes place by exploring the world physically. Preschool children construct physical knowledge by acting on objects with all of their senses-- by feeling, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing them. They cause objects to move by throwing, banging, and pulling them. They observe changes that take place in objects when they are mixed together, cooked, or changed in some other way. And, as their physical knowledge develops, your child will become better able to establish relationships between and among the objects they act upon. For example, they learn to compare, classify, and order objects by acting on things physically. Sensorimotor learning is the focus of our Eat It and Kitchen Science activity collections, which both have lots of fun and easy ways to engage your child’s change perception and all 5 of their senses.


Your child’s early childhood development encompasses all 3 of these domains. This is why early education is so very important-- it creates the foundation for the whole of your child’s development. There will never be a time in your child’s life when you can make such a major difference in all these areas of your child's growth. So seize these early years and make the most of them for both you and your little one! Speaking of, our Child Development Guide has even more info and fun ways to learn about your child’s unique, early development. Check it out and let us know what you think-- you can give us your feedback right here.