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Art to Heart

Growth and Development in the Early Years

Parents get excited about, and take a great deal of pride in, watching their babies grow and develop. Sitting up, taking first steps, saying first words, first saying “ma ma” or “da da”—events like these demonstrate the amazing and important growth and development that goes on in early life.

Understanding how children typically develop helps parents, caregivers, and teachers provide appropriate and beneficial guidance and activities at home and in the classroom—and recognize possible developmental delays or areas of special need.

Language development begins with an infant responding to sounds and progresses to the ability to speak in complex sentences. Many arts-related activities, from singing to playing make-believe, contribute to language development.

In describing child development, certain basic points are typically referred to as “milestones” or “stages” that can be seen in children. Milestones have been identified through research ranging from observation to brain science. Keep in mind that each child develops at his or her own pace. Observing and understanding your child’s abilities is a better way to determine appropriate activities than simply following the ages listed in connection with specific milestones.

How the Brain Develops

Brain research has opened new windows into how the brain develops before birth and in early life. “In many ways, neuroscience has confirmed good common sense about child rearing,” says Lise Eliot, assistant professor of neuroscience at Roslyn Franklin University in Illinois. “The fundamental basis is a healthy emotional state—that a child has loving parents, that they are emotionally secure, that their needs will be met. That someone loves them and is communicating with them.”

It’s important, Eliot says, to understand that children are not just small adults, but that “They have a fundamentally different brain. They process things differently. This complex organ does not develop uniformly. The sensory and motor skills develop first. Very young children live in an immediate world: They perceive things, they move, and they get feedback from that movement. And that fuels their growing understanding of the world around them. Adults are more sophisticated about the world; we process things more abstractly. We have long personal histories we can remember, and [we can] look forward, too. Children do not do that; young children live in the moment. I think we accept that in babies, but it is surprising in preschool-age children. Sometimes people have unreal expectations of what their memory capacity will be and their ability to plan something with several parts to it. They really do need the guidance to look ahead, because they do not have the frontal lobe skill we call planning.”

Here are some sources of information about general growth and development in early childhood:

  • In Program 5 of Art to Heart, neuroscientist Lise Elliot discusses the importance of reading to young children. In Program 7, she discusses how music, movement, and visual stimulation help prime the brain for language development and future learning. Her book What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life offers in-depth and accessible explanations of how the brain develops from conception, plus useful ideas on what parents can do to nurture that development.
  • The PBS Parents site has extensive information on growth and development, cross-referenced by area of development and age range, along with information about early learning.
  • The web site for Zero to Three offers extensive articles and informative resources for parents and early childhood professionals. Special features include Brain Wonders, with information about how the brain developments, and The Magic of Everyday Moments, with suggestions for everyday activities. As its name suggests, this national, nonprofit, multidisciplinary organization focuses on infants and toddlers.
  • The KidsGrowth web site has information about milestones, growth charts, and childhood health issues. The milestone information is available both in English and Spanish. The site was developed and created by leaders in the field of pediatrics and adolescent medicine. Members of a Medical Advisory Board oversee all KidsGrowth content for medical accuracy.
  • focuses on brain development and features an Ask an Expert section.
  • In recent years, scientific and medical advances have given researchers windows into the brain such as MRI technology and other scanning tools. These tools allow scientists to see exactly how brain activity relates to actions, reactions, and other stimuli—information that can help confirm or dispute practices and theories, guide the fields of child development and education, and affect policy. Sites with links to brain research include the National Child Care Information Center, which links to a wealth of studies on brain development, and the Educational Cyberplayground, which offers information about numerous studies, some relating to the arts.

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