Early childhood is a period of remarkable growth for a child's mental and physical development. There are many theories regarding this phase of life, which continue to expand as research shifts and develops. Underpinning all theories is the belief that the time from a child's birth until she is five years old is a critical phase, during which time developmental problems must be spotted early, before they interrupt a child's learning and other development.
Gross Motor Development
From birth to age three, the two main areas of physical development are gross motor and fine motor development. Gross motor development involves the child's basic ability to move his body: rolling over in his crib, crawling on the floor, learning to walk, run and jump. During this time a child's muscle strength, quality of movements and range of movement should be evaluated periodically, but only by a qualified health professional.
Fine Motor Development
Fine motor development refers to a child's smaller movements and skills, such as drawing or scribbling. Specific fine motor skills include visual motor skills, such as the eye-hand coordination needed to solve puzzles and use building blocks. Grapho-motor skills involve using a pencil or crayon to draw or colour. Motor planning skills entail the child's planning and organising her playtime and trying new motor skills. By age three, most children can sit up, walk, use a spoon and crayon, catch and throw a ball and be toilet trained.
Increasing Motor Skills
From three to five, a child continues to build both his fine motor and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills at this stage involve increasing skills with pencils, crayons and scissors, while gross motor skills might include skipping rhythmically or balancing on one foot. A child's physical growth slows between ages five to eight, while motor skills sharpen. The physical changes of early childhood parallel a steady growth in knowledge and awareness, and language skills. By age five, for instance, a child will typically have a vocabulary of around 1,500 words.
Attention and Senses
Attention skills and sensory integration can greatly affect a child's ability to learn physical tasks. A lack of ability to pay attention to what she is doing, rather than a lack of ability to perform a particular skill, may interfere with her development. Sensory integration involves a child's relationship to her senses, and also can affect her physical development. A marked sensitivity or complete lack of sensitivity in a particular area can keep a child feeling too ill, disturbed or oblivious to concentrate on learning.
There are three main learning and development theories. The maturationist theory considers development to be a natural biological process, so that a healthy child learns and develops naturally as he grows. The environmentalist theory states that a child's environment shapes his learning and behaviour by prompting certain reactions -- he is ready for kindergarten when he can respond appropriately to the rules and social setting of the classroom. The constructivist theory states that a young child's development occurs as he interacts with her environment, as he initiates learning on his own.