The period from early to middle childhood is one of the most essential in the life of any individual. Since the earliest years, children undergo dramatic physical, cognitive, and emotional changes that create the foundation for their future successes. Children’s physical, motor, and cognitive growth greatly impacts their health and wellbeing over the entire lifespan. In the meantime, the way children cope with their developmental challenges depends on many individual and environmental factors. The goal of this paper is to review the fundamentals of the physical, brain and nervous system changes through early and middle childhood and reconsider the socioemotional development milestones during this age.
Early childhood is usually described as the period between 2 and 6 years of age. In other words, early childhood covers children’s preschool years (Rathus, 2012). Compared to infants, physical growth in preschool children becomes slower; nonetheless, by the time children reach their middle childhood years, they start to look more like adults and develop excellent motor and coordination skills (Rathus, 2012). In early childhood, children tend to grow 2-3 inches and gain on average 4-6 pounds every year (Rathus, 2012). They become slender and may look rather “misbalanced”, as they are reaching their middle childhood years. Despite noticeable variations in the way children grow and gain weight, it is possible to say that, in most cases, boys outpace girls in height and weight gains (Rathus, 2012). These changes lay the ground for the future changes in physical appearance during middle childhood. The latter is the period between 6 and 12 years of age (Skuse, 2003). This is the period when girls’ and boys’ bones further strengthen, and cellular fluid is gradually replaced by muscle fibres (Skuse, 2003). This is also the period when girls start to outpace boys in bone ossification and skeletal development (Skuse, 2003). During middle childhood, changes in physical appearance become one of the major factors of children’s emotional and cognitive wellbeing. From now on, children will treat their physical appearance as an essential ingredient of their self-awareness and a major component of their social being.
It should be noted that, since early childhood, boys tend to be more advanced than girls in their physical abilities. By the age of five, boys run faster and jump farther than girls of the same age (Berk, 2012). In middle childhood, these gender differences in physical development and growth continue to intensify (Berk, 2012). Greater muscle mass and longer forearms in boys than in girls predetermine their successes in athletics and sports. However, that does not mean that girls cannot be physically active. As mentioned earlier, in the middle childhood years, girls display greater physical maturity than boys, which leads to the development of finer motor skills. Consequently, girls are more capable of drawing, handwriting, as well as any other activities that depend on agility and balance, for instance, skipping (Berk, 2012).
Of particular importance is the way the brain and nervous system develop during early and middle childhood. In early childhood, “the brain develops more quickly than any other organ. […] At 2 years of age, the brain already has attained 75% of its adult weight” (Rathus, 2012, p.193). By the age of 5, children’s brain will have reached 90% of its adult weight, mainly due to the accelerated myelination of brain and nerve fibers (Rathus, 2012). Between 2 and 6 years, children improve their visual information processing skills and develop better literacy abilities. Between ages 4 and 7, children become more focused on their tasks and develop a remarkable ability to sustain attention (Rathus, 2012). With the growing maturity of the nervous system, children’s motor skills also become more sophisticated and refined. It is during early childhood that handedness is strongly established (Rathus, 2012).
The rapid development of the brain and nervous system during middle childhood enables children to develop better cognitive skills. Middle childhood years are usually associated with the emergence of reasoning and logical thinking skills (Skuse, 2003). In middle childhood, children start to use metacognitive thought; simply put, they begin thinking and evaluating their cognitive abilities and thinking processes (Skuse, 2003). Compared to their younger peers, children in middle childhood display improved memory and stronger abilities to store, process, and retrieve information. They expand their vocabulary and master new literacy skills (Skuse, 2003).
Again, gender variations in children’s brain and nervous system development need to be considered. Boys and girls in early childhood display similar brain and nervous system development patterns but, by middle childhood, gender differences in children’s cognitive and emotional capabilities become more pronounced. Children of this age have a well-established gender identity (Charlesworth, Wood & Viggiani, 2007). Simultaneously, many boys and girls in middle childhood give up gender stereotypes and shift to individual characteristics (Charlesworth et al., 2007). Girls tend to outpace boys in their cognitive and emotional development, although most girls and boys pass similar stages of socioemotional development during their early and middle childhood years.
In early and middle childhood, the most important socioemotional development milestones include: (a) self-awareness; (b) moral reasoning and metacognitive thought; (c) relationships with parents; and (d) peer relationships. Numerous factors impact the way children progress in their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Heredity and nutrition greatly affect children’s physical growth and appearance (Beck, 2012). Malnutrition and obesity become more common. The quality of family, parent, and peer relationships contributes to children’s maturation through early and middle childhood. Children need constant attention and support from their parents and peers, in order to grow into physically and emotionally healthy adults.
Early and middle childhood covers the period from 2 to 12 years of age. It is the period of dramatic physical, mental, cognitive, and emotional transformations in children. Since their earliest years, boys and girls display similar physical growth patterns although, with age, gender differences in their physical, cognitive, and emotional development become more pronounced. Boys become physically stronger, while girls develop better fine motor skills. Most girls outpace boys in their skeletal, muscle, and socioemotional development. Nutrition, heredity, parent and peer relationships altogether impact the way children develop during their early years and create the basis for their future successes in life.