Notes on Early Childhood (2-6 years)

Jan Armstrong, University of New Mexico

The period between two and six or seven years of age is referred to as early childhood. During this phase, the rapid rate of growth characterizing the first two years of life slows. The young child's body shape changes: the waist becomes slimmer than shoulders and hips. [Infants have large abdomens not only because of their baby fat, but also because their internal organs grow faster than other body parts. Thus, their little tummies protrude.]

Preschoolers live in a magical world where inanimate objects are alive (animism) and dreams are real. They have trouble distinguishing between appearances and reality. They tend to focus on one aspect of a situation (centration) and have trouble understanding what the physical world looks like from other vantage points (egocentrism). Children of this age typically love to play make-believe. They use everyday objects in the "conventional way", then use them for all sorts of unconventional purposes. They eat their cereal with their spoon, then, magically, start to fly their spoon through the air as though it was an airplane! Maybe make-believe play of this sort helps children gradually learn how to distinguish between appearances and reality.

Preschoolers also love to ask questions. Sometimes, I think they ask questions not so much to get a particular answer, as to get the listener to interact with them. They are learning more about how to interact with people, including how their behaviors affect others. Some think of them as little social scientists - trying things out to see what happens. What will happen if I drop my ball of playdough into the aquarium? Hmmmmm. Let's check it out! They are busy checking things out all day long.

Motor skills developed in infancy continue to improve during early childhood. Children are better able to keep balance when they walk and run. Fine motor skills improve. At two or three, children can copy circles; at 3 and 4 they can copy squares and rectangles; triangles at 5 or 6 years. As in infancy, motor development is linked to and fosters cognitive development. Note that copying geometric forms requires not only motor skills, but also cognitive and perceptual skills. Even infants can scribble with a marker on paper. Toddlers and preschoolers gain enough fine motor control to scribble with greater deliberation. A preschooler is likely to scribble first, then make up a neat story to explain the meaning of her "drawing". In cultures that value graphic representation, an adult or other child is likely to participate in this process - showing great interest in what the child has to say about her image. In some cultures, children learn to draw from other children. In other cultures, parents, caretakers and teachers teach children about drawing. Researchers who study children's drawings cross-culturally find that children draw in similar ways early in life (when they are given opportunities to do so). But as children get older, variations in experience (culture!) lead to striking differences in the content and complexity of children's drawings.

In the cognitive domain, preschool children begin to use strategies for remembering, but they often use inappropriate and ineffective strategies. Their ability to remember things increases. This is probably a result of two things: developmental (biological, brain-based) growth, and learning how to use better strategies for remembering.

Piaget uses the term pre-operational to describe the reasoning patterns typical of children in this age group. As noted, they are easily taken in by appearances. They are perception-bound and cannot solve conservation tasks (according to Piaget, anyway). Conservation tasks require that one understand that certain physical aspects of objects remain the same even when their outward appearance changes. A preschooler thinks sister has more candy because she has spread them out to cover a wider area on her plate. When you are 4, you think there must be more fruit juice in a slender 6-ounce bottle than in a short, fat 6-ounce mug - because the juice in the bottle is taller. As a four-year-old, you focus on only one dimension, height. You have not figured out that increased width can compensate for less height (compensation). Piaget found that children under the age of 8 years are typically not able to solve conservation tasks. Why? Well, in addition to focusing on only one thing (centration), they also tend to focus on states rather than transformations. Preschoolers are in the here-and-now. They are perception-bound. They only gradually acquire the ability to think the way older children do. Reversible thinking means that one can imagine pouring the fruit juice back into the slender bottle. In early childhood, according to Piaget, children are not capable of mentally reversing their actions. [As you know, cognitive psychologists ("information processing theorists") have more recently found that children are actually capable of more than Piaget believed possible. One needs to present them with very simple problems and use familiar materials.]

Here are some important terms related to this period:

Pre-operations, pre-operational




states versus transformations



egocentrism (perceptual)

initiative versus guilt (Erikson's stage theory)


Created 2/26/03 by jka

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