Chapter 7


Physical and Cognitive Development

in the Preschool Years





Chapter Outline



1.      Physical Growth

1.      The Growing Body           

1.      Children grow steadily during the preschool period.

2.      The average six-year-old weighs 46 pounds and is 46 inches tall.

3.      There are significant individual differences in height and weight.

1.      Ten percent of six-year-olds weigh 55 pounds or more, ten percent weigh 36 pounds or less.

2.      By the age of six, boys are taller and heavier, on average, than girls.

3.      There are profound differences in height and weight between children in economically developed countries and those in developing countries.

4.      Differences in height and weight also reflect economic factors within the U.S.

4.      Changes in body shape and structure occur during the preschool years.

1.      Boys and girls become less chubby and roundish and more slender.

2.      Arms and legs lengthen.

3.      Body proportions are more similar to those of adults.

4.      Children grow stronger as muscle size increases and bones become sturdier.

5.      The sense organs continue to develop.

5.      Nutritional needs change during the preschool years.

1.      The growth rate slows during this age, thus preschoolers need less food to maintain their growth.

2.      Encouraging children to eat more than they want to, may lead to increased food intake.

1.      This may lead to OBESITY, defined as a body weight more than 20 percent higher than the average weight for a person of a given age and height.

2.      Obesity among older preschoolers has increased significantly over the last 20 years.

3.      Obesity is brought about by both biological (genetics, responsiveness to sweets) and social factors (parental encouragement).

3.      Children tend to be quite adept at maintaining an appropriate intake of food.

4.      The best strategy is to ensure a variety of foods, low in fat and high in nutritional content.

5.      Children should be given the opportunity to develop their own natural preferences for foods.

6.      The majority of children in the United States are reasonably healthy.

1.      For the average American child, the common cold is the most frequent, and most severe illness.

2.      An increasing number of children are being treated with drugs for emotional disorders.

1.      The use of antidepressants and stimulants has doubled and sometimes tripled between 1991 and 1995.

7.      The danger of injuries during the preschool years is in part a result of childrens high levels of physical activity.

1.      Some children are more apt to take risks than others.

2.      Economic and ethnic differences exist in injury rates.

8.      Some 14 million children are at risk for lead poisoning.

1.      The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has called lead poisoning the most hazardous health risk to children under the age of 6.

2.      Even tiny amount of lead can permanently harm children.

1.      Lower intelligence

2.      Problems in verbal and auditory processing

3.      Hyperactivity and distractibility

4.      Higher levels of antisocial behavior, including aggression and delinquency

5.      Illness and death

3.      Poor children are particularly susceptible.

4.      Parent education and legislation are among the efforts to reduce lead poisoning.

2.      The Growing Brain

1.      The brain grows at a faster rate than any other part of the body.

2.      By age five, childrens brains weigh 90 percent of the average adult brain weight.

3.      Brain growth is so rapid because of the increase in the number of interconnections among cells, and the increase in myelin (the protective insulation that surrounds parts of neurons).

4.      The corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain, become considerably thicker, developing as many as 800 million individual fibers that help coordinate brain functioning between the two hemispheres.

5.      LATERALIZATION, the process where certain functions are located more in one hemisphere of the brain than the other, becomes more pronounced in early childhood.

1.      The left hemisphere focuses on verbal competence (speaking, reading, thinking, reasoning), and processes information more sequentially.

2.      The right hemisphere concentrates on nonverbal areas (spatial relations, recognition of patterns and drawings, music, emotional expression) and processes information more globally.

3.      The two hemispheres of the brain act in tandem.

4.      Individual differences exist in lateralization – 10 percent of left-handed and ambidextrous people have language centered in the right hemisphere, with no specific language center.

5.      There are many individual differences in the nature of lateralization, and in relation to gender and culture.

1.      Males show greater lateralization of language in the left hemisphere, whereas for females, language is more evenly divided between the two hemispheres.  (This may account for why females’ language development proceeds at a more rapid rate during early childhood.)

2.      The differences in lateralization between males and females may be attributed to both genetic (corpus callosum differences) and environmental factors (girls typically receive greater verbal encouragement).

6.      There are periods during childhood when the brain shows unusual growth spurts, and these are linked to cognitive abilities.

7.      Other research suggests that increased myelination may be related to preschoolers’ growing cognitive abilities, for example, increased attention spans and memory (hippocampus).

3.      Motor Development

1.      Both gross motor skills become increasingly fine-tuned during this age.

1.      These skills may be related to increased myelination.

2.      Also, children spend a lot of time developing them – preschoolers’ level of activity is extraordinarily high.

2.      Girls and boys differ in certain aspects of motor development. 

1.      Boys, because of increased muscle strength, tend to be somewhat stronger, and their overall activity levels are greater than a girl’s.

2.      Girls tend to surpass boys in tasks of dexterity or those involving the coordination of limbs.

3.      Fine motor skills (cutting with scissors, tying one’s shoes, playing the piano, printing) are progressively developing, too.

4.      Most preschool children show a clear preference for the use of one hand over another — the development of HANDEDNESS.  Ninety percent are right-handed, and more boys than girls are left-handed.

1.      There is no scientific basis for myths that suggest there is something wrong with being left-handed, in fact, some evidence exists that left-handedness may be associated with certain advantages such as SAT scores and art.

2.      Intellectual Development

1.      Piagets Stage of Preoperational Thinking

1.      Piaget saw the preschool years as a time of both stability and great change.

2.      Preschoolers are in the PREOPERATIONAL STAGE, from age two to seven, characterized by symbolic thinking. 

1.      Mental reasoning and the use of concepts increases, but children are not capable of OPERATIONS, organized, formal, logical mental processes.

3.      A key aspect of preoperational thought is symbolic function, the ability to use symbols, words, or an object to represent something that is not physically present.

1.      Symbolic function is directly related to language acquisition.

1.      Language allows preschoolers to represent actions symbolically.

2.      Language allows children to think beyond the present to the future.

3.      Language can be used to consider several possibilities at the same time.

2.      Addressing the question if thought determines language or if language determines thought, Piaget argued that language grows out of cognitive advances.

4.      CENTRATIONthe process of concentrating on one limited aspect of a stimulus and ignoring other aspects — is a major characteristic of preoperational thought, and the major limitation of this period because it leads to inaccuracy of thought.

5.      CONSERVATION is the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to the arrangement and physical appearance of objects.

1.      Preschool children do not yet understand this principle.

2.      They cannot focus on the relevant features of a situation or follow the sequence of transformations that accompanies the change in appearance of a situation.

6.      Children in the preoperational period are unable to understand the notion of TRANSFORMATION, the process in which one state is changed into another.

7.      EGOCENTRIC THOUGHT, thinking that does not take into account the viewpoint of others, takes two forms.

1.      Lack of awareness that others see things from different physical perspectives.

2.      Failure to realize that others may hold thoughts, feelings, and points-of-view different from ones own.

3.      Egocentrism is at the root of many preschool behaviors, for example, talking to oneself and hiding games.

8.      A number of advances in thought occur in the preoperational stage.

1.      INTUITIVE THOUGHT the use of primitive reasoning and avid acquisition of knowledge about the world.

2.      Children begin to understand functionality — the concept that actions, events and outcomes are related to one another in fixed patterns.

3.      They begin to understand the concept of identity — that certain things stay the same regardless of changes in shape, size and appearance.

9.      Critics of  Piaget’s theory argue that he seriously underestimated children’s capabilities.

1.      They argue that cognition develops in a continuous manner, not in stages.

2.      They believe that training can improve performance in conservation tasks.

3.      They also argue that Piaget focused too much on the deficiencies of young childrens thought.

2.      Information-Processing Approaches to Cognitive Development

1.      Information-processing theorists focus on two domains.

1.      Understanding of numbers

1.      The average preschooler is able not only to count, but to do so in a fairly systematic, consistent manner.

2.      By age 4, most can do simple addition and subtraction and compare quantities.

2.      Memory:  Recalling the Past

1.      AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORY, memory of particular events from ones own life, is not very accurate until after three.

2.      Preschooler’s autobiographical memories fade, they may not be accurate (depending when they are assessed), and they are susceptible to suggestions.

1.      Preschooler’s memories of familiar events are often organized in terms of SCRIPTS, broad representations in memory of events and the order in which they occur.

2.      With age, scripts become more elaborate.

3.      Preschoolers have difficulty describing certain information and oversimplify recollections that may have implications for eyewitness testimony.

1.      Young children are susceptible to suggestions from adults.

2.      Questioning children right after the event and outside the courtroom may produce more accurate recollections.

2.      According to information-processing approaches, cognitive development consists of gradual improvements in the ways people perceive, understand and remember.

1.      Preschoolers begin to process information with greater sophistication.

2.      They have longer attention spans, attend to more than one dimension of an object, and can better monitor what they are attending to.

3.      Information processing provides a clear, logical, and full account of cognitive development.

1.      Reliance on well-defined processes that can be tested is one of this perspectives most important features.

2.      Information processing theorists pay little attention to social and cultural factors.

3.      Information processing theorists pay too much attention to detailed, individual sequence of processes that they never paint a whole, comprehensive picture of cognitive development.

3.      Vygotskys View of Cognitive Development:  Taking Culture into Account

1.      Culture and societies influence cognitive development.

1.      Cognition proceeds because of social interactions where partners jointly work to solve problems.

2.      This partnership is determined by cultural and societal factors.

2.      According to Vygotsky, childrens cognitive abilities increase when information is provided within their ZONE OF PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT (ZPD), the level at which a child can almost, but not fully, perform a task independently, but can do so with the assistance of someone more competent.

1.      The assistance provided by others is called SCAFFOLDING, the support for learning and problem solving that encourages independence and growth.

2.      The aid that more accomplished individuals provide to learners comes in the form of cultural tools, the actual physical items such as pencils, paper, calculators, and computers.

3.      Vygotskys view has become increasingly influential in the last decade.

1.      It helps explain a growing body of research attesting to the importance of social interaction in promoting cognitive development.

2.      The zone of proximal development is not precise and not easily testable.

3.      His theory is silent on how basic cognitive functions such as attention and memory develop.

3.      The Growth of Language and Learning

1.      Language

1.      Between late twos and mid-threes, sentence length increases.

1.      SYNTAX, the ways words and phrases are combined to make sentences, doubles each month.

2.      By six, the average child has a vocabulary of 14,000 words.

1.      They manage this feat through a process known as FAST MAPPING, instances in which new words are associated with their meaning after only a brief encounter.

2.      By age three, children use plurals and possessive forms of nouns (boys/boys), employ the past tense (adding -ed), use articles (the/a), and can ask and answer complex questions (Where did you say my book is?).

3.      Preschoolers begin to acquire the principles of GRAMMAR, the system of rules that determine how our thoughts can be expressed.

4.      Preschoolers engage mostly in PRIVATE SPEECH, speech by children that is spoken and directed to themselves.

1.      Vygotsky argues that private speech facilitates children’s thinking, helps them control their behavior, solve problems and reflect.

2.      20 to 60 percent of what children say is private speech.

5.      SOCIAL SPEECH, speech directed toward another person and meant to be understood by that person, increases.

6.      The language children hear at home influences their language development.

1.      Hart and Risley (1995) researched the effects of poverty on language.

1.      Economic level was a significant factor in the amount of parental interactions, types of language children were exposed to, and kinds of language used.

2.      Poverty was also related to lower IQ scores by age five.

2.      Television:  Learning From the Media

1.      Average preschooler watches 20 to 30 hours of TV a week.

2.      Consequences of TV viewing are unclear.

1.      Children do not fully understand the plots.

2.      They may have difficulty separating fantasy from reality.

3.      Some information is well understood by young viewers, i.e. facial expressions.

4.      Yet, much of what is viewed is not representative of events in the real world.

3.      Television may be harnessed to facilitate cognitive growth.

1.      Sesame Street is the most popular educational program in the U.S.

1.      Viewers had significantly larger vocabularies.

2.      Lower-income viewers were better prepared for school, scored higher on tests of cognitive ability, and spent more time reading.

3.      Critics of Sesame Street suggest that viewers may be less receptive to traditional modes of teaching.

2.      There are difficulties in assessing the effects of educational viewing (e.g. the effects may be related to parenting).

3.      Early Childhood Education:  Taking the “Pre” Out of the Preschool Period

1.      Three-quarters of children in the U.S. are enrolled in some kind of care outside the home.

1.      Major factor is working parents.

2.      Evidence suggests that children can benefit from early educational activities.

2.      There are a variety of early education programs.

1.      CHILD CARE CENTERS are places that typically provide care for children all day, while their parents work.

1.      Some are home-care.

2.      Others are provided by organized institutions.

2.      PRESCHOOLS (or NURSERY SCHOOLS) provide care for several hours a day, and are designed primarily to enrich the childs development.

3.      SCHOOL CHILD CARE is a child-care facility provided by some local school systems in the United States.

3.      There are pros and cons of attending early education programs.

1.      Advantages might include increases in verbal fluency, memory and comprehension tasks, self-confidence, independence, and knowledge about the social world.

2.      Disadvantages found included children being less polite, less compliant, less respectful of adults and sometimes more competitive and aggressive.

4.      The key factor in determining the effects of early education programs is quality.

1.      Well-trained care providers.

2.      Overall size of the group and the child-care provider ratio.

3.      Curriculum.

5.      Developmental Diversity:  Preschools Around the World

1.      Unlike other countries such as France, Belgium, Sweden, and Finland, the U.S. has no coordinated national policy on preschool education – or on the care of children in general.

1.      These decisions have traditionally been left to the states or local school boards.

2.      The U.S. has no tradition of teaching preschoolers.

2.      Japanese parents view preschools as a way of giving children the opportunity to become members of a group.

3.      Chinese parents see preschools primarily as a way of giving children a good start academically.

4.      U.S. parents regard preschools as making children more independent and self-reliant, although getting a good academic start and having group experiences are important, too.

6.      In the United States the best-known program designed to promote future academic success is Head Start.

1.      Designed to serve the whole child, including physical health, self-confidence, social responsibility, and social and emotional development.

2.      Although graduates of Head Start tend to show immediate IQ gains, these increases do not last.

3.      Children who attend Head Start are more ready for future schooling than those who do not.

4.      Graduates of Head Start have better future school adjustment than their peers, and are less likely to be in special education programs or to be retained a grade.

7.      David Elkind argues that U.S. society tends to push children so rapidly that they begin to feel stress and pressure at a young age.

1.      Children require DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE EDUCATIONAL PRACTICE, education based on both typical development and the unique characteristics of a given child.

2.      Better to provide an environment where learning is encouraged, not pushed.




Key Terms and Concepts






Preoperational stage





Egocentric thought

Intuitive thought

Autobiographical memory


Zone of proximal development (ZPD)



Fast mapping


Private speech


Social speech

Child-care centers

Preschools (or nursery schools)

School child care

Developmentally appropriate

Educational practice