The Preschool Years:
Physical & Cognitive Development

Prepared by Ethel Cantu

Based on Development Across the Life Span,
by Robert Feldman, Prentice-Hall




•      Physiological maturation is related to school readiness

•      Gross and fine motor skills are developed through play

•      Boys and girls follow almost identical paths of physical development

•      Play is the work of childhood

Physical Growth

•      Grow about three inches, gain about 4 1/2 pounds annually

•      Body height and weight vary greatly, affected by genetics and nutrition

•      Growth is slower so children need fewer calories; appetites are smaller

•      Iron deficiency anemia is problem, also too much salt and sugar in diet

Brain Maturation

•      Brain develops faster than any other part; attains 90% of adult weight by age 5

•      Myelination (insulates nerves and speeds up transmission of neural impulses) necessary for reading and writing

–   Hand-eye coordination areas myelinated by 4

–   Focused attention areas myelinated by 12

–   Language and intelligence areas by 15

Brain Maturation

•      Vision improves

–   Before age 6, eye muscles not developed enough to move eyes slowly and deliberately for reading

•      Reading readiness depends on maturation, interests,and experiences of individual child, not on age

Motor Skills

•      Gross motor skills improve dramatically

–   large body movements

–   running, climbing, jumping, throwing

•      Fine motor skills

–   small body movements

–   pouring without spilling, using knife and fork, buttoning, using scissors, writing

Motor Skills

•      Difficulty with fine motor skills

–   incomplete myelination

–   insufficient muscular control

–   short, fat fingers

•      Development of fine motor skills is important part of preschool curriculum

Early Childhood
Cognitive Development

•      Children are in Piaget’s preoperational stage of cognitive development

•      Children use symbolic thought, but not logical thought

•      Children show centration: focus on one aspect of a situation and ignore others

•      Memory formation influenced by active participation and adult reminiscing

Piaget’s Preoperational Stage

•      Able to use symbols: words, numbers, or images without their physical presence

•      Able to understand basics of cause and effect: ask “why?”, use “because” and “so”

•      Understand basic number concepts

•      Able to classify into categories

•      Understand identities


•      Centration: come to illogical conclusions because they think about only one aspect

–   unable to understand conservation

•      Confuse appearance with reality (esp. <5/6): don’t distinguish between what seems to be  and what is

–   afraid of witch on TV, even though witch is not real; milk is green when seen with green glasses


•      Irreversibility: cannot mentally undo an operation

–   worry that a cut or broken leg will not heal

•      Transductive reasoning: one situation is seen as the basis for another; not logical

–   their bad thoughts caused their illness or parents’ divorce


•      Egocentrism: unable to see things from another’s perspective; self-centered understanding (form of centration)

–   have difficulty answering questions about another person’s point of view

•      Difficulty distinguishing fantasy and reality:

–   know the difference between fantasy and reality, but not always sure that what they imagine is not real


•      Autobiographical memory not accurate until after age 3

–   Memories fade quickly

–   Language not developed sufficiently for encoding memories well

–   Very open to suggestions from adults

–   Short attention span, Easily distracted

–   Attend to only one dimension


•      Children have limited memory capacity: memory for what they did is better than for what they saw

•      Preschool children remember events that made a strong impression; most are short-lived,< 1 year

•      Memories for routines are scripted; tend to blur

–   riding bus to preschool


•      Reliable memories are dependent on development of language to encode and compare memories

•      Talking about an experience influences how well the child remembers it

–   Natural conversations about an event help solidify memories of the event

–   Leading questions shape the child’s recall


•      Preschoolers are more suggestible

–   weaker memories

–   vulnerable to adult expectations

•      Reliable memories can be enhanced through

–   neutral questioning: no rewards for responses

–   open-ended questions; not yes-no questions

–   single interview soon after the event

–   patience

Vygotsky’s View of Cognitive Development

•      Cognition develops through social interactions around problem-solving

•      Abilities increase when tasks are in child’s zone of proximal development

–    Level where child can almost accomplish task independently

•      Scaffolding provides support for learning

–    Just enough assistance to encourage independence & growth


Early Childhood Education

•      Advantages

–   Increases in language & memory

–   Greater independence & self-confidence

–   Greater social knowledge

•      Disadvantages

–   Less polite, compliant, & respectful

–   More competitive & aggressive

Early Childhood Education

•      Quality programs effective

–   Well trained providers, good child-care provider ratio, stimulating curriculum

•      Head Start

–   Greater readiness for school

–   Better school adjustment

–   Less likely to be retained a grade or be in special education