Young childhood is an amazing and crucial time within a child’s life. Throughout this time, children begin to define themselves individually and begin to acknowledge their sense of self. During young childhood, social interactions increase as well as the child’s communication skills. This article will discuss in great detail the social and personal development of young children.
Between the ages of 2 and 5, children experience many changes. The period regarding young childhood is amazing and is truly a favorite time to observe among adults. Children this age contain an unthreatening quality as well as a certain selfish sense of self that make them appealing to all age groups (Meyers, 2004). Children throughout preschool age are full of energy, have a joyful love for life, and are open and honest, as well as creative. By this age, children truly begin to interact socially. They play together, help each other, and slowly learn to share (Elkind, 1994). They begin expressing themselves using words and short sentences and most importantly begin defining themselves as individual people (Feldman, Olds, & Papalia, 2004).
During the past 20 years, research has shown that children need to achieve social competence by around 6 years of age otherwise they are at risk of social skills problems throughout their lives. Peer relationships are extremely important to both cognitive and social development. Since social development begins early in life, it is important for early childhood programs to have some type of formal and informal assessment system in place, so they can view a child’s progress in social competence (Katz & McClellan, 2006). By age 3 or 4, children engage in actual social interaction. Children play games with each other, help one another complete tasks, and take turns using or playing with toys. Young children begin expressing themselves by using words. They also begin symbolic play and imitate characters such as Batman and take on roles of professionals such as a doctor or a chef. At this age, a child’s personality becomes more defined. It becomes evident and visible whether or not the child is loud, quiet and shy, or if the child has aggressive tendencies (Harrington, 2003).
Many other changes also occur, such as a growth increase in height as well as in weight. Changes in the proportions of their body, increased muscle control, and a heightened sense of self-awareness also transpire. Children this age also have enhanced social awareness as well, which ultimately helps them with their social interactions. Social interaction among preschoolers is unique because boys and girls play together in a child-like harmony and get along without constraint. They also make a point to model the behavior of the adults that they come across in regards to their play. For example, a young girl may stand at a play kitchen set and shout to a boy by proclaiming ‘sweetie, dinner is ready’ (Feldman et al, 2004).
Play is extremely important at this age. Children need to be provided with plenty of time to play and room to play as well. Through play, children properly use their muscles, encourage their senses, join sight with movement, acquire abilities and ultimately gain control of them physically and mentally. The simplest form of play is called functional play. The next level of cognitive play is constructive play. Pretend play is another form of play, which focuses on symbolism and is often called symbolic play. This type of play tends to be the most socially involved form of play at this age. Boys however like more physical play with a group of children while girls prefer to have only a few playmates (Elkind, 1994).
The types of play that children engage in changes and increases in the levels of cognitive complexity as they develop. Piaget identified 4 different categories of play. The most basic play is active functional play. This type of play begins during infancy and involves muscular movements that are repetitive, such as rolling a ball. When gross motor skills become more developed and improve, preschoolers are able to jump, hop, run, and throw. The next type of play that occurs is constructive play. When preschoolers use various materials and objects to create something, such as making a building or house out of blocks, they are involved in constructive play. Four year old children engage in constructive play at least half of the time that they are playing. Constructive play becomes more elaborate when children are 5 or 6 years old (Feldman et al, 2004).
The third level of play, pretend play, is also referred to as imaginative play, dramatic play, or fantasy play. This level of play begins to emerge near the latter part of a child’s second year. Pretend play usually becomes more social during the preschool period. There is a change from solitary pretend play to pretend play with peers. Pretend play increases until a child reaches school-age and then declines as children begin the next level of cognitive play which is known as formal games with rules. This 4th level consists of games that are organized and have specific rules and procedures, such as hopscotch. All of these levels of play are very important for a child’s development (Feldman et al, 2004).
As far as gender roles are concerned, girls are more likely to play with cars and trucks than a boy is to play with a Barbie Doll. There are differences between girls and boys in the sense of language as well. In general, girls are superior in language compared to boys including the size of their vocabulary, comprehension of reading, and creativity involving their verbal skills. As for verbal interactions, girls engage more in face-to-face conversations, while boys converse in a side-by-side manner. Girls are also more likely to have more one-on-one conversations with other children or adults. These differences eventually diminish as children get older (Elkind, 1994).
By observing the interactions of boys and girls at this age, it becomes visually apparent that boys are more aggressive than girls. They use weapons as toys and also are less compliant to rules and authority figures. While boys exhibit aggressive behavior, girls are more apt to be nurturing, protective, and are more giving and respectful to those younger than themselves. These differences apply to the majority of boys and girls, but some boys are just as nurturing while some girls may behave similarly to boys and exhibit very aggressive behavior (Merck & Co. Inc., 2003).
The most obvious characteristic of children this age is their need to be independent. They desperately want to do things for themselves. Parents should let children complete tasks that children are capable of such as zipping up their jacket or buttoning up a shirt. Child-size furniture also helps children to be more independent. This newfound desire to be independent creates a basic conflict for preschool children because at the same time, they wish to remain dependent upon their parents and other adults. According to Erik Erikson, children this age are in the third stage of psychosocial development which is the conflict of initiative versus guilt. Within this stage, children must balance their urges or desires to achieve goals with moral feelings of guilt that prevent them from achieving such goals (Elkind, 1994).
Preschool age children are also exceptionally creative, especially in their verbal interactions. They begin to ask questions and use rational reasoning and empathy. Children this age are in love with life and are incredibly charming and eager. This is one of the most favored stages in life and one of the most enjoyable age groups to observe. Children also lack vengefulness during this time in life. They may fight about sharing a toy but will forgive and forget and will play together shortly after the incident; they simply do not hold grudges (Child Development Institute, 2006). Sharing is also a difficult hurdle for preschool age children to cross. Sharing is a foreign concept to children this age because they are use to getting what they want. They regard toys as a kind of self extension. When asked to share, children feel as if they are giving away part of themselves. It is because of this that children fight over toys. Throughout this age, children begin to appreciate toys as they are and learn to separate themselves from objects which help them to be possessive (Elkind, 1994).
Egocentrism also makes quite an impact on this age group. Because their intellectual abilities are limited, children are unable to understand, respect, and ultimately place themselves into another person’s ‘shoes’. Children this age assume that everyone else in the world views things as they do. This can also be seen in the play of children. Children tend to talk ‘at’ people instead of ‘to’ people. Although egocentric, children are still able to overcome their selfishness by comforting another child who is sad and crying. The most common terms used by children within their social interactions are ‘I’ and ‘me’. They are also very possessive which is why sharing is difficult for them. Many times it helps if a child’s toys are labeled. For example a boy named John would be more apt to share his toy if it was labeled ‘John’s Truck’ or ‘John’s G.I. Joe’ because he knows that it is obvious that the toy is his and that it will ultimately be returned to him (Elkind, 1994).
Children this age are very outspoken yet sensitive realists. At the same time though, children are true visionaries hence the reason they believe in Santa Claus, fairies, and fantasy islands. At this age, children begin imitation play regarding characters they observe on television or in movies or professions that they look up to such as Batman, Superman, a doctor, or a brave fireman. It is also important to note that children view adults as one-dimensional. An adult or person is good or bad, smart or dumb, or nice or mean in the eyes of a child. To a child this age, a person simply can not be two things at once (Harrington, 2003).
Parents and educators however are thought of as the most intelligent and most powerful of people in a child’s mind. They believe that parents know everything and can do anything because they answer all their questions and can drive and operate household appliances that a child may not understand. This view of parents can be negative on the child depending upon the situation though. For example, if parents get divorced, a child may blame themselves because they believe that their parents cannot make mistakes and can do no wrong therefore it must be the ‘child’s fault’. This self blame may force children to sacrifice a toy, usually their favorite toy, as a form of self-punishment (Feldman et al, 2004).
This time in a child’s life truly begins the search for self. This is known as the self-concept. A child’s ‘sense of self’ includes social factors because their image of themselves incorporates how other people see them. When children begin to gain a self-concept they begin to describe themselves to others by using a variety of characteristics such as “My name is Bobby. I have two sisters, a dog, 2 cats, and a gold fish named Goldie. I like pizza and macaroni and cheese too.” This is typical, normal behavior of children in this age group. Children talk about observable behaviors, characteristics that are visible and physical such as hair color, abilities, likes and dislikes, and of people and animals that they live with (Feldman et al, 2004).
It is essential that children have some understanding of their emotions, which most young children do. A child’s early emotional experiences and their family relationships have an effect on the development of emotional understanding. Preschoolers have the ability to talk about the emotions or feelings that they are experiencing. Often times, young children are also able to discern the feelings of people around them. Young children also have an understanding that their feelings are related to their personal desires and experiences. By the age of 3 or 4, children will acknowledge that if someone does not get what they want, that person will not be happy but instead will be angry or sad. Children this age however still do not have an understanding of complicated emotions such as pride or shame and also have a difficult time dealing with conflicting or differing emotions. For example, if a child is happy about getting a toy that they want but at the same time are upset or disappointed that the toy is not the color they wanted, the child may feel emotionally confused (Elkind, 1994).
Throughout this time in childhood, children begin to define their gender identity as well. It becomes obvious what psychosocial and behavioral differences exist between boys and girls. Girls have a biological advantage on boys. They tend to be less vulnerable, less affected by stress, and generally develop faster. However, boys are taller, heavier, and stronger. As far as behavioral differences are concerned, boys are verbally and physically aggressive while girls are pro-social and empathetic. Girls are also more cooperative and compliant with parents and seek more adult approval than boys do. As far as specific abilities are concerned, girls tend to be stronger at verbal tasks, and at tasks that require perceptual and motor skills. Boys are better at spatial abilities, scientific reasoning, and mathematical reasoning which are more abstract. Boys and girls are equally as likely to bite, hit, and have tantrums as toddlers, but this behavior diminishes in girls by age 4 while some boys continue to act out and get into trouble (Feldman et al, 2004).
There are many perspectives regarding gender development. According to the biological approach, these behavioral differences occur because of biological differences and is therefore genetic, neurological, and partially due to hormonal activity. According to the psychoanalytic approach or psychosexual theory created by Sigmund Freud, gender differences are a result of a resolution of unconscious inner conflicts. This theory states that gender identity exists when children identify with their same-sex parent. The cognitive approach or cognitive-developmental theory by theorist Lawrence Kohlberg, the process of gender identity is based on self-categorization. This is when children notice that they are a boy or girl, acknowledge the proper behavior from others and act accordingly (Merck & Co. Inc., 2003).
Parents are thought to influence a child’s behavior based on gender as well. However, parents affect the child’s knowledge of different sexes and not necessarily the behavior itself. Naturally, there are also peer influences and cultural influences. Parents have a great deal of influence on their child’s social development. The day to day interactions with their parents are primary to a child’s development of social skills. Two important factors in the development of a child’s social skills are parental nurturing and responsiveness. Parents who are responsive and loving toward their children help their child to view the world in a positive way and to have positive expectations regarding their relationships with others. Children who exhibit high levels of social competence usually have relationships with their parents that are positive and agreeable. These children and their parents are able to respond to each others verbal and non-verbal cues. Many parents of socially competent children have an authoritative parenting style and do not employ coercive discipline or physical punishment as a means of behavior management (Abell & Mize, 1996).
There are many steps parents can take to improve their child’s developing social skills. Parents should provide their children with other opportunities to play with other children. Children gain a great deal of experience on how to interact with others by playing with their peers. Children who are able to play with peers at an early age are at an advantage when they enter daycare or school. Even toddlers benefit from being able to participate in stable peer groups by becoming more confident and having an easier time fitting into or changing peer groups. Children learn social strategies when they can become friends with other children and maintain stable friendships over long periods of time (Abell & Mize, 1996). Parents can also help their children by playing with them in a ‘peer-like’ manner. It has been found that when parents play with their children, their children develop more advanced social skills and tend to get along better with their peers. Observational studies that have been conducted have shown that parents who smile and laugh are often responsive to their child’s needs and ideas and do not criticize or over-direct their child’s play, have the most socially competent children (Child Development Institute, 2006).
Parents should allow preschoolers to work out their problems with other children whenever possible and only intervene when necessary. Research has indicated that if parents intervene too quickly when children are working out a problem, it can interfere with the child’s development of social skills. Children need to learn how to problem-solve. Parents can help children develop effective problem-solving skills by playing with their child and modeling behaviors. Children should also be encouraged to consider the other person’s feelings and needs when dealing with a problem. Children who are able to learn this skill and who have parents that talk to them about feelings and emotions tend to be more positive and pro-social with other children and also tend to be liked better by their peers (Abell & Mize, 1996).
The peer group does have an influence on young children. By the age of 3, peers start to emphasize gender typed behaviors. As children get older, peer influence increases. In most cases, both parental and peer attitudes reinforce each other. The social cognitive theory views peers as a piece of an intricate cultural system which includes parents as well as other socializing representatives rather than an independent influence for socialization (Feldman et al, 2004).
In conclusion, young childhood is truly a time of change and a time of learning and increased socialization. Children throughout this time, begin to find themselves and become individually defined. They begin to have friendships and start to separate themselves in different ways according to their gender roles. They strive to be independent but at the same time strive to hold on to the dependence that they previously had on their parents and other adults around them. Their understanding of the world and other people enhances and they begin to acknowledge their feelings in many ways. Children throughout this time in life are creative, outgoing, and curious. Children are truly amazing at this age and their true joy for life is inspiring to others who observe them.
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