What Are The Four Stages Of Childhood Brain Development?
We often wonder what’s going on inside our child’s head. As we watch them line up their toy cars or repeatedly push over the same toy, or uncharacteristically snatch from a friend or burst into tears it can be hard for an adult brain to understand and rationalise what is driving their behaviour. It can sometimes feel like our kids are a completely different species to us! Of course, their brains are still developing and by our standards, their actions are often not rational at all. Children constantly test and learn in their environment, experimenting and discovering as their brains reach new stages of development and maturity.
Until the early 1900s it was believed that children had no cognition before they could speak, that they simply existed in the world with no comprehension of what was going on around them or happening to them. Psychologist and Developmental Biologist Jean Piaget observed a number of children from babyhood to teen years and published ‘Piaget’s Cognitive Stages of Development’ - a groundbreaking study which proposed that children’s brains are developing right from birth and which forms the foundation for how we understand childhood brain development today. This theory forms the foundation for how we interact and care for babies, provide early years education and support early development.
4 stages of childhood brain development
1. Sensorimotor stage - 0 to 2 years
During these very early stages babies learn through their sensory development and manipulation of objects. Before they can understand language they learn a lot from observing those around them, following their actions and feeling and testing the things they come across, whether that’s toys, Mum’s hair, Dad’s watch or the cat’s tail!
2. Preoperational stage - 2 to 7 years
During this roughly five year period children develop memory, and start to consistently recall things that happened yesterday, last week or at their last birthday party. Their imaginations also start to take flight, allowing them to create stories and engage in make believe play. Their imagination also allows them to think there are monsters under the bed and that their toys might come to life - this is why it’s common for children of this age to begin having nightmares and get newly scared of going to nursery or school. During this stage children also begin to understand the past, future and the passing of time, which means that they can understand how long the school day is, and that it’s not long until Christmas!
3. Concrete operational stage - 7 to 11 years
It might not always feel like it, but children become less egocentric during this stage, and begin to realise that the world doesn’t always revolve around them. They are more aware of external events and can be more sensitive to other’s behaviour. During this stage they begin to understand that others do not always share the same thoughts and feelings as them and have an understanding that their actions and words may change other people’s feelings.
4. Formal operational stage - 11 years+
During this stage children develop better skills to reach logical conclusions, and use logic to solve problems around them. They gain the ability to apply logical thought to problems and rationalise their actions. This gives them the stepping stone to forward plan and consider the future, and make their decisions with a view of the steps that will follow. The baby meal times with bowls of food being flung across the room at will and for no reason are a distant memory!
Of course the ages above are not set in stone, every child is different and Piaget himself said that in his observation, children passed through the stages at different speeds and ages, sometimes crossing two stages at once, sometimes seeming to circle back and then move forward again. Development is not linear and the stages outlined above are a general guide observed across many children, rather than individuals who will all have their own path. However what is clear is that each stage leads to an intellectual development that creates a foundation for a more complex understanding of the world. As children’s brains work through each stage they are able to understand, do more, learn more, and think in a more ‘rational’ way.
Running alongside the brain development stages outlined above, children are also developing their cognitive skills, including short and long term memory, logic and reasoning, auditory processing, visual processing and the speed at which all of that happens. For more information about sensory development see our article which talks in depth about what baby sensory is and how you can support it as a parent.
The brain of a child will develop through the stages at it’s own pace, but there are things you can do to support it. Like an engine that can’t run on empty, brains need plenty of the right kind of nutrients to fuel them, so a healthy and balanced diet helps the body and the brain to develop well. Sleep is also vital, as when we sleep our brains get to work, processing a lot of what happened throughout the day and building new pathways. With inadequate sleep we not only feel sluggish, but our brains don’t function as quickly or as well. For children, this can impact on their ability to make new mental connections, learn new things, interpret and correctly respond to social cues and generally develop at optimum speed.
Make sure your child is set up for a good nights sleep by making their bedroom as comfortable as possible, with cool organic sheets made from cotton. Check out our duvet cover collection for some options!