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Early and Middle Childhood Development

By Scott Barbour ; Updated June 13, 2017

Early and middle childhood is a time of significant growth and development. In early childhood – ages 3 to 6 – children emerge from toddlerhood until they are dressing themselves and eating with silverware. In middle childhood – ages 6 to 12 – they progress even more until they find themselves on the verge of puberty and adolescence. Cognitively and socially, they gain skills and competencies that will provide the foundation for their sense of who they are and how they fit in the world. These new levels of understanding help to guide them as they progress into adolescence, young adulthood and beyond.

Early Childhood Physical Development

Between ages 3 and 6, a child makes many advances in gross motor development, according to the National Institutes of Health. These start with an improved ability to run, jump, throw and kick a ball. Next, the child progresses to learning to catch a bounced ball, pedal a tricycle, hop on one foot, balance on one foot and walk heel-to-toe. Fine motor skills developed during early childhood include the ability to draw a person with three parts, use safety scissors, get dressed properly and eat with a spoon and fork.

Early Childhood Language and Cognitive Development

Children between 3 and 6 also make many strides in language and cognitive development, according to the NIH. They begin to form sentences at age 3. At 4 years old, they start to comprehend size relationships, name four colors, count to four and have fun with word play and rhymes. By age 5, children can count to 10, comprehend the idea of time, memorize their telephone number and respond to questions involving “why?”

Early Childhood Psychosocial Development

According to Erick Erikson, a German developmental psychologist, during each stage of development, humans must resolve a specific psychosocial conflict to progress to the next level in a psychologically healthy manner. As described by Grace J. Craig, the author of a textbook on human development, the conflict for children between 3 and 6 is “initiative vs. guilt.” If young children can explore the world successfully, they develop initiative. “However, if they are severely criticized or overpunished,” Craig writes, “they instead learn to feel guilty for many of their own actions.”

Middle Childhood Physical Development

Children between the ages of 6 and 12 generally have strong, fluid motor skills, according to the NIH. However, they can vary dramatically in size, physical coordination and maturation. Some children begin to develop secondary sex characteristic during this stage. In boys, these include enlargement of the penis and testicles as well as the growth of pubic, underarm and chest hair. In girls, they include the growth of pubic and underarm hair as well as breast development.

Middle Childhood Language and Cognitive Development

At age six, children can typically use complete sentences of five to seven words. As they progress through middle childhood, they develop the ability to use increasingly complex sentences. Cognitively, between the ages of 6 and 10, children progress from the ability to follow three commands in a row to the capacity to follow five commands in a row.

Middle Childhood Psychosocial Development

The psychosocial conflict of middle childhood, as conceptualized by Erikson, is “industry vs. inferiority.” As children gain a variety of skills during middle childhood, they develop a sense of competency. As they compare themselves with others their own age, they may either perceive themselves as possessing a productive capacity or a sense of failure. Craig states, “A negative evaluation of self compared with others is especially disruptive at this time.”

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