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Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Childhood


The Developmental Psychology 101 series addresses the theories, periods, and implications of development in a human life from conception all the way through to the stage of adolescence. Developmental psychology is a field which is studied by psychology students and academic researchers; its purpose is to understand individuals based on the biological and psychological changes they experience throughout their lifespan. Development is defined as modifications that momentarily or permanently change an organism in the journey from conception to death (Cole et al., 2005). This 101 series of articles will refer to development from a psychological perspective, discussing its social, emotional, cognitive, and physical areas. Moreover, the debate of nature versus nurture will be discussed in the development of the following four stages of life: prenatal period, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

The Developmental Psychology 101 series is divided into six chapters:

5. Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Childhood

6. Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Adolescence

Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Childhood

Childhood is the period most associated with enjoyment, living carefree, and being happy (Martin, 2005). By the age of three, one can tell that a baby is no longer an infant: they are now a toddler, or an early child. This transition from infancy to childhood happens somewhat smoothly, as the body grows and cognitive abilities develop. This process happens under the nurturing umbrella that the caregivers hold over the tiny children's heads. Now that the baby reflexes are mastered, the bladder is under control, and the child has formed a connection with the surrounding adults, the child's mind becomes a sponge that collects information from the environment in order to build appropriate patterns with which to process reality. There are two periods in this stage of life: toddlerhood, between the ages of 2 to 4, and childhood, between the age of 5, all the way to puberty. This article will explain why the harmonious development of humans in childhood mostly depends on nurture and not on the nature aspect of existence. This examination will be conducted through the lenses of the three scientists analyzed in the previous article: Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, and Erik Erikson, and other thinkers and researchers who have further studied development during childhood from its social, emotional, cognitive, and physical areas.

Figure 1: Development in Childhood (Hardy, 1864)

After transitioning through infancy, the child enters the preoperational stage of development, defined by Piaget (2008) as the stage in which humans begin to use symbols in processing information and create mental categories to represent the world. Egocentrism is developed at this stage with the child finding it difficult to see the world from other points of view and focusing on their own perceptions. A child is unable to understand why adults or other children have opinions and experiences different from their own. One of the primary focuses in childhood development is the formation and use of language, as the world is represented through language. The objects of the world have signs assigned to them, whether they are pictures in a book next to which words are written, spoken words, or sign language (Woll & Morgan, 2002). This is the way in which humans start to perceive the environment by direct social interaction and experience. Language is learned by hearing or seeing it attached to objects, people, or through symbols; thus, nurture has a very important role in helping the child represent their environment, as “learning itself plays a major role in organizing the brain for efficient language use” (Bates & Roe, 2001, p. 305).

A new intriguing aspect of development that appears in toddlerhood is fast mapping, which is a process that allows the child to find or create the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on the context and the familiar structures of a conversation (Clark & Wong, 2002). Fast mapping appears once a child has developed enough vocabulary to be able to connect new symbols and categorize them. This happens through exposure to social contexts, from which the child learns to figure out the intention of the speaker based on social cues (Poulin-Dubois & Forbes, 2006; von Koss Torkildsen et al., 2009). Noam Chomsky (2006), an American linguist and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science, postulates that language development is an innate mechanism. This concept of the language acquisition device, or LAD, arose as an explanation to why only human babies can produce language. This nature side of language acquisition explains the preexistent mechanism that contributes to children hearing all phonemes but only selecting the ones they will produce from the environment around them (Chomsky, 2006). LAD is an innate, biological mechanism that humans embody in order to learn languages, and this mechanism is activated and sustained by the language acquisition support systems, or LASS, which represent learning through social interaction, imitation and fast mapping. Thus, even if the brain mechanisms are innate systems that develop in infancy, the optimal development is ensured by LASS, implying the socio-cultural and environmental consequences of language development that further complement the biological aspects of LAD (Bruner, 1982).

Figure 2: LASS in action (Wikihow, 2021).

Erikson’s theory of development accompanies the motor development of the childhood stage, as at this time either autonomy or shame and guilt are formed (Eagle, 1997). Once trust in the caregivers is formed, a child becomes dependent on the caregiver’s approval and reactions to their actions. When this happens, children start trying to be independent through their actions and the caregiver’s encouragement is the main factor that promotes autonomy. Choices over clothes and snacks help children develop trust in their own capacity, and this can be safely created by the caregivers through limited options; a caregiver will give the child a choice of two jackets to wear when the weather is cold and not a choice between a t-shirt or a jacket, helping the child to make a good decision based on the weather, as the rational thinking part of the child's cognitive development has not yet formed. A child that constantly fails in their choices or is not allowed to express opinions and ideas tends to build shame around themselves and feel guilt whenever they fail.

The choosing aspect of development discussed above is noticeable in the actions of both the child and the caregivers. One important aspect that connects these is that childhood is marked by gains in motor skills. Culture influences development as it determines the frequency of activities, the specific steps they require, and the child’s role in completing the activity (Cole et al., 2005, p. 302). The caregivers are the main factors that influence motor development by providing an environment that can challenge the improvement of fine motor skills. By the age of five, children can hop, skate, ride a scooter, dress themselves, draw, tie shoes, use cutlery, kick a ball, and perform many other actions that involve a lot of control over their body. Sleep habits form and nutrition plays an important factor in the development of bones and the growth of the body in general. As long as children sleep at least 12 hours a day and eat a nutritionally balanced meal, their healthy development is almost guaranteed (Cole et al., 2005, p. 273-274). According to Freud, childhood is the period in which the genitals are the focus of the erogenous zone early on, as the sexual part of existence is explored together with gender identity formation. Later on, the child enters a latent stage in which other aspects of life are explored and skill formation flourishes (Freud, 1953). These phallic and latent stages both influence identity formation. Freud stipulates that boys differentiate themselves from their mothers, while girls try to identify with their mothers (Freud, 1953). These identification processes lead to what is known in modern psychology as modeling and differential reinforcement. These social, learning-based concepts imply that children identify their gender by modeling or imitating the behavior of others, while at the same time being rewarded for gender-specific behaviors, which is the process known as differential reinforcement (Cole et al., 2005, p. 310).

Figure 3: Children's play encourages motor development (Parents, 2022).

Personal identity is formed by the 'I Self,' which is a metaphysical concept that sums up a person’s subjective sense of self or how a person perceives themselves, and the 'Me Self,' which is a person’s objective sense of self and built on the physical characteristics, abilities, and personal features of a person that are objectively known, such as the socio-economic status (Harter, 1999). Moreover, forming one’s identity is dependent on social rules that fall under the moral sphere, the personal sphere, or social conventions (Lagattuta, Nucci & Bosacki, 2010). The moral sphere of social rules consist of general aspects of life that society considers wrong or right, such as not harming others, that children learn by imitation and by direct guidance from their caregivers or other adults. The personal sphere of social rules are related to personal habits, hygiene, and boundaries that children learn to communicate. The social conventions are rules that children learn early on from direct contact with their caregivers such as how to behave at school or how to address adults.

Emotional regulation is another important part of childhood, as children learn by experiencing how certain actions feel and what the consequences are of those actions. They might feel scared when the adults fight, happy when they receive a gift, or sad when a friend does not come out to play. Early on, from direct contact with other people, children learn under what circumstances it is appropriate for emotions to be expressed (Cole et al., 2005, p. 327). In this stage of life, humans try to master socio-emotional competence, which is the ability to behave appropriately in certain social situations, by direct observation and imitation of other people’s behaviors. Self-regulation of emotions is not something children can do alone, as they are still learning their body reactions and how to control these new emotions they are challenged with every day. The degree to which children can successfully master emotional regulation depends on the caregiver’s ability to understand, explain, and guide the child in the journey of their feelings.

Figure 4: Children imitating the calm state of the mother (Corneille Pothast, 1920)


Childhood is an intense period of self discovery as well as exploration of the environment. Children have just learned that an outer world exists, and it is filled with other people and objects that function with rules and generate emotions. The motor and cognitive development of a child depends on the diversity of activities they face, whether or not they feel safe, whether or not they have examples they can imitate, and if they feel capable to learn things. Good experiences early on in life can encourage children to further explore and develop useful skills for the future, gain knowledge of their body’s functions and control their emotions, as well as learn about their role in society. Based on the fact that all these aspects are highly influenced by the caregivers as well as other people in the child’s life, one can conclude that in the stage of childhood, nurture has a bigger influence than nature on the child’s development.

Bibliographical References

Bates, E., & Roe, K. (2001). Language development in children with unilateral brain injury. In C.A. Nelson & M. Luciana (Eds.), Handbook of developmental cognitive neuroscience (pp. 281-307). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bruner, J. (1982). The formats of language acquisition. The American Journal of Semiotics, 1(3), 1.

Chomsky, N. (2006). Language and mind (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Clark, E. V., & Wong, A. D. W. (2002). Pragmatic directions about language use: Offers of words and relations. Language in Society, 31(2), 181-212.

Cole, M., Cole, S. R., & Lightfoot, C. (2005). The development of children (7th Ed.). Worth Publishers, New York.

Eagle, M. (1997). Contributions of Erik Erikson. Psychoanalytic review, 84(3), 337-347.

Freud, S. (1953). Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905). In Strachey, J. (Ed.) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, volume VII (1901-1905): A case of hysteria, three essays on sexuality and other works (pp. 123-246). Vintage Classics.

Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. Guilford Press.

Lagattuta, K. H., Nucci, L., & Bosacki, S. L. (2010). Bridging theory of mind and the personal domain: Children’s reasoning about resistance to parental control. Child Development, 81(2), 616-635.

Martin, P. (2005). Making happy people: The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood. Fourth Estate Press.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (2008). The psychology of the child. Basic Books.

Poulin-Dubois, D., & Forbes, J. N. (2006). Word, intention, and action: A two-tiered model of action word learning. In K. Hirsh-Pasek & R. M. Golinkoff (Eds.), Action meets word: How children learn verbs (pp. 262–285). Oxford University Press.

von Koss Torkildsen, J., Hansen, H. F., Svangstu, J. M., Smith, L., Simonsen, H. G., Moen, I., & Lindgren, M. (2009). Brain dynamics of word familiarization in 20-month-olds: Effects of productive vocabulary size. Brain and Language, 108(2), 73-88.

Woll, B., & Morgan, G. (2002). Directions in sign language acquisition. Directions in Sign Language Acquisition, 1-359.

Visual Sources

Cover image: Picasso, P. (1943). Mother and child (First steps) [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 1: Hardy, F. D. (1864). Preserving jam [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Wikihow. (2021). How to talk to a baby [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Parents. (2022). The ages and stages of play [Photo]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Corneille Pothast, B. J. (1920). Dutch interior with mother and children [Painting]. Retrieved from:


Author Photo

Raluca Reinerth

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