Cognitive and Physical Growth in Early and Middle Childhood

by Elizabeth Hall

baby while making his first steps
baby while making his first steps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Berk (2010) concludes that there are many changes taking place between early childhood and middle childhood, both physically and cognitively.  Compared to infant and toddler growth, the rate is considerably slowed in early childhood, which Gilbert, Schacter & Wegner (2009), defined as both the preoperational stage, and occurring between the ages of two and six. .  These physical changes include weight, height, skeletal, and muscular along with the nervous system and the brain itself.  Notable differences have been made in the development of boys and girls.  There are also significant changes in cognitive abilities, emotional development, problem-solving skills, judgment, and peer relationships according to Berk (2010).  In this article we will explore these changes and discuss differences in development between males and females.  
Physical changes in early childhood
Young child playing at ease in a squatting pos...
Young child playing at ease in a squatting position (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Height is added at a rate of two to three inches in this stage of development as reported by Berk (2010). The fat that the children retain in infancy and toddler stages thins out.   The child is no longer the chubby, wobbly legged, being, instead this stage promotes physical growth that leaves them more proportionately resembling little adults.  This stage of growth also indicates the first signs of significant differences in individuals such as some children being noticeably taller than others ascertains Berk (2010). 
By this time, Berk (2010) indicates that there are as many as forty five epiphysis or rather places in which cartilage changes to bone during the ages of two to six.  Children preschool age begin to lose their bay teeth and grow in permanent teeth.   The size of the brain is also increased at this time by approximately twenty percent increasing to roughly ninety percent of the full adult weight. The prefrontal cortex is developing at this time and thus growing larger, particularly the prefrontal cortex (Berk, 2010).
 Changes to the central nervous system are also happening during early childhood noting changes in the cerebellum, reticular formation, corpus collosum, and the hippocampus allowing these changes to occur. (Berk, 2010).  The cerebellum is the part of the brain that aids in movement and balance, while the reticular formation controls consciousness and alert states.  The hippocampus is responsible for memory and imaging space and the corpus callosum is the large formation of  nerves in the brain that connect the right and left hemispheres together (Berk, 2010). 
Physical Changes in Middle Childhood
After seven years of age the child is entering into middle childhood according to Gilbert, Schacter & Wegner (2009).  They experience a size and weight increase of a steady two to three inches and five pounds per year.  Berk (2010) holds that children gain in gross and fine motor development at this time.  They are also growing skeletally and cognitively. 
Factors of Influence
three phases in timed shutter release
three phases in timed shutter release (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Genetic factors play a significant part in changes development during this these stages as written by Berk (2010).  One example is when a child loses baby teeth and begins to grow their permanent teeth, which usually happens between four and six years if age.  Proper hormonal growth is required at this stage for optimal development both physically, and cognitively. Disease also affects growth and development so if a child is continually sick or has a serious disease growth and development may be stunted.  Another factor that influences physical and cognitive development is the environment and resilience of the child especially emotional well-being. Two examples of this are malnutrition found among poorer children and increased tooth decay in children exposed to cigarette smoke regularly, because it affects the immune system, as noted by Berk (2010). 
Comparison Males vs. Females
Boys in these stages of growth are consistently larger than their female counterparts holds Berk (2010). During early childhood, girls are noted to retain more fat than boys. The findings also suggest that boys are generally more muscular during this stage. Boys are usually behind girls at this stage of development in cognitive abilities, actual physical development and emotional maturity.  This would seem to suggest that girls are better at social and cognitive skills during this time and boys are better at physical tasks. 
Cognitive Growth
During the preoperational stage there is a significant change in cognitive growth including mental representation, and the increase in make believe activities as held by Berk (2010).  They also begin to draw and look at life with more skill and realism by realizing that there is a difference in real life and make believe through photographs, maps, and drawings.  Children also experience growth in the ability to plan and memorize ideas along with learning basic concepts of grammar and language including social conversations (Berk, 2010).  
Children in middle childhood rapidly expand in cognitive areas such as entering the Concrete Operational stage as discovered by Piaget, and dramatically in information processing. (Berk, 2010).  Memory, attention, and applied academic skills sharply increase, and differences in intelligence levels begin to appear.  Another important cognitive development is advanced self- regulation skills as Berk (2010) ascertains. 
Growth of Problem Solving Skills
Children at the preoperational stage also have trouble with irreversibility, hierarchal classification and logical thought patterns often thinking illogically when faced with tasks concerned with real life (Berk, 2010).  It is at the next stage of development that they do begin to show signs of being able to perform concrete operations in problem solving as noted by Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner (2009).  They begin to learn how things actually are performed and altered as discovered by Piaget from age six to eleven.  Preoperational children cannot distinguish between number of objects that are displayed two different ways in ratios, however children older than six can understand and recognize this as the same number. This change is known as the concrete operational stage (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009)

Changes in Judgment
Children in the preoperational stage often show egocentrism represented by what Piaget thinks were best defined with material objects having their own ability to process thoughts, feelings and intentions and are known as animistic thought processes (Berk, 2010).  Egocentrism is the inability to think outside their own worlds close around them, the belief that everyone else does too and have the perception that magic is real.  They also cannot distinguish differences on some physical properties of objects do not change regardless of differences in outer appearance.  This is known as conservation as defined by Berk (2010).  Children also develop different levels of moral judgment between the preoperational stage and the concrete operational stage which Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner (2009) define as the pre-conventional stage and the conventional stage respectively. 
Specific Examples Skills and Abilities
One example particular skills and abilities as mentioned earlier is of course the differences in males and females in skills which involve might or strength in preoperational development when doing physical activities such as sports or climbing.  Another example of a change in skills and abilities is the change from early to middle childhood.  This stage is when the child can distinguish that two identical boxes of raisins hold the same amount of raisins even when one box is displayed as closed and the other is open with the contents spread out (Berk, 2010).  Piaget used eggs and cups to display the change in preoperational and concrete operational skills in children (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009). 
Comparison Males vs. Females
Girls stay relatively smaller than boys until the age of nine when they begin a large growth spurt Berk, (2010).   Boys experience this two years later in adolescence.  Boys develop physical motor skills while girls develop more fine motor skills in both stages.  Cognitively girls perform better on verbal and language skills while boys perform better on spatial tasks according to Bell, Dave, Silverstone, Willson, & Wilman (2005).  
Emotional and Social Development
During early childhood children begin to develop a sense of self concept where they begin to define who they are as humans, along with this they also develop signs of emotional regulation and self-esteem (Berk, 2010).  They begin to show different ways of this with covering their ears or eyes for things they do not want to hear or see, and changing their desires as they can better express themselves through language.  Peer relations also increase as they increase communication ability and understanding of others.  At this time they are more likely to socialize and play interactively.  Family and culture play a role in how these developmental stages advance depending on where the cultural emphasis lies, work, education, family and religion are examples of these (Berk, 2010). 
Major Milestones in Emotional Development
Preschoolers begin to develop moral and ethical standings, as they learn about the world around them.  They understand the differences between many concepts such as moral imperatives, social conventions, morality, and what is right and wrong although the concepts are basic (Berk, 2010).  They understand consequences for their actions Influences come from family, the community, and even the larger cultural social beliefs.  Aggressive behaviors begin to appear by at least two years of age, and gender and stereotypes are emerging notes Berk (2010).
Children in middle childhood experience a growth in morality, where they further define what the concept means (Berk, 2010).  They also begin to define their identity and gender recognition as they socialize with larger groups and advance academically. Social issues arise as this stage is where individual differences is most evident.  Berk (2010) also goes on to say that this age group of children also master conservation and register reversibility.

Many changes abound during the childhood years both in early and middle stages.  These changes are both physical and cognitive which together allow us to advance as humans.  Major influences during this time are played by heredity and the environment and how these influences interact determine many things such as our growth rates, cognitive abilities and motor development. Social skills and morality are understood and conceived in relation to the world around them.  Individual differences begin to appear and cultural and social stereotypes in relation to self, identity and gender register as concrete concepts. 

Bell, E.C., Dave, S., Silverstone, P.H., Willson, M.C., & Wilman, A.H., (2006).  Males and Females Differ in Brain Activation During Cognitive Tasks.  Neuro Image. Retrieved From: University of Phoenix Library
Berk, L.E., (2010).  Development through the Lifespan, Fifth Edition.  Pearson Education, United States.  ISBN

Gilbert, D. T., Schacter, D.L. & Wegner, D. M. (2009, pp. Ch. 11 Psychology.  New York: Worth Publishing.  ISBN-13:978-0-7167-5215-8
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