Developing an understanding of the world around you is a lifetime process that begins at birth. Knowing about the regularity and predictability of the universe is important. This knowledge, called cognitive development, is learned through mental processes and sensory perceptions. Warm, supportive interactions with others, as well as the ability to use all five of the sensory modes—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling—are required for maximum development of the mental or cognitive processes. High-quality child development centers have always placed priority on children's intellectual learning. Today the emphasis is greater than ever, because new research is being reported that helps teachers better understand the mental or cognitive processes that are at work in the child.
The theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have probably had the most influence on our ideas about how young children learn. Although they worked at about the same time, they approached the topic from slightly different perspectives and emphasized different aspects of children's cognitive development. Piaget focused on the way an individual child acts upon objects in the environment in order to build mental models of the way the world works. Vygotsky looked more closely at the way children acquire knowledge through interaction with more experienced people, and at the role language plays in the process. The term constructivist describes both theorists, because they both view knowledge as something that individuals construct out of their own experience and reflection rather than something that is passively absorbed. Neither suggest that children accomplish this work in a vacuum. For Piaget, the physical environment is important and the adult role is to make sure that environment is rich and stimulating, then to occasionally ask questions that challenge children's thinking about the environment. For Vygotsky, the social environment is important and the adult role is to help children tackle challenges that are just a little beyond what they could do alone. Recent research on child care (Maccoby & Lewis, 2003) has linked a constructivist approach to learning to positive social development. You, as a student, are constructing your own knowledge of child development as you mesh concepts from your course readings and ideas gained from your experiences with young children.
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