The theory, research, and philosophy of development in the early childhood years provides a deeper understanding of young children, the way they construct knowledge about their world, and the ways through which they most effectively learn. The following sections present a theoretical perspective based upon the “whole-child” view of the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children.

Piaget’s Stages of Intellectual Development

Piaget and Inhelder (1969) describe intellectual development as a series of stages through which children make qualitative changes as they acquire new knowledge. Although this model for intellectual development in children should not be rigidly interpreted, it does offer a guide for understanding how children construct and integrate knowledge. The approximate ages attached to the stages are variable, and we must be careful not to categorize children into a particular stage based on chronological age alone. A child does not wake up on the morning of her second birthday to find herself firmly settled into the preoperational stage of development, nor are all children capable of dealing with metaphor and analogy the day each turns 12. In fact, a child may exhibit some behaviors that could be classified as being in the preoperational stage while performing other tasks that are concrete operational. 

Piaget was most interested in the question underlying his theory: “How do human beings construct knowledge?” He believed that intelligence evolves through a series of stages and developmental processes. The Sensorimotor Stage The first stage, sensorimotor operations, involves the child’s reception of and reaction to the senses and motor activity. The child’s behavior is based on reflexes. Children grasp, touch, and manipulate objects and have a strong sense of sound, smell, and taste. The major accomplishment during this stage is the development of “object permanence,” or knowing that an object exists even though it cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Children systematically repeat behaviors and gradually coordinate them into predictable chains of behavior. They learn concepts through exploration and exposure to new experiences. The Preoperational Stage The second, or preoperational, stage is characterized by the child’s ability to represent objects and events through deferred imitation, symbolic play, drawing, mental imagery, and spoken language. In deferred imitation a child will imitate something that he has seen before but does not exist in the here and now of the child’s experience. For example, a child may imitate an adult reading a book while there is no adult around to serve as a model. During symbolic play, children pretend (blocks become cars) or play make-believe (“You be the father, and I’ll help you make dinner”). Young children need little motivation to begin exploring drawing, moving to music, sculpting clay, or attending to a poem, and the visual and kinesthetic pleasure the activity brings. While at first they may simply be responding to the visual attraction of a beautifully colored marker, they may later begin to recognize form in their scribbling. In later phases of drawing, children will attempt to represent objects or experiences that have meaning or importance to them. These first attempts at representational drawings may not be recognizable by adult standards, but they are nevertheless meaningful and relevant to the child. A major accomplishment during the preoperational stage is the onset of language. Children learn that they can use words as substitutes for objects and actions. The Concrete Operational Stage The third stage of Piaget’s theory is concrete operations. The concrete operational child is capable of symbolic representation and understanding of reversible operations. At this stage, children can classify as they relate to groups of objects and order objects in a series. For example, children can classify sets of objects according to similarities and can reason about the relationships between classes and subclasses of objects. Concrete operational children also demonstrate the principle of conservation, or the ability to recognize the difference between volume and size. Decentering begins as children become aware of others’ viewpoints and their interpersonal encounters become more cooperative (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). According to Piaget, children must be actively involved in constructing their own knowledge because they understand only what they discover or interpret for themselves. True knowledge occurs inside the child and is processed and understood as the child is actively involved in hands-on, real-life experiences. As children experience art, music, drama, dance, and poetry, they are provided opportunities for integrating mental representations in symbolic ways that promote intellectual development.

Vygotsky and Intellectual Development

The work of Vygotsky (1978) provides a foundation for understanding the social formation of learning. He theorized that children learn thought, language, and volition as they interact with others to master tasks or as they work independently on lesser complex operations. Specifically, Vygotsky believes that learning occurs, in part, when assistance from others is within the “zone of proximal development,” defined as “the distance between a child’s actual developmental level, as determined by independent problem solving, and the higher level of potential development, as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). As we observe our children at play, we discover how they are developing new concepts, skills, and competencies (Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, & Alward, 1999). One of Vygotsky’s most important contributions to understanding child development is his assertion that the “zone of proximal development” is the level at which the child is comfortable and confident when exploring a task or activity while at the same time not being bored or frustrated by it. Vygotsky believes that a child’s learning is optimal when functioning at this level. As children master tasks at this level, they will have the confidence and intrinsic motivation to engage in activities that require higher levels of thought and actions. Vygotsky also argued that every function in development begins at the social level through social interaction and then at the individual level (Vygotsky, 1978). This is one of the reasons why children should be encouraged to talk to and interact with their peers and adults. He believes that social interaction is the generator of thought. “Children not only speak about what they are doing, their speech and action are part of one and the same complex psychological function” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 43). It is through talking, discussing, listening, and problem solving that children develop new concepts, skills, and competencies. Children need activities that give them something about which to talk. This is one reason why it is important to establish a classroom atmosphere that encourages children to converse informally as they work together on a block-building activity; improvising sociodramatic play; engaging in kitchen play; or using objects to represent ideas, events, other objects, or situations. Our role as teacher is to facilitate discussions on how children worked on a project, how they got the idea for an improvisation, or why they decided to use yellow crayons to represent a certain food in the kitchen center. “As children talk, listen, and discuss shared experiences, they gain insights into one another’s perceptions of the experiences, how others view the world” (Seefeldt, 2000, p. 158). Vygotsky’s theory and his understanding of how social interaction relates to child development gives us even more reasons to stop giving children socially isolated activities such as ditto masters and premarked papers. Formula-laden and preprinted color-sheet activities undermine creativity and place emphasis on “alone work” and “being quiet.” These types of activities may keep the noise level in your classroom at a pianissimo, but they do nothing to challenge children’s intellectual development.

The Arts and Intellectual Development

How do the arts contribute to these rich and comprehensive theories of intellectual development? When children are involved in the creative arts process, they have many opportunities to expand basic concepts, memory, problem-solving skills, and language. At the same time, as we begin to see connections between children’s understanding and the creative arts, we will be more aware of how the arts may be extremely beneficial in the overall intellectual growth of a child.  The figure below provides a description of just a few of the opportunities for intellectual development through the arts.

Intellectual Opportunities Through the Arts

When children are engaged in the creative arts process, they have opportunities to

  • express what they see, feel, think and want to communicate
  • explore and experiment with sound, texture, color, pretending, and creating
  • express ideas and feelings about themselves, their environment, and the world as they understand it
  • strengthen their ability to imagine, create, and observe
  • learn to use judgement without criticism
  • use a variety of materials to solve problems
  • develop a more mature vocabulary to use in discussing, exploring, and inquiring about  different experiences
  • gain confidence in their ability to express themselves
  • define problems and seek solutions
  • make decisions
  • increase their awareness and use of kinesthetic experiences
  • develop visual, auditory and kinesthetic awareness and change it to artistic expression
  • form conepts of what they want to draw, how they want to dance or how they will act out a story
  • rearrange and alter materials for self-satisfaction
  • lengthen attention span and increase attending skills
  • practice resourcefulness and alternatives
  • gain a sense of self-direction, initiative, and independent thinking