The pre-school child – Mental development

The world of the nursery-age child is based on play. Learning, enjoyment, emotional and social awareness combine in fantasy based on newly-discovered reality. Parental love and encouragement in play sow the seeds for future mental and emotional well-being.

Learning and memory

From the ages of four to six, children have a remarkable capacity for learning and for memorizing, so a child is never too young to be told anything. Teaching nursery-school children is at the same time rewarding and frustrating. Their curiosity and eagerness to soak up knowledge knows no bounds; yet their attention span is often limited, they are sometimes over-demanding of parental time, and they may be fickle about listening to and learning what they have just asked about.

However, there will be, a couple of years later, plenty of time at formal school to learn in a disciplined way. What they need at this younger age is plenty of opportunity to learn what they want, when they want. Of course parents and others can guide what they learn by offering them interesting material, but more often than not the opportunities are more random and obscure: What makes rain? How do birds fly? If the parent does not know the answer, he or she should say so but try to follow up the interest by finding out the answer. By doing so, the child is being taught not only the answer to the question (which he or she may have forgotten by now anyway) but also that answers are usually available from somewhere, and that the parent wants to know the answer too. Teaching a child to count is something that parents can do gradually from babyhood onwards by introducing numbers into daily life, in play and in conversation. Nursery rhymes, songs, or counting toes for example, are all ways of familiarizing a child with the numbers and their order. No perfection can be expected however at this age. There will be plenty of time to learn counting at formal school. A child who is read to, soon comes to think of books as the exciting stores of stories and other information. The child also learns to associate books with special times of individual attention from parents. This is an important first step towards ‘reading readiness’. A child who learns to read early usually does so by recognizing letter patterns as a complete shape and not as separate characters. If the letters of a familiar word such as ‘dog’ were rearranged into ‘god’ he (or she) would not understand them at all; only later will he learn to read words by looking at the individual letters and working out what they mean together. Once a child is able to manipulate a pencil, he is on his way to being able to form letters, usually of his name because he sees them more than any others. The letters need not to be formed perfectly; it is much more important that he takes a delight in attempting to write them at all. Parents can help their child be- come interested in letters by introducing them into play and daily life: cut-out sandwiches in the shapes of letters, or cut-out cardboard ones to play with.

Emotional development

The emotional development of nursery-age children is aligned to their physical development. It is a complex process, bacause both environmental factors and social necessity play a major role. Four-year-olds in developing countries frequently and successfully assume responsibility for the care of younger siblings. This suggests greater emotional maturity and ability than are expected of most children of the same age in industrialized nations.

The period between four and six is a time of rapid movement from the limited world parents have created, with its impositions and frequent frustrations, to a personally constructed and expanding field of discovery. A growing need for self-assertion, expression and confidence parallels an equal need for praise, reassurance and comfort. A nursery child suffers less frustration than he did when younger; as he develops independently, his parents become less anxious and protective. Also, the advance of his basic skills allows more mobility. There are fewer temper tantrums or acts of aggression. Fractious behaviour may recur if there is temporary disruption in a child’s life. The arrival of a new baby may cause fear of rejection and arouse accompanying resentment. Such events represent a threat to a child’s existence. At times of crisis children tend to ask, ‘What will become of me?’ During these formative years they are naturally self-centred. These fears can be overcome by discussion and explanation with the child. For a period of time afterwards, parents may find a reversal to a clinging, dependent child, because experiences of major anxiety are poorly understood by young children, even if their parents are careful to explain the circumstances to them.

Social awareness

The nursery child’s development is fascinating to observe, in particular the independence that comes with the maturing of co-ordinating skills and, at the same time, the new ability to participate as a member of a group. By the age of four, children have a growing social awareness; this enables them to adapt to the demands of peer groups, although they still need their parents’ participation in many of their activities. During the occasional minor conflicts with peers that do occur, young children may experience feelings of rejection towards each other, swiftly followed by contrition and comfort.

The child’s art of emulating his parents commences at the age of three. So parents may also be amused or disconcerted to hear or see their own words and actions reproduced by their child, during excursions into a personal world of discovery.

Learning to play

A child’s intellectual development depends on motivation, stimulation and participation. His parents’ undivided attention during moments of inquiry helps to activate his thinking and reasoning ability. The continuous quest for discovery leads to constant questioning: once a child’s questions on one subject are answered, he goes on to the next topic. The creation of playing facilities also has an active role in developing emotional, intuitive and intellectual skills. There are four aspects to play: social, emotional, intellectual and physical. Apart from the provision of the basic essentials for growth and development – embodied in nutrition, love, warmth and security – play is the most important aspect of a child’s maturing process. This does not mean expensive toys; rather, opportunities must be given for self-expression, for creativity and learning, and for exorcisIng trace elements of anger or aggression. When a piece of clay or plasticine is beaten into shape, for example, a sense of curiosity, interest and ambition takes over from any initial negative or aggressive feelings. Nursery-age children, instead of wandering from one toy or game to another, as younger children do, spend long periods lost in concentration. At this age, play is the process of make-believe, of transforming reality in order to understand it: chairs become boats, trains, cars or aeroplanes, for example. Parents may be included in such games, provided they comply with the idea and obey the rules. Play is also discovery, and may either confirm or deny a child’s previous opinion. Water, for example, is soothing and fascinating: children often spend hours with a bowl or sink of water, trying to discover how it behaves and why it behaves as it does.

The importance of play cannot be overestimated. Children have so much to learn about themselves, about others, about the world around them, and especially about achievement.

Jigsaws, books, pictures, ball and movement games, painting, crayoning, music and noise – all are a part. Parents should also appreciate the importance to children of entering imaginatively into the world of the adult: playing doctors and nurses, mothers and fathers, or cowboys and indians helps them learn more about human behaviour, the curious adult world and the way it works.

What play tells us

Observing their child at play can help parents learn much about his inner anxieties, confusions and perceptions. Everything in the child’s world is given life. Feeling and meaning, and is thus receptive to confidences and revelations. Sometimes children use games or toys to appeal to their parents for greater understanding or consideration, particularly if they have felt their needs being neglected or disregarded. A child who has been deeply affected by an experience may repeatedly act it out with toys until he has fully come to terms with it. A child who takes toys to pieces is often considered destructive, but parents who observe carefully will notice attempts to put them together again. This too can be a voyage of discovery, trying to learn how something works, how it was made and, just as important, how much more potential it has. At this stage a child may appeal for help in reassembly: parental rebuff or scolding will confuse and hurt. Children feel they have a right to dismantle their own possessions; concepts of carelessness, or destructiveness, are alien to them. Furthermore, children see little difference between their mechanical ‘investigations’ and the way adults use, abandon when broken, and repair various objects and equipment in the home – so in one way they are simply imitating adult behaviour.