Many psychologists and educators from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries postulated major theories of childhood development that influence theory and practice today. These early theories include:
Burton White’s Harvard Preschool Project (1965-1978) substantiated Piaget’s research by demonstrating the importance of a child’s first three years in intellectual, emotional and social development, and other current evidence concurs.
Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is a fairly recent philosophical model relating to instruction of children ages birth through age eight that has been discussed in great depth throughout the education field. DAP is defined as those practices which are both age appropriate and individually appropriate for each child. DAP has been connected to theories of both Piaget (environment) and Fiedrich Froebel “father of Kindergarten” and advocates play as a valid and important form of education. Meaningful play, use of manipulatives, and multisensory experiences are believed to strongly aid the learning process as well as gross and fine motor development, and language and communication development. DAP recommends the use of a variety of approaches to develop children's language and literacy skills through meaningful experiences, such as listening to and reading stories, participating in play, and experimenting with writing by drawing and copying. DAP has been applied to school-age, preschool and special needs situations, and libraries would do well to incorporate this theory into programming and services.
According to J. Madeline Nash in a 1997 Time magazine article “Fertile Minds,” the age- old debate of which carries more clout, nature (genetics) versus nurture (environment) when it comes to child development, no longer interests most scientists. They are now studying the way the two interact rather than compete. During the first weeks of gestation, nature is the dominant partner. A thin layer of cells in the developing embryo creates the neural tube. But nurture plays a vital supportive role. For example, changes in the environment of the womb –whether caused by maternal malnutrition, drug abuse or viral infection- can wreck the clockwork precision of the neural assembly line. Nature and nurture work together in early childhood development and throughout life.
While there are a great many theories about development and learning, the following facts are known:
The process of brain development is amazing in its efficiency. Again, “Fertile Minds” explains brain development clearly and comprehensively as:
"An embryo’s brain produces many more neurons or nerve cells than it needs, and eventually eliminates the excess. The surviving neurons spin out axons, the long distance transmission lines of the nervous system. At their ends the axons spin out multiple branches that temporarily connect with many targets. Spontaneous bursts of electrical activity strengthen some of these connections while others (the connections that are not reinforced by activity) atrophy. After birth the brain experiences a second growth spurt, as the axons (which send signals) and dendrites (which receive them) explode with new connections. Electrical activity, triggered by a flood of sensory experiences, fine-tunes the brain’s circuitry – determining which connections will be retained and which pruned."
Researchers believe the more positive experiences a child has, the more synapses his brain has, and the greater chance the child has for successful lifelong learning experiences and emotional well-being. Conversely, when deprived of a stimulating environment, a child’s brain suffers. If synapses aren’t strengthened they wither away through a process called “pruning.” At about age 10, the brain begins to prune weaker connections in order to create a more powerful and efficient brain.
The “wiring” process covers four major areas of development.
Dorothy Butler, in a 1998 work, Babies Need Books reinforces the belief that learning begins at birth, books play an important role in development, and language stands head and shoulders over all other tools as an instrument of learning. She notes: Scientists once told us that approximately one half of a persons’ ultimate intelligence is developed by the age of four, now they stress one cannot overestimate the vital nature of children’s experiences before they ever enter school. What happens in this crucial learning period matters.
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