The human mind learns a lot within its first five years, and this period is therefore undoubtedly a crucial one for brain development. We created this list to give budding early childhood education students an insight into the varied stages of neurological growth and development in children. Hopefully the article will also assist such students’ future academic choices as a consequence.
Infancy and early childhood are undoubtedly important stages in brain development. After all, from birth to their fifth year children will be constantly developing the skills necessary not only for speaking, writing and walking but also for social interaction, self-awareness and cognition. And, needless to say, all such skills prepare children for later life.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have, moreover, been fascinated with the ways in which babies and young children learn from their surroundings, and their research has provided valuable insight into how the human brain adapts to the outside world.
The following list article examines the 30 most definitive moments in child development and uses various expert findings to map out how and when a young person’s brain typically reaches these crucial milestones. For those studying early childhood education, this may shed new light on the intricacies of young minds and what to expect when it comes to children’s learning and development.
To create this list, we examined a variety of authoritative sources detailing key milestones in early childhood brain development. These include the following:
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Developmental Milestones”
• Child Mind Institute, “Parents Guide to Developmental Milestones”
• Women’s and Children’s Health Network, “Milestones: Children 0-4 Years”
• NHS Choices, “Birth to five development timeline”
In order to decide which milestones to include, we took into account those that appeared most frequently on the aforementioned lists as well as those which seem to contribute most towards learning in a child’s early stages. For this last determining factor, we took into consideration different aspects of neurological development – including sight, cognition and social and motor skills – in order to create the most balanced and diverse portrait of human growth possible.
Lastly, the ordering was organized chronologically, with the article progressing from the earliest to the latest milestones typically achieved by a child.
30. Starts to smile at their parents
After a child’s vision develops to the point where they can focus on individuals, they will begin to respond to what they see. And one of the most notable ways in which they do this is through smiling, which a baby usually does of their own free will by around six weeks or so. This is a sign of emotional development, as by this time an infant ought to have learned that smiling is a way to show their appreciation of others. As a result, they may smirk to display their contentment – when being fed or entertained, for example. That being said, a baby may smile long before this age, and a grin isn’t necessarily a sign that they are happy, either. According to pediatrician Mark Gettleman, an infant will smile as a reflex action long before they learn to do so in a social context. These smiles are usually shorter in duration, however, so it may be possible to tell the difference between a genuine reaction and an involuntary one.
29. Focuses on and follows faces
At birth, a baby possesses a limited field of focused vision, so naturally their appreciation of their surroundings is restricted. And since a very young infant can only see clearly between 8 and 12 inches in front of themself, they will spend their first weeks preoccupied by whatever fills this area – in many cases, their mother’s face. Indeed, a child will become so familiar with their carer that, as McMaster University professor Daphne Maurer told Today’s Parent magazine in 2013, “By a few days of age, babies will look longer at a photograph of Mom than a photo of a stranger.” After two months, however, an infant’s vision ought to have focused to the extent that they can study a face for longer periods, and this coincides with the time period in which neurons in a baby’s brain start to transmit information quickly. Furthermore, by this point they should also be capable of switching their focus between individuals and objects.
28. Begins to babble
Although a baby is able to listen in on conversations from birth, they will only begin talking back after around two months. Even then, this will probably take the form of simple vowel sounds – like “ooh” and “ahh” – before consonants are added at around five to seven months. And yet while it may sound like gibberish to adult ears, a baby’s babbling shows significant signs that they are ready to communicate. In fact, a 2014 study by scientists at the University of Washington discovered significant activity in the area of the brain that governs motor skills when seven-month-old infants were exposed to speech. In truth, babbling acts as a way for a child to exercise their vocal abilities – including tone and intonation – before they’ve learned to link words with their actual meaning. Moreover, it also serves as a way for an infant to explore the connections between language and its social function as they observe how others respond to the noises they are making.
27. Follows moving people and objects with eyes
Though a baby is born with relatively impaired eyesight, their vision will improve steadily over time. This is partly down to the quick development of the occipital lobe – which, as The Urban Child Institute has explained, usually grows at a rapid rate from birth to around eight months. By two months of age, meanwhile, a baby’s eyesight ought to have already improved to the point where they can focus their eyes and differentiate between primary colors. And by around three months they may become transfixed by objects that come into their field of vision and intently follow them as they pass in and out of eyesight. In addition, a child will develop depth perception by the age of five months; and most impressively, by the time they reach nine months their eyesight will be nearly as keen as that of an adult.
26. Begins to laugh
Being able to tickle someone’s funny bone can be a hit-or-miss affair – just ask any stand-up comedian. So perhaps it makes sense that the science behind why we laugh and what happens in the brain as we do so is far from conclusive, too. The research undertaken by Itzhak Fried et al. for the 1998 study “Electric Current Stimulates Laughter” suggests that laughter can be prompted by triggering the supplementary motor area of the brain. Further analysis of laughter in infants has, however, so far provided no definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, psychologist Dr. Caspar Addyman has provided valuable analysis into when and why babies start giggling. Judging from his findings, an infant will produce their first laugh at around three and a half months old. What’s more, Addyman’s research also indicates that a young child may chuckle in response to another person’s actions or behaviors. Much like with smiling, this implies that laughter is an indicator of social development.
25. Likes to play peek-a-boo
Until a baby is around four months old or so, they have little grasp on the tangibility of the objects and people in their environment. Indeed, once an item is out of an infant’s line of sight, they will most likely believe that it has disappeared from the world entirely. However, that all changes once a baby begins to believe in what has been termed “object permanence” – that is, a growing understanding that something still exists once it has been removed from the field of vision. Belief in an object’s permanence will begin once a child’s reasoning skills and frontal lobe develop and will lead to a period of experimentation. This includes throwing items out of their line of sight – something which pediatrician Dr. Sarah Nyp described to Parenting in 2013 as a child “tinkering with the idea of cause and effect.” The experimentation also manifests itself in a growing love for playing peek-a-boo, as this game combines a baby’s newfound powers of reasoning with their fascination for human faces.
24. Likes looking at mirror images
From a psychological perspective, “the mirror stage” is integral to an infant’s development. Specifically, as celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once posited, a child’s ability to recognize their reflected image is a noteworthy step towards self-awareness. And as shown by University of North Carolina researcher Beulah Amsterdam’s 1972 study, a young person will usually begin to recognize themself in a mirror by 20 months old; those below this age will tend to mistake their image for that of another baby. Yet while a baby remains unable to associate their reflected image with themself, a child between the ages of four and seven months is still fascinated by what appears in the mirror – something aided by their increased visual awareness.
23. Begins to copy sounds
In contrast to the situation with their visual capabilities at birth, a baby usually possesses a fairly decent ability to hear from a very young age. Strangely enough, researchers have even ascertained that an infant is already able to hear and process sounds while still in the womb. “If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that’s very similar to the situation the fetus is in,” neuroscientist Eino Partanen explained to Science magazine in 2013. “You can hear the rhythm of speech, rhythm of music, and so on.” Moreover, from the moment a baby enters the world they go through a phase of rapid neural development, and sensory pathways, such as those for hearing and language, are the first to take root. Consequently, an infant’s growing cognitive skills will allow them to mimic the intonation of those around them – even if they can’t get the words out yet – and their babbling should begin to resemble the speech patterns of their elders at around the age of five months.
22. Can hold and transfer items from one hand to the other
As a child’s vision improves, so too will their ability to reach out and grasp objects. At around four months old, for example, a baby can usually pick up chunkier objects like rattles or blocks; however, they may have difficulty handling smaller, more fiddly items as well as trouble keeping them in their grip. Such progression requires keen hand-eye coordination, which is dependent on the occipital lobe’s development. In addition, an infant’s brain will need time to improve its fine motor skills – which are governed by the cerebellum. Once an infant’s coordination and muscle control are strong enough, though, they will be able to use their limbs in more complex ways. For example, a six-month-old baby should be capable of passing objects from hand to hand and bringing things closer to themself.
21. Responds to own name
There are many milestones that a baby should reach within their first year of life. And while a child’s first word will often be the one that a parent looks forward to, an infant’s ability to recognize their own name should be equally anticipated. Why? Because this also shows clear signs of development. By the time they are around seven months of age, then, a child ought to be able to understand when their name is being spoken and eventually respond to the person calling it. What’s more, this skill is thought to be so integral to a child’s development that a UC Davis MIND Institute-led study has found that an infant unable to show this response at an early age may be at risk of later learning difficulties. “Most of the children [studied] who failed to respond to their names at 12 months of age had autism, general developmental delays, behavioral problems or social communication problems,” the Institute’s Sally Ozonoff told UC Health.
20. Can follow simple instructions
It goes without saying that a parent eagerly waits for their baby to say his or her first words. But communication is a long and complicated process, and an infant must first learn how to associate language with its meanings before they can form words of their own. Indeed, as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has stated, “Understanding language generally precedes expression and use” – so a child should be able to comprehend its parents long before their own speech can be understood by their mother and father. Accordingly, a baby ought to be capable of responding to simple instructions prior to learning speech. This is thanks to a rudimentary grasp of receptive language – a skill governed by Wernicke’s area in the brain’s temporal lobe. Commands like “look here” and “give Mommy the ball” should, then, be easily grasped by an infant between eight and 12 months old, particularly if reinforced with accompanying gestures. Plus, the ability to follow instructions is crucial to a young child in other ways – in particular, by giving examples of what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
19. Can find things even when well-hidden
After having grappled with the idea of object permanence, a toddler will come to take pleasure out of searching for hidden objects. Many parents who have played hide and seek with their children know how much infants love looking for their lost loved ones, for example. And the ability to hunt down a person or thing that has seemingly gone missing also shows signs of a young person’s continual understanding of his or her world. For example, according to the Global Child Development Group, a child who is able to successfully seek out hidden objects is effectively using their ever-maturing cognitive skills. In particular, it indicates considerable development of their problem-solving abilities, and it may even boost their spatial awareness skills. Naturally, though, this ability will only occur once a child has taken on board the concept of object permanence – and generally, they’ll be able to locate a concealed item within eight to 12 months from birth.
18. Can imitate gestures by others
After months spent watching their parents’ expressions and gestures, a baby has already built up some knowledge of how other people behave. Furthermore, they’ll demonstrate that they’ve been keenly observing by copying the actions of those around them. “Babies are exquisitely careful people-watchers, and they’re primed to learn from others,” the University of Washington’s Andrew Meltzoff told UW Today in 2013. “When babies watch someone else, it activates their own brains.” Specifically, a child’s frontal and parietal lobes are already showing signs of increased development whenever an infant begins to “imitate with intent,” as outlined by pediatrician Dr. Laura Rubin to Parenting magazine in 2013. However, while a baby has usually already mastered the basic art of smiling and other facial gestures at only six weeks old, they will only start deliberately copying physical mannerisms at around one year.
17. Begins to say simple words
By the end of a baby’s first year, their brain will have made enormous changes. Within 12 months, in fact, an infant’s cerebellum will have grown three times in size from birth, and further cerebral development will also help give them full visual ability. Most importantly, however, a baby should have made strides in their speech and communication skills by their first birthday. As noted in 2014 by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, a young child will spend months being able to discriminate between separate languages before finally recognizing their mother tongue at age one. By this time, a baby will be able to home in on a familiar language and say their first real word – which will usually be a simple one like “mama” or “dada.” But although they may even be capable of reciting a few basic words at this point, they are still likely to have trouble enunciating clearly.
16. Can draw by scribbling
Much like a toddler begins to associate spoken words with meaning, so too will they eventually understand that written words may also signify ideas and objects. But as with babbling, they will have to make do with scribbles before they can move on to a more interpretable form of written communication. Nevertheless, a young child’s doodling – which will usually start after 12 months of age – shows many positive signs of their early development. For example, moving a crayon across paper represents a clear improvement in fine motor skills and, as educator Magdalena S. Palencia has detailed in a 2012 blog post, aids in developing their “hand-eye-coordination as well as their visual control.” Most importantly, however, Palencia has stated that a child “will begin to try to draw things meant to represent what they see in real life,” showing as a result that they’re beginning to have a real understanding of the world in which they live.
15. Can understand that shaking their head means “no”
Although it’s perhaps easy to assume that communication is achieved solely through speech, humans do also converse in numerous other manners. In particular, they often use physical gestures, from a hand wave to signal “hello” to a nod of the head to signify “yes.” What’s more, these gestures can become part of a person’s repertoire even from the earliest stages of language development. A baby may be able to use one effectively while their speech is still only limited to single words, for example. In addition, as pointed out by Susan Goldin-Meadow in her 1998 paper “The Development of Gesture and Speech as an Integrated System,” “The ability to coordinate gesture and speech to convey a single message… develops early and is maintained throughout life.” Just as a young infant is able to associate smiling with pleasure and contentedness, then, so can an older baby comprehend the actual meaning behind a physical gesture. As such, a toddler who can use head shakes or nods to mean “no” or “yes” – typically something achieved between the ages of 12 and 18 months – is showing good signs of cognitive development.
14. Can point to objects, people or pictures when they are named
From an early age, an infant is already beginning to associate objects with their signifiers. Even before they learn to speak, nine-month-old babies can already identify objects based solely on seeing their pictures, as was discovered in 2014 through research published in the journal Child Development. Nevertheless, it takes a little longer – between the ages of 12 and 18 months or so – for a child to link items with the words used to describe them and point to the items accordingly. Furthermore, although an 18-month-old will usually only be able to speak four or five words, the number of words they can comprehend is nearly ten times greater. Because speech and the understanding of language are governed by separate areas of the brain – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, respectively – it’s perfectly possible for a child to relate to words long before they can articulate them. As a result, a one-and-a-half-year-old may learn as many as 50 words prior to developing full speech capabilities.
13. Can build with several blocks
Toys and activities are certainly a great way of keeping a child entertained, but they also contribute a perhaps surprising amount towards a toddler’s development. In particular, building blocks are a fun and simple means for them to show off and increase their spatial intelligence. According to a 2014 study by Meike Oostermeijer, Anton J.H. Boonen and Jelle Jolles, children who participate in constructive play show signs of spatial ability – a function governed by the brain’s occipital lobe. Moreover, the scientists’ findings suggested that the activity is also linked to mathematical and problem-solving abilities. And while their study was conducted on sixth-graders, a child should begin to show an interest in building with blocks way before this age. At 15 months, in fact, they ought to be able to construct towers out of two blocks, before moving it up to three at around 18 months of age.
12. Can put words together
By two years old, a toddler will have already amassed a sizeable vocabulary. In fact, according to The Urban Child Institute, by that age a child’s collection of phrases should have increased four times in size since they uttered their first few words. This is due to the tremendous amount of development that occurs within a young brain at this time. Indeed, two-year-old or three-year-old children normally possess as much as twice the number of brain synapses as adults do. In addition, by two years old a child’s sense of self-awareness has improved. This means that they are often capable of now using language in more complex and meaningful ways, in particular by being able to use pronouns to differentiate themselves from others and the outside world. Furthermore, a child at around 18 to 24 months will not only usually be able to string small sentences together, but they can also form words into questions, requests and demands such as “more food” or “me play?”
11. Can tell stories
Whether it’s through curling up with a book or listening to a friend recount an interesting anecdote, everybody loves hearing a good story. And, according to some, the ability to tell such tales is a clear sign of good brain function. In his 1999 essay “The Interpreter Within,” University of California, Santa Barbara, professor Michael S. Gazzaniga argued that the left hemisphere of the brain acts as an interpreter which arranges past experience into a narrative structure that makes emotional sense. This in turn “creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent.” As a consequence, a child who possesses the power to tell stories is showing signs of heightened self-awareness and an ability to govern their emotional response to the world around them. Typically, children begin to grasp the basics of storytelling from two to two and a half years of age, while they can usually start to recite more detailed autobiographical or fictional stories between the ages of three and four.
10. Begins to become defiant
Undoubtedly, many parents dread the day that their children learn to use the word “no.” Indeed, a toddler’s stubborn refusal to obey simple commands is enough to drive anyone mad, while tantrums can bring even saints to despair. However, defiance in a developing child is always a positive sign, as they are learning to use their growing language skills and self-awareness in a constructive way. “Having language at their disposal lets them explore and learn that much more,” University of California, Berkeley, professor Alison Gopnik explained to Parenting in 2013. “Now she starts to sense she is a separate entity from her parents. She can do things by herself.” A toddler’s sense of defiance stems in part from the feeling of self-identity and independence they gain between two and three years of age. During this time, though, their under-developed frontal lobe may lead the brain’s emotional response center, the limbic system, to go into overdrive. This can then result in those fearsome temper tantrums.
9. Tries to become more independent
Although most people tend to associate growing independence with adolescents, studies have shown that younger children, too, develop some skills necessary for self-reliance in the outside world. For example, in 2016 scientists at Brown University found that babies as young as eight months old exhibited strong signs of activity within the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and cognition. That being said, a child at this age doesn’t have the physical or emotional capacity to live successfully without another’s help and will usually show signs of separation anxiety from six months old if left alone. But by three years old, a toddler will have typically developed enough self-awareness and sense of identity to be comfortably left in the care of a guardian other than a parent or to explore new environments on their own.
8. Can talk so that they can be understood by strangers
By the time a child is three, their brain has already substantially developed and matured. In particular, and according to The Urban Child Institute, their prefrontal cortex will have formed as many as twice the number of synapses as are found in an adult’s brain. And improvements can be found in other areas, too; specifically, a child’s language skills should have developed enough to link together more complex sentences. Indeed, while speaking to Parents magazine in 2013, child psychologist Rahil Briggs revealed, “You can hold a conversation with a child this age where he asks you questions and tells you things that happened in his day.” Moreover, a toddler’s language capability ought to have improved to the point where they can be understood by strangers. According to speech and language specialist Dr. Michelle Pascoe, “A [three-year-old] child’s spontaneous speech should be at least 50 percent intelligible to unfamiliar adults.” And the child should in turn be completely intelligible at four years old.
7. Uses imaginative play scenarios
As a child begins to make more sense of their environment, so too will they develop imaginative ways to deal with what they see around them. One method they use to do this is via what has been termed “symbolic thought.” This is defined by psychologist Jean Piaget as the deployment of abstract images as stand-ins for objects and ideas grounded in reality. And symbolic thought can be seen through a child’s growing interest in playing pretend. Such behavior is something that normally takes full form between the ages of three and four years old as a child begins imitating roles – such as playing as a doctor or firefighter – or creating elaborate and fanciful scenarios with their toys. In addition, the use of symbolic thought can aid a young person as they grow up. Yes, those links made between objects, people and places and their own feelings could better help them negotiate their own emotions and suitably judge situations in the future.
6. Realizes the difference what’s real and what’s fantasy
Improvement in a child’s language and cognitive functions will let them disappear into a world of their own; sometimes, then, it’s easy for them to get lost in their own imagination. “Two-and-a-half-year-olds understand the distinction between real and pretend,” author Susan Engel has explained to Parenting. “But when they’re in play mode, they can lose sight of that distinction, or it becomes unimportant.” Nevertheless, in time a child will be able to more clearly discern what is fact and what is fiction. In fact, according to a study published in the journal Child Development in 2006, those between three and five years old are capable of differentiating fantasy from reality based on the circumstances in which information is given and take that information on board. “Young children do not believe everything they hear,” researcher Jacqueline Woolley told UT News that year. “They can use the context surrounding the presentation of a new entity to make inferences about the real versus fantastical nature of that entity.”
5. Can count at least ten objects
Over the course of their development, a child will learn many things, including speech, gestures and motor skills. But there is one thing that humans are said to be programmed to accomplish from birth, and that is counting. According to neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth’s 2000 study The Mathematical Brain, people are instinctually able to identify various quantities of an object – much like how the occipital lobe can instantly differentiate between colors – thanks to an area of the brain that he terms “the number module.” As a result, “kids start off with little starter kits,” and their ability to count objects aloud has more to do with the development of their language skills than it does with math and numeracy. Indeed, just as children learn to assign words to objects, so too will they learn to assign numbers to values. However, while a child may begin counting at two years old, on the whole they won’t be able to count to at least ten items in total until they are anywhere from three to five years old.
4. Can play together cooperatively with other children
Socialization is a process that typically begins quite early in a child’s development. By two years of age, in fact, a toddler will usually participate in what has been dubbed “parallel play” – that is, being able to play alongside, although not with, another child. That being said, the human brain still needs time to develop its social, emotional and cognitive abilities, and areas of the brain responsible for social skills – such as the limbic system – need care and attention to properly mature. As such, concepts like sharing are generally incomprehensible to a toddler at this age. However, a child normally begins to recognize how to take turns at around four years old, aided by their developing understanding of others. “There is an increased awareness of other people’s minds, which allows children to develop negotiation skills, resolve conflicts verbally, monitor the emotional state of a group and regulate other children’s behavior,” psychology professor Maria Kalpidou explained to Parents magazine in 2013.
3. Can write some letters of the alphabet
Throughout a child’s early years, they ought to gradually adopt the skills necessary to put pen to paper and start writing their first letters. Indeed, as their motor skills and dexterity develop, they should learn how to properly grasp a crayon. And by the age of two and a half, they should be able to draw a “V” shape. Unlike spoken language, though, written language is a visual medium, and so a child requires a little more time to link a word to its meaning. As neuroscientist Maximilian Riesenhuber put it to Science Daily in 2009, “Evolution did not provide each of us with a little dictionary in our heads.” Accordingly, a young person’s left visual cortex requires development before they can start writing their first few letters – a milestone that usually takes place by four years old.
2. Can draw a person with a body
On top of their newfound penmanship, a child will by the age of four years old or so also demonstrate expanding drawing skills. In particular, they may find themselves preoccupied by human figures, and their scribbles will therefore become loose representations of themselves and their families. However, in his 2006 paper “Young in Art,” art education professor Craig Roland mentions that some specialists say children will overlook or underemphasize certain body parts as they do not quite understand what it is that they do. In addition, children may even exaggerate a feature according to the degree of importance that it has in the task they are depicting. For example, a self-portrait may enlarge the face because this is an important area for talking and eating. “Such drawings tend to describe more how children of this age think or feel about the things around them rather than what they actually see,” Roland has explained. And although these images may be crudely drawn, they demonstrate a child’s growing artistic ability, not to mention – and particularly in the case of self-portraits – a developing sense of who they are in the world.
1. Begins to understand the concept of time
The passage of time is a difficult idea for a young child to grasp, and the ability to keep track of the passing hours is a skill that only typically flourishes after they have entered kindergarten. Perhaps that’s because the way the mind processes and makes sense of time is rather sophisticated; indeed, it’s now thought that two areas of the brain are used to do this. For example, in order to maintain an inner clock, the brain relies on the striatum, which up until recently many believed to be the only system governing time management. However, 2013 research by the University of California, Irvine, theorizes that the hippocampus is also used to recall past memories and process time that has passed. And while a child will generally recognize the concept of time by five years old or so, it will take them much longer to be able to read a clock face. In fact, it can take two or three more years for a child to perfect this skill.