Módulo 1: Desarrollo y crecimiento de la niñez: un enfoque integrado



Nellie Zambrana Ortiz


Iris Negrón Landrón
Vanesa Aponte Medina


This activity was designed for you to reflect on the situation or premise that is presented and, using your knowledge and experience, determine whether it is appropriate or not and explain why. We recommend that you do this before reading the module. At the end of the Module, you will have a chance to reconsider your answers in order to see how your perspective on these topics has changed.

Two-year-olds who are not able to articulate 10 words should be referred to Early Intervention or to a speech therapy professional or psychologist.
Preschool children behave intelligently when they say things correctly, according to adults.
Writing skills should be encouraged from the time children start school.
Early childhood sexual exploration should be seen as natural, but attention should be paid to indications of discomfort, the frequency of the action, and its context.
When children invent words they should be corrected immediately so that they do not get used to using them when correct words exist for naming things.
If we see that a child has continued discomfort with physical contact, refuses to be touched or is disturbed by it, we must refer the situation to an occupational therapist.
A logical sequence of motor development is very predictable since children go through the same stages and have the same experiences.
Children shouldn’t be read stories about real, painful topics, such as divorce or illness, because they are not able to process them.
It is recommended to begin potty training when children can walk and are able to understand simple words like “pee-pee,” “poo-poo,” or “underpants.”
Early intervention will contribute to neurological development through stimulated learning.
Children’s creativity is stimulated by providing sophisticated tools so that they can do quality work.
In order to learn how to read children need to speak (to themselves, with imaginary friends and with others), to listen and be listened to, and to have contact with the written word in a natural and pleasurable way.


This module will cover those topics most pertinent to the growth and development of young children so that educators may be conscious of the various processes involved and make adjustments in their teaching practices to make them more comprehensive in scope. They will see the overlap of development processes from infancy up to age six. This continuity will help them relate their ideas and questions about how Puerto Rican children develop. We also recommend consulting the other modules and their respective topics, learning to make adjustments to activities when necessary, working through administrative challenges and being resourceful along the way.

Author’s Objectives

We hope that in reading and processing this material educators will be able to:

  1. Understand characteristics of human development throughout life and tendencies in neurological development, all of which are essential in learning at this stage.
  2. Understand the relationship between physio-motor-sensorial, socioemotional, and cognitive-intellectual dimensions of development from infancy through early childhood, and how these manifest in children.
  3. As a process of self-teaching, evaluate and revise the ideas and perceptions that underpin their educational practices for young children.

Introduction to the Concept of Human Development during Childhood

Children have the right to learn, explore their abilities, understand their cultural identity and be happy. To this end educators and early childhood professionals should facilitate growth and development processes in children through the sharing of knowledge and professional dedication. An important step is to understand that development refers to changes in the functioning of the organism within its social context, beginning with conception and continuing throughout the life cycle. These changes promote the acquisition of skills that are ever more complex and require more sophisticated responses. Human development is influenced by the interconnection of biological, intellectual, and emotional processes that are complex but fascinating.

We call it typical development when the changes in the various processes follow a trajectory similar to that of the majority of individuals of the same species, age, and sociocultural context. When one or several of these processes fail to manifest in line with the majority of the population, we say that there is a deficiency in development. The factors associated with deficient development are: prematurity, birth weight under 5 lbs 8 oz, mechanical ventilation, intraventricular hemorrhage (heart), spina bifida, episodes of severe bradycardia, genetic or metabolic disorders, sight problems (retinopathy of prematurity), hydrocephalus, infections, and hearing loss. Educators and health professionals must work together in every way—prevention, adaptation, treatment, and the earliest possible intervention—in order to promote the optimal development of children’s capabilities.

Fundamental Processes of the Dimensions of Development
Biological Processes

Mobility, muscular -skeletal growth, sensation, coordination, neurological maturation.

Socioemotional Processes

Personality, temperament, attitudes, emotions, interpersonal relationships, socialization, and culture.

Intellectual Processes

Thought, intelligences, symbolic and graphic language, learning styles, perception, creativity, thought and problem-solving strategies.

From 0- 12 months: First Year of Life. Mastering the force of gravity, first words, sounds, and relationships.

Neurological Development and Sensory Integration

This is a vertiginous stage of neurological development. Many of the psychological and physical activities begin to appear, such as speech, symbolic thinking, sensory and motor coordination, and social learning. At no other time in the human lifespan is this neurological development faster than during the infant’s first year; that can be clearly seen in the changes from month to month. The combination of neural networks that are connected via sensory stimulation are like fertile soil and living seeds. Each life is a unique being as well as complementary to the species. Sensory integration is the neurological process by which sensations are organized for use in daily life. Normally the infant’s brain receives sensory messages from the body and the environment, interprets them and organizes a response that is motivated by a purpose. All the sensations of the body work together to provide information about what is in the surroundings. When this happens as it should, the brain uses these sensations so that the infant forms the right perception, responds appropriately to the situation, and learns from it.

How infants respond to that which surrounds them indicates whether or not the information in their brains is being integrated correctly. If this is not the case, we see, for example, an infant who constantly throws tantrums in the bathtub because of the inability to correctly interpret the sensation of soap and water on the body. This is known as a deficit in tactile stimulation integration. Typical development means that the maturation systems that control cerebral and physical activity are healthy. When we are born, our movements are reflexive responses that we do not control. With experience and neurological maturity we pass to a willful state, which means we have control. The infant’s attainment of the greatest goal—to master gravity—depends on the care given by adults.

Movement and Development: From the Brain to the Feet and from the Torso to the Extremities

An infant’s motor functions develop from head to feet, which is called the cephalocaudal tendency. The eyes and head are the first parts of the body the infant learns to control. Managing to maintain the head and neck stable is a fundamental ability that has important value in survival. When the child achieves this, he/she can breathe correctly, swallow food and develop visual perception skills that will help to develop a correct image of the surrounding environment. This is necessary for children to begin to explore people and objects. Meanwhile, the brain will also be occupied, working to integrate the sensations in their ears and in the muscles of their eyes and neck. This last is the base for future reading development.

It is always necessary to provide experiences rich in sensory stimulation. When babies have impediments in development, stimulation and early intervention are necessary to maximize their physical and mental potential through continual and measured stimulation. This assistance may be obtained from the Pediatric Centers for Habilitation Services of the Department of Health, at the outpatient clinics of the Hospital Pediátrico Universitario, or from developmental pediatricians, occupational or physical therapists, audiologists, speech, and language pathologists, etc.

Touch, Affection, and Security

The sensation of having a wet diaper makes the infant uncomfortable, while the touch of the mother’s hands is relaxing. However, children are not able to identify well where they are being touched because their brains cannot differentiate between one point and another. At this age, the sensation of touch is more important as a source of emotional satisfaction. Contact between the mother and infant is essential for the development of the brain and affective links. During the first month, the baby will grab, reflexively, whatever object he/she touches with the palm of the hand. This reflex is designed by nature to help the child support itself and not fall. Since the newborn does not have the ability to open or extend its fingers, the hands frequently stay in the form of a fist during the first months of life.

A child’s trust develops from the time of birth. And in order to establish it, the mother, father, or other person in charge of the child’s care must respond promptly to satisfy his/her physical needs. It must be remembered that the child has experienced the sensation of the intrauterine world because, even then, its senses have been functioning and absorbing sounds: the mother’s heartbeat, digestion, the movements of the amniotic fluid, the mother’s singing, the father’s words, and changes in the intensity of light. A care environment that fosters good development must satisfy physical needs, such as good nutrition, sleep, cleanliness, sensory stimulation, affection, and security.

Those who look after infants under one year old must be alert to individual needs and provide stimulation through visual contact, affectionate touch, smiles, lullabies, songs, games, and toys that the baby can manipulate (they should be simple and safe, preferably not requiring batteries), changes of clothing, and medical care (routine checkups, follow-up visits, and such visits as may be necessary in case of sickness, other conditions, or developmental deficiencies – common in premature babies and those with very low birth weights).

Mastering Gravity

Around the sixth month, the infant is able to rotate the wrist in order to move the hand and manipulate objects (spoon, rattle, etc.) and play in a variety of ways. The majority of these movements in the first six months are automatic, but now the infant begins to do things that have to be planned. Each new activity involves more motor planning and thus more sensory integration. The baby can sit up by itself for a short period of time without losing balance. The automatic muscular reactions that keep him or her upright are guided by sensations of movement and gravity.

As they near their first birthday, infants have good motor and sensory capabilities. This is the foundation for their intellectual development. They are already walking and using their arms and hands to explore the physical world; they can eat with their hands, using their fingers as pincers, and use utensils. The qualitative leap when an infant goes up a flight of stairs has a logical sequence: his/her brain registers that he/she is moving upward, forward, and from side to side. The baby therefore responds by flexing and extending the legs, alternating the feet, running the hands along the wall to maintain balance so as to stay upright and not fall. The same sequence is necessary so that when he/she is standing up, but using the handrail, it is a more sophisticated action. This experience of achievement will motivate the child to continue trying this on other surfaces and in other places.

Tools and Speech

Infants can use toys, musical instruments, paint, paper and other things as tools to learn how these things are related and be able to name them. This will stimulate speech. During this entire year of life they have used their lips, tongue, and gums—which have a lot of nerve endings and carry electrical messages to the brain—to perceive the texture and surface of objects, as though they were their eyes. And these activities can be carried out in diverse contexts, such as the daily bath.


The baby will have been hearing his/her mother tongue and will have identified the sounds of the words and of those who speak them. The human brain registers all of the sounds and records those it hears most often because they are associated with its experience. The child will be able to register all the sounds of the languages that are spoken but will remember only those sounds that are used most in their particular context. We are able to speak more than one language if we are exposed to the spoken language and an audience to hear us speak them. When we constantly speak to babies, we add an auditory vocabulary. Thus, when they are ready to articulate it, they will try to communicate through various steps of expressive speech, which will begin with babbling, then syllables, single words and even short phrases. After two years they will speak in phrases, short sentences and later, more complex sentences of three or more words.


Coordinating basic tasks that require gross and fine motor skills with speech is very easy and important. One activity that all infants participate in at least three times a day is eating. When they can sit upright (usually from approximately six months), it is time to introduce spoons, forks, plates, and glasses rather than keeping them on the bottle and feeding them baby food. Utensils are tools and solid food stimulates the gums, teeth, tongue, palate, and lips while moving the jaws. This entire mechanism is responsible for talking. So that the infant continues to be properly fed, the American Pediatric Academy recommends that they continue to be breast-fed up to the age of two, even while receiving solid food, because it satisfies nutritional, affective and motor needs. By this time the child will have acquired other patterns of mouth movements that will allow he/she to use even “sippy cups.”

Tasks that Foster Independence

Two key tasks in a baby’s development at this stage are eating and going to the bathroom independently. Here there is an important connection between speech, motor-sensory capacity, and autonomy. At 12 months, almost all children walk or are in the process of getting better at it; they also articulate between 10 and 15 words. With the task of helping them to learn to go to the bathroom and to begin to control their bowel movements, we are involved in an experience as sensory and physical as it is intellectual—sequence, order and vocabulary—and social. The emotional support that we give to children achieving their physical and sensory independence includes relating it to the potty and to the words “bath,” “pee-pee,” “poo-poo,” and similar expressions. One important purpose of children’s speech at this stage is to communicate and identify their world, and this includes what they want to do.

More Complex Sensations and Tasks

In order to be able to understand the sensory system, we have to know that it is made up of the proximal and distal systems. The five distal senses are the ones we are all familiar with: smell, hearing, taste, touch, and sight. The two proximal senses are more complicated and consist of the vestibular system and the propioceptive-tactile sense. This proximal sensory system consists of the following: the sense of touch—distal—divided into two components: the protective and discriminative. The first identifies signs of danger or injury; the second provides information about our skin and allows us to identify the texture, shape, and size of objects in our surroundings, which helps us distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant sensations.

The sense of touch has an enormous influence on early learning. During the processes of language, motor skills, and cognitive development, the child learns through touch and tactile exploration. That is why, if we provide children with activities like games with various textures, things that can or cannot be eaten, or games of recognizing objects without using sight, we will be stimulating the development of the tactile sense.

I eat with a spoon (11 months)

I eat with a spoon (11 months)

I walk and explore (11 months)

I walk and explore (11 months)

The propioceptive sense is the system that helps us integrate touch and movement in order to inform the brain about where the body is positioned in space and helps with posture and balance. Additionally, it provides information through our joints, muscles and ligaments about where the parts of our bodies are and how they work together. The proprioceptive receptors are located in the tendons, muscles, joints, and skin and are stimulated by the active movement of joints and muscles. Jumping rope or playing wheelbarrow can help the child to stimulate this sense.

Finally, the vestibular sense provides a basic relation between gravity and the physical world. The vestibular receptors are located in the canals of the inner ear and are stimulated by movement and gravity; they are the ones that tell our bodies which way they are moving and how fast. An amazing sensation for almost all children is to swing or rock in a hammock or on the lap of a warm, loving person. These sensations in turn help form affectionate bonding and trust in the infant.

Reading and Other Skills

Reading is an activity that contributes to an infant’s intellectual development from birth. By reading to him/her and giving them fabric or plastic books, we promote his/her physical development because we are stimulating their hearing and grasping skills. We foster his/her cognitive development as he/she learns concepts, such as the shapes, colors, textures, and sizes that are presented in books for this age. In this way we are reinforcing affective relations by offering a social activity that is very human, in addition to adding new vocabulary and stimulating creativity and imagination.

Examples of appropriate activities and materials. We remind you that many of these activities can be modified for other age groups, adding more challenges and using different materials.

Examples for 9-12 months:

  • I hear myself (recording the baby making noises so that he/she can hear himself)
  • My body (singing songs about the parts of the body while pointing them out)
  • Make up songs using the baby’s name
  • Play with blocks
  • Obstacle course (put the baby on the floor and call to him/her from the other side of the room)
  • Push and pull (toys with wheels or that slide easily, such as a toy car or a doll stroller)

From 12 to 24 months: Second Year of Life. Exploring autonomously and communicating with words.

Body Perception and Motor Awareness

This is the age when we begin to call them “toddlers,” as they walk and even run. Children continue with their desire to explore, to go beyond their immediate space; their increased mobility, along with their growing understanding of cause and effect, will motivate them to climb in order to reach something they could not reach before and to develop incipient problem-solving strategies. Now they explore their world more quickly. They can play using large and small muscles with more agility.

It’s great to reach, touch and taste! (2 years)

It’s great to reach, touch and taste! (2 years)

During this year the child executes small variations in movement to gain additional sensorial consciousness about how the body functions and how the physical world operates. They pick things up and throw them, push and pull toys, go up and down stairs, explore the house and its surroundings and get into all kinds of places, causing great anxiety in their parents. However, parents should be even more anxious if their children are not doing this. On the contrary, children need opportunities to interact with the physical environment as much as they need nourishment and love.

At this age children enjoy playing rough, running around, rocking, and swinging. These activities give them a great deal of sensory information from their bodies and from the gravity receptors of the inner ear (vestibular). They also give a feeling for how gravity works, how different parts of the body move, how they interact with others, what they cannot do, what makes them feel good, what hurts and what makes them uncomfortable. All of this sensory information forms an image in the internal sensors of the body (inside the brain), which we may call body perception or motor awareness.

Children have an internal compass that allows them to explore spaces not only horizontally, but also vertically. This is why they manage to climb some surfaces or objects before they can even walk. To be able to climb, children must have a well-organized sense of gravity and movement, because this activity integrates these data with body sensations and visual information. Climbing is a major challenge to sensorimotor intelligence and is an important step toward the development of visual spatial perception. Similarly, sensory responses increase with appropriate motivation when children are offered objects to play with one by one. While they master hand-eye coordination, they increase their mastery of playing with only one object until they can play with two or three, and later progress to organizing, classifying, and stacking them by controlling their movements. Contrary to popular belief, children are much more controlled beings than is thought, and we see this when their progression in motor and mental skills is more organized, even when they are very young. Therefore educational philosophies that promote supporting children in their safe journey toward autonomy and giving them space and time for exploration have better results than those that are centered on the educators and in curricula limited to scholastic material.

When should we be worried?

Early childhood educators should know that a dysfunction in sensory integration is the inability to respond appropriately to ordinary experiences. This occurs when the brain incorrectly processes the sensations that come to us from the environment. How does deficient sensory integration “take us out of the game?” Let us imagine that sensations are like cars traveling down the road. If we come to an intersection with a broken traffic light, it is very likely that there will be a traffic jam. Something like this happens with sensory messages to the brain. On the roads the police can help us by directing traffic so that all lanes flow smoothly. In the case of sensations, the brain helps us filter and modulate them, and decide which ones are relevant to the activity that we are carrying out. When this happens, the child makes an effort to reach, maintain and adjust the alertness levels necessary for executing a specific task. Eventually we would see that those children whose “compass” is impaired will be less efficient at autonomous learning. These children will need an educational focus that helps them improve their self-regulation and not to be dependent on external stimulus.

Social Rules: Reading the World

Through social interaction, children deduce many social rules from their caregivers and their educators; they practice those rules and try them out. Their limits must therefore be easily tolerable for them, but they must be firm. The attention span of children is very short which is why they have a natural tendency to go from one activity to another. We can help them focus and organize their thoughts and behavior by providing an activity that captures their attention and removing all unnecessary and bothersome stimuli, including unnecessary instructions from the teacher. Let us remember that play offers children many opportunities for sensory and linguistic organization and enjoyment. All children need is a simple demonstration, and they will do their work: they will play. At two years of age they can also learn to understand and follow instructions, and to “read” intentions. The majority of children learn to communicate many things during this year; others wait until the next to improve their language development. And they achieve it.

Language, Autonomy, and Creative Expression

Children understand and process much more information than they can verbalize and articulate. We must give them space and time to try on their own, without giving them too many directions. We should express the desired behavior in a positive, brief, and strong message. Through language children can also achieve social independence in all areas of their lives. Among these is going to the toilet (with support); feeding, cleaning, and dressing themselves; grasping, manipulating, and naming the objects in their environment: motor, physical, and sensory coordination.

The child is independent in the bathroom (1 year 4 months).

The child is independent in the bathroom (1 year 4 months).

Neurologically, at this age, children can control the urge to urinate and defecate, but they need for the educator to support them by providing appropriate underwear (disposable diapers are not appropriate since they prevent sensory contact with wetness) and the potty (which should be accessible). This routine should be repeated hourly. It is acceptable to leave the children without pants or skirts, if desired (but there should be a change of clothes and several additional pairs of panties or training pants).

The majority of children can now verbally articulate quite a few words, phrases and even three-word sentences. Each social interaction can be a crucial moment in continuing to support their linguistic development by answering in full sentences, asking them questions, elaborating on their ideas and validating their attempts. For example, when children invent words or make approximations, it is a great leap in their linguistic development. In the following vignettes we can see how the instructor expands and validates the message:

Vignette 1: Broadening the language

Child: “Mama house.”

Instructor: “Yes, Mama is in the house. We are going to play with these materials.” 

Vignette 2: Supporting his/her independence

Child: Holds back from entering the classroom.

Instructor: “Go on in, Paula,” says the instructor, showing an area that attracts the child. “Let’s go to the art area.” 

In all of these cases we see a very rich process in which children are exposed to new words, are supported in moments of confusion, and—with the validation of their linguistic approximations—are aided in assimilating language conventions. Children will make the necessary adjustments in their “rules” in order to communicate the full message or in order to name the object in a conventional manner. If an adult models the spoken language for them, children will actively follow it because it makes sense to them. This is the foundation for reading.

A two-year-old who participates in the act of conversation with other children and adults is preparing to use the language she hears in activities such as reading aloud in groups or in guessing games that use objects.

Vignette 3

Instructor: “I have something in the bag that barks and has 4 legs. Can you tell me what it is?”

Gustavo: “A dog!”

Vignette 4

Aura: “Mama, beyee bun!” says the child, pointing to her “belly button.”

If a child’s oral expression is limited, he/she will tend to express himself/herself physically. It is important not to limit children’s dialogue and to always stimulate their efforts enthusiastically. Language acquisition facilitates the development of self-control by creating a bridge between word and intention. The activities mentioned and described below are meant to provide educators and caregivers with examples of the variety of things that can be done at minimal cost and that can be recommended to parents and others responsible for their care for stimulating learning and development in their children. It is important to set aside time to explore with children the frontiers of their learning using appropriate materials.

Here are a few appropriate activities and materials. Remember that many of these activities can be modified for other age groups, making them more challenging and using different materials.

  • Finger-painting or painting with wide brushes, using finger paint or water colors. Use cardboard tubes, wooden spools, stones that can be found in the yard, or leaves, or let the children dip an object in paint and push or roll it around on the paper. Finger painting provides a safe and pleasant experience. Provide materials with different textures, an easel with clips to hold the paper, and aprons.
  • Balls to roll, soft beach balls, balls with different textures. Sit the child down in front of you with spread legs and roll the ball back and forth.
  • Use balls that bounce in order to help the child develop balance by placing the ball between their legs and laying their arms on top of it.

From 2 – 3 years. My Stories, Games, and Emotions: I like being me.

Identity, Volition, and Play

Children at this age demand their autonomy thanks to the independence that we have supported in them. They are in constant motion and although they have short attention spans, they are able to focus longer on things they like. They continue to develop their intellectual skills through speech, in sentences of three or more words. The most important thing is that they wish to be treated as social beings, and they achieve it by imitating social behavior. We can use this volition to set them on the path to learning for pleasure.

At this stage children are strengthening their will and they struggle to determine their own actions, while continuing to progress mentally and emotionally and in their knowledge of the physical world. However, there will be changes in behavior, and the manner in which these are perceived and managed will affect them in the present and in the future. As they already have body awareness, they are able to recognize themselves in the mirror: “That’s me.”

To understand the behavior of a two-year-old child and react appropriately will result in a child with a positive self image. At this age children like to dramatize the events of the day and to imitate real life in their play (which is what the designated areas of daycare and preschools are for). This kind of play promotes the use and command of dialogue and social situations. Additionally, this offers them the opportunity to exercise self-control in their lives.

It is appropriate to establish routines for eating, sleeping, washing hands, brushing teeth, cleaning work areas, setting the table, and going to the bathroom, because this allows these actions to become a social process throughout life, which requires time and practice. Routines provide predictability and security to children in a safe environment, something that should continue at home. The great challenge for many parents is to answer the question: “How is that you, the teacher, can manage 18-25 students when I can’t handle one or two?” The answer is in consistency, firmness, and tenderness in establishing and carrying out a daily routine. The keys are to have materials that are appropriate to the height and size of the child, such as small drinking glasses that hold just the right amount without filling them all the way to the top, and clothes they can easily take off, including training pants or panties. Never underestimate their learning capacity. Do not punish them for accidents; after all, they are learning skills for life. On the contrary, every small step in their progress should be applauded. Once they are inspired to do things for themselves, they have set their feet on the path to autonomy and independence.

Brushing her teeth.

Brushing her teeth.

Dressing herself.

Dressing herself.

Sexuality and Sensation

A recurring theme that is also related to personal hygiene is that of sexuality, so much a part of childhood but so little understood by some educators and parents. Sexuality is an inherent part of our biological and sociocultural being because it represents our genital anatomy, the construction of our gender identity, and our sensuality. Children experiment with pleasurable sensations through touching their genitals, which gives us an opportunity to teach them how to clean and protect them. Educators should understand that the exploration and manipulation of the penis or vulva is expected at this stage and can be the source of much pleasure and learning since this area has many sensory receptors. This is the time to positively reinforce the cleaning routine and genital exploration in the most appropriate place for such things: the bathroom).

Writing, Exercise, Problem-Solving, and Other Tools

At this point children can grasp and manipulate the tools that will allow them to make marks and scribbles in order to leave their marks everywhere. Their fine and gross motor skills improve in quality and precision. They manage gravity with the proper and safe equipment (see photo of parallel bars) and learn to solve problems in daily life (such as the little girl standing on the potty to reach the sink). The use of tools is not always conventional, as we can see in the third of these photos: the girl (2.7 years old) can create rhythms and make music with a cooking pot.

Parallel bars, doing recreational gymnastics (2.8 years).

Parallel bars, doing recreational gymnastics (2.8 years).

Problem-solving in daily life (2.3 years).

Problem-solving in daily life (2.3 years).

Strike up the band!

Strike up the band!

On the other hand, if we notice that rather than feeling content while rocking in a rocking chair, a child cries wildly for no reason that we can see; or that rather than making an effort to use scissors correctly, she cuts or tears too fast and too carelessly; or perhaps that rather than returning a hug or other unexpected touch, he pushes or hits. All of these things may suggest a dysfunction in sensory integration. When children reject ordinary sensations or seek excessive stimulation, or when they can’t make their bodies respond the way they need and want, they could be at risk and may need to be referred for professional evaluation. A child who deviates significantly from the normal sequence of the development of sensory integration is likely to have problems his/her personal and academic life. In light of this, the best attitude to have when dealing with atypical development is to observe it carefully in order to make a good referral. The earlier it can be done the better, because neurodevelopment will be on our side.

Self-Control and Thought

When children grow, discipline becomes an important part of their daily social life. By “discipline” we do not mean corporal or psychological punishment, but rather a form of internal control that we all develop with perseverance, patience and reasonable boundaries. To discipline means teaching self-control, the same thing we want the children to use in the bathroom, with their belongings, in their games and other tasks. Beginning to discipline from an early age lays the foundation of what is acceptable in daily life for the adult and the child. It is important to understand the child’s level of emotional development when setting reasonable boundaries that will change little by little in line with the amount of responsibility and self-control he/she acquires. Beginning early and being consistent with discipline helps children understand their boundaries more easily and that adults can establish consequences resulting from bad behavior.

The demands that we make of a child of two or three should not be at the same qualitative level as those we make of one of five or ten, because, intellectually, the younger child has the capacity to think and give responses only in a spontaneous way, with little reflection and with preoperational logic. Their perceptions of the world are limited by their language in their short experience of life, and their memories to the associations they make from what they see and the quality of the actions of the adults around them. The capacity for forming logical associations—mental operations—is also limited by the child’s previous motor and sensory experiences. Because of this, children have a more symbolic thought process, which means that they mentally process categories and names of things even though they cannot see them. This makes sense when trying to understand how educators should present instructions to them: inviting them to work with different materials, toys or people and asking them to “see” the consequences. A child encouraged to express what she thinks and why may then articulate a more reasoned thought process, even though the logic may be slightly flawed, it is still logical.

Vignette 5
Adult: “It’s raining.”

Child: “The clouds are crying,” to explain why it is raining. 

Stimulation of expressive and auditory language; games that involve symbolic and intuitive thinking; actions by educators in support of logical approximations; presentation of a more sophisticated vocabulary; asking hypothetical questions (What would happen if I flip this switch?); presenting more logical explanations and more challenging materials (self-correcting and attractive); asking children to predict how stories will end; these are a few of the experiences that foment children’s development and allow them to construct knowledge.

Sensory integration functions develop in a natural order and many children follow this basic sequence. Some develop quickly and others more slowly, but they all travel the same route. Language acquisition also has a natural sequence informed by the sociocultural expectations of its context. We would say that children incorporate language use and function better and more rapidly than the actual form of language. In light of this, and within a vision that integrates the most valuable aspects of language, educators should focus on this order: give the greatest importance to meaning (semantics); then to word order and agreement (syntax and grammar); and finally to pronunciation and writing (graphophonic system). In the following expression, we would value primarily the function of the expression, the child’s intention in his/her discourse (pragmatics), and its meaning (semantics), with less attention to grammatical agreement.

Vignette 6: Validating Their Approximations
Girl, 2.2 years old, says: “A dagonfwy!”

Mother: “Yes, look how fast its wings are moving!”

The child says “dagonfwy” instead of “dragonfly” when he/she sees an image of the real insect in a television documentary.

This order of importance applies to the progressions that we will observe in the next stage (3-6 years), in which we will see more intention in the children’s efforts to communicate in written form.

Appropriate Materials and Activities

Remember that activities may be adapted to provide more challenge or to simplify, as needed.

  • Draw and cut out a picture of a tree and glue it to a sheet of paper. Then obtain family photos and ask the child to name the person indicated in the photo while gluing it to the tree. Talk to him about the pictures; this helps the child understand his family and his place within it. This can be a family and school project.
  • Make use of dramatization in play and room arrangements to include situations from daily life. With the educator as a mediator, the children will be able to observe the limits and appreciate the results.

From 3 to 6 years: Preschoolers in Action en Route to School Life.

Facilitating Basic Tasks that Stimulate the Intellect

In this age range many of our children are registered at a preschool or other center. If not, parents must provide care that is complemented by stimulating activities in the areas already mentioned throughout the module: sensorimotor, intellectual/linguistic, and socioemotional.

Cognitive – or intellectual – development is the process by which children acquire thinking and language skills to turn information into knowledge. Adults contribute significantly to this step by serving as models, being communicators, and supporting the efforts and progress of the children as they acquire and use what they learn. Children should be exposed to diverse experiences so that they have the opportunity to develop to their maximum potential, in line with their particular interests and abilities. However, every preschooler still has certain basic needs, such as a varied and appropriate diet that is in line with their caloric needs at this age; love and affection; periods of activity, rest, and sleep; social interaction; physical security; and medical care. All of these needs must be satisfied before offering educational activities. In this way, their educational experiences will be both effective and enjoyable, in the home or in the center or school.

Play and Emotions

Play has a special role in childhood and is fundamental for preschoolers because it contributes to all areas of development. With your help, children learn through play to get along with others, to deal with their emotions and feelings and to establish relationships of conflict or solidarity with their classmates. It is the work of the caregivers and educators to give them support in tense situations, as well as space to experience various emotions. In their play they exercise their large muscles and coordinate their fine motor movements, they explore the world, and they make significant achievements that help them develop to their maximum potential. Creativity is a spontaneous expression that can also be stimulated using various tools, such as pencils, Play Doh, or even eating utensils used in an original way (as shown by the “artist” in the picture).

Creative use of tools (3.6 years).

Creative use of tools (3.6 years).

Sensing/Thinking Childhood

Children’s holistic development includes sensorimotor, socioemotional, cognitive or intellectual, and linguistic (which is related to intellectual) development. Activities that promote intellectual development and learning through play is always appropriate for children, since playing is part of a person’s initial learning experience. It is important, however, that this be balanced: there should be a challenge, but it should not be so complicated so that the child is unable to achieve her objective. It should be manageable, interesting, and fun.

It is important to take into account that we are all different. As a result, what is exciting for some won’t be for others.


Development is a gradual, continuous process, but the preschool stage is the high point for acquiring many skills and abilities for adulthood. Responsible educators have realistic expectations for children in accordance with their growth, and these are recognized as appropriate practices for development. The pictures shown illustrate skills appropriate for children three years old and up.

Neurologically, there are millions of neuron connections taking place, and the brain’s cerebral cortex is growing. Neuron connections are responsible for more intelligent behavior in response to environmental stimulation and that of the caregivers in charge of providing for children’s needs. The emotional cerebrum, comprising the limbic system, is the one that processes emotional experiences, learning, and motivation. Likewise, the hippocampus—our memory—stores our experiences with the special seal of our personal perception.

Throughout the preschool stage, children use toys in various ways, constantly discovering new ways to use them. They are continually increasing their knowledge and evolving more deeply within their capabilities, creating thought processes that will serve them throughout their lives in solving problems and coming up with new solutions.

Monkey—Drawn at 4 years.

Monkey—Drawn at 4 years.

Big house—Drawn at 5 years.

Big house—Drawn at 5 years.


Cursive writing (6 years).

Cursive writing (6 years).

Reading (3.6 years).

Reading (3.6 years).

Linguistic Inventions: Reinventing the Language

In linguistic development, we also see some extraordinary manifestations that we will call “inventions”—newly created words—and “approximations”—those that are close to the conventional pronunciation. Let us look at the following examples, produced by children between the ages of 3 and 5 years:

Figure 1


  • lasterday, for yesterday
  • re-backwardsing, for rewinding
  • it’s getting nighter, for it’s getting darker (the sun is setting)
  • hanitizer, for hand sanitizer
  • outside out, opposite of inside out
  • dinner store, for restaurant
  • mwahs, for kisses
  • nokay, opposite of okay
  • nibbles, for nippleso
  • pokey, for pin cushion


  • lellow, for yellow
  • pisphetti, for spaghetti
  • wabbit, for rabbit
  • burstday, for birthday
  • shilshake, for milkshake
  • magmazeen, for magazine
  • hop-it-all, for hospital
  • flamilla, for vanilla

Educators must observe children very closely in order to notice the skills that they are developing and understand the nature of their thinking. At this age, children need examples and models of real, concrete objects. Rather than drawings of animals, provide photographs. Rather than cartoonish toy animals wearing clothes, provide a small but realistic model. Accompany the presentation of the animal, fruit, or other object with the appropriate vocabulary, respecting the approximations and inventions the children come up with. Demonstrate the use of the object or material—when working with sand or water, for example—and ask questions that encourage thinking. Observe their strategies for explaining the world; note and monitor but do not intervene before the child asks for help or seems very confused. Always give children time to improve with practice. Validate their approximations, inventions, and intentions to create and compose.

Vignette 8

Let’s look at this example of a girl who began violin lessons using the Suzuki Method at 3 years, 8 months. The child freely created the following song in Spanish and her father recorded it. Perhaps the lyrics do not make much sense, but there is clearly an attempt to construct a rhyme; that is to say, to compose a song:

Son las gravateras un gran corazón, Somos increíbles como un gran avión.

[The gravateras have a great heart, We are incredible like a great airplane.]

(Original song to the tune of “Oh Come Little Children,” from Suzuki Violin Book 1).

Using the same tune, the girl composed another song, several months later. This time the lyrics make more sense and the intention is still to rhyme and to derive musical enjoyment from the activity.

“El cielo, el cielo está azul. La luna saldrá, el sol se esconde. Las cosas se cambian, las lunas cambian, El sol y la luna son bien amistad.”

[The sky, the sky is blue. The moon will come out, the sun is hiding. Things change, the moons change, The sun and the moon are a good friendship.]

Thinking Skills, Literacy, and Reasoning

At the 3- to 6-year-old stage, various incipient thinking skills can be detected; the greater the child’s development—which does not necessarily correspond to his/her age—the more refined and complex these will be. We will observe children making classifications and numerical sequences (in order and episodically); using visual, musical, and motor memory; experimenting with trial and error; using more systemization, planning and judgment; forming hypotheses about how things work; trying to put themselves in another’s place or to see from someone else’s perspective; using a more articulated language; arguing and questioning the “truths” of adults.






Vignette 9

How did they make the first [measuring] ruler perfect? – question from a 6-year-old

You think because you like hot water that I have to like it too. – observation from a 5-year-old

The slaves came to Puerto Rico more sooner than the Indians did. – argument from a 4-year-old

It is exciting to explore with a preschooler who is so full of questions and debates. At the same time, we have an excellent opportunity to learn about the child’s thought processes in order to support rather than impede them. In expressing themselves through language, children continue to develop emotional security, assertiveness, leadership, and independent thinking, or critical thought. It is possible to reason with them and discuss their feelings and intentions. It is also becoming easier for them to understand the consequences of their actions. These experiences will transfer to the playground or to situations in which they have to negotiate with others about rules and taking turns, and when they have to manage conflicts and frustration. You will notice the social progress of these little ones when they go from crying or complaining to understanding the feelings of others. This is the moment when it is crucial to demonstrate solidarity with words and actions. The games and stories that we create with and for them must be geared toward racial and gender equality, cooperation, and creative, peaceful conflict resolution using persuasion, dialogue, and negotiation.

Children’s Literature Supports Literacy


Use authentic children’s literature to work with the children on their social, intellectual, and physio-sensory skills. In selecting books for this age group, choose real-life themes: racism, divorce, love, affection, solidarity, the arrival of new siblings, loss, friendship, disappointment, exploration of places, traditions. These should be presented with an appropriate text: large, legible type with illustrations. Authentic literature has the resource of varied illustration (diverse styles) in diverse genres (fables, anecdotes, legends, slice-of-life, narrative, informative), and that appeals to everyone because children enjoy stories. Through reading—whether shared, narrated by the educator, or read by the child (through pictures, memorization, or as a beginning or autonomous reader)—children will reflect and question, learn and travel (imaginatively). This helps them develop a new vocabulary and recognize the semantics and form of the language, placing importance on the aesthetic, on the pleasure of reading. From this point they develop a taste and a need for writing about their ideas and their world, each according to her ability (which manifests uniquely in each child).

Although we may have children who develop typically, we will see the variety of forms and preferences in their styles and personalities. On the other hand, those who show some kind of deficiency can work with the rest of the group and participate in activities as long as the educators recognize their strengths and know how to stimulate, intervene, refer, and compensate.

Playing bingo with musical concepts (5 years).

Playing bingo with musical concepts (5 years).

Describing the child’s home using syllabic-alphabetic writing (5 years).

Describing the child’s home using syllabic-alphabetic writing (5 years).

A to-do list, like the ones Mother makes (6 years).

A to-do list, like the ones Mother makes (6 years).

Without question, preschool-aged children are more coordinated and their intellectual capacity for manipulating objects with purpose expands so that they can experiment with materials and elements. They are good, for example, at running, climbing, and throwing and catching a ball. They can dress and undress themselves, clean and groom themselves without help. Their fine motor skills are also more developed. From the time they can hold a pencil—as early as 2 years old—they show a preference for the left or right hand, and from then on their fine and gross motor skills are more precise. For the first three years of their life they have been perfecting this motor skill, but now they imitate and produce the reading and writing behaviors of their educators and parents; they want to become a part of the reading population. The to-do list in the photo is a very well-executed example of this attempt.

Moral Reasoning

When children express themselves, they may reveal a budding moral reasoning and their capacity for differentiating between right and wrong.

Vignette 10

In response to being told about demonstrations in protest over military exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico:

“Do you mean that a person can go to jail for doing something good?” (5.10 years old) 

Vignette 11: Making Sense of the World
“If the teacher doesn’t let me write in “incursive,” then I can’t, so I can’t do it.” (5.6 years old)

“If you give me part of your cookie, I’ll lend you my toy, that’s good.” (4 years old)

Children are capable of reasoning based on their understanding of the social world. Usually preschoolers use preconventional reasoning to indicate right from wrong (as in the case of sharing the cookie from Vignette 11), when many children interpret solidarity or doing the right thing as something that always has to be reciprocated. Conventional reasoning—the situation with the teacher from Vignette 11—is regulated by law and order that is learned by living in society; one does what is right as pronounced by authority figures who are, in turn, significant. However, there can also coexist another, more advanced reasoning at this stage of early childhood. Concepts of what is right and what is wrong are informed by the interpretation of social and political events in society. The reasoning from Vignette 10, for example, is postconventional: it transcends legality. This is a level that few adults ever reach. When children are capable of wondering what this girl of 5 years, 10 months did, it is because they have been exposed to the debate regarding universal ethical values. This dimension of intellectual development—the ability to handle controversial topics—should be supported with authentic literature and themes relevant to the children of our time, who are not untouched by what occurs in our society. There is marvelous literature for children including biographies of important figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú.

At this age children ask very profound questions because they are not barred from considering the impossible. Educators should facilitate children’s communication without getting ahead of them; follow them in order to understand them, wait for their questions and be ready to listen and to clarify doubts, using strategies that motivate reading by means of storytelling, songs, games, puppets, social examples, and real-life situations. If, in their natural environment, children are offered books throughout their infancy and preschool age, their probabilities for scholastic success will increase and they will not only associate books with school but also see them as part of their lives. Reading also invites our children to exploit their imagination, creating stories and imagery. In addition, they will have experienced the discussion of social topics that will allow them to polish their social judgment.

Reading for pleasure (4.6 years).

Reading for pleasure (4.6 years).

Reading with Daddy (4.6 years).

Reading with Daddy (4.6 years).

Broadening Their Concept of Expressive and Written Language

Children today do not feel intimidated by technology. Some products, such as the computer, and some programs that integrate words, sounds, and familiar situations in the vernacular are appropriate at this stage but should never take the place of reading actual texts (books, posters, etc.) and enjoying art, music, dance, or the theater.

Music and words (4 years).

Music and words (4 years).

Collage (4.6 years).

Collage (4.6 years).

Playing the violin (5 years).

Playing the violin (5 years).

Imagination has no limits whether it is used to create on canvas, write ideas and wishes, interact with technology, learn to play an instrument, or invent letters. Children constantly show us their areas of progress and advancement. Let us recall the order of importance when we approach the written works produced at this stage: first meaning, then grammar and syntax, then form and accuracy in writing. This holistic focus on written language reflects the spoken language of our Spanish-speaking children.

Invented spelling (3 years).

Invented spelling (3 years).

Letter to the tooth fairy (5 years).

Letter to the tooth fairy (5 years).

Written creations suggest to us an alphabetic stage (the photo showing invented spelling) in which the child uses letters and their corresponding sounds, and a syllabic stage (the letter to the tooth fairy) in which the child uses her name as a reference. This is how they invent names for friends and explore sound and letter combinations. Another type of written texts in Spanish is the presyllabic, in which we can see the intention of describing the drawing using letters combined into possible syllables (photo of writing at 3 years 11 months old which says: “The boy got into the car and put on his seatbelt”).

Drawing with description (3 years 11 months).

Drawing with description (3 years 11 months).

Sexuality becomes an important topic at this stage as well, because children now have more language and a will to explore their bodies alone and with others. This is something that we all do with our bodies and those of others: naming, feeling, comparing, and questioning. Once again, we need to view these childhood behaviors within the framework of appropriate development and guide the children toward a healthy sexuality using firm, simple, honest messages and taking the opportunity to teach care and protection routines. If the educator focuses his or her interventions in this way, the behaviors will not become repetitive or compulsive. However, if a child touches his or her genitals while in a group, various approaches may be used: (1) ignore the child (2) suggest that the child go to the bathroom (3) take the child to the bathroom (4) observe the child’s emotional state during the behavior and ask if he or she needs help. If the child verbalizes or shows indications of itchiness, pain, secretions or other marks, then the administration must be notified for a consultation with a professional and with the parents. In dealing with the situation, be diligent but remain calm and respectful. Take advantage of any opportunities to provide health education, using positive language and positive messages about sexuality, personal security, and the biology of the human body. Use books that illustrate unequivocally (with realistic drawings and photographs) the internal and external male and female genitals, and use authentic literature related to biological functions, sensations, love, maternity and paternity, etc.

Friends constitute an extremely important reference group at this age when children start to feel identifiable emotions: happiness, frustration, pleasure, sadness, wonder, anger, etc. Preschool becomes the extended home, and educators and friends, the extended family. It is also a living laboratory of planned experiences that follow an educational philosophy with a curriculum and organization. Just as in the family, the child develops relationships with adults and other children of different ages. The variation in ages constitutes an extraordinary resource for interactions with peers who are as competent (or more) as they—some of the same age, some older, some younger.

The family is the group with primary influence in the emotional and intellectual development of children, which educators continue and refine at school. All children continue their exploration of the world beyond the confines of their houses: now they are exploring their schools and educational centers, which should be prepared for this. In this way they learn and have direct experiences with others, which has a much greater impact that would a mere explanation given before the event. Offering a variety of experiences and a challenging but safe environment will stimulate all of their processes of development. When offering activities to children, refrain from emphasizing the final outcome; focus on the process of getting there. Children learn more from their own successes and failures than from educators’ explanations. However, educators must be available to provide emotional support and take advantage of these moments to see how children react to the situation.

Imagination, Conflict Resolution, and Feelings

At this stage children create imaginary characters as an integral part of their play. Imaginary friends are very common during early childhood; they can be people, things, or animals, and can accompany the child at all times or only during certain times of day. For some it can be a way to express anger for something that has happened—blaming the imaginary friend—while it is an emotional and social support: a confidante. As children continue to grow, a large part of their fantasy play will develop only in the imagination, but the dramatic play they engage in with others will allow them to play the roles of significant adults. In this activity they can act out their fears, practice their linguistic skills, and explore their emotions. As they play with other children, they learn to cooperate with others and resolve conflicts. Additionally, they imitate, converse, invent, and act out what they see adults doing.

It is important that adults get involved in this dramatic play, as it fosters a sense of security, confidence, creativity, and imagination in children. Also, this type of play allows situations in the nuclear family that affect the child to be identified. For example, if a boy, while playing in the home area of the preschool center, hits or yells at the girls, this could point to a problem of domestic violence in his home. The educator is responsible for referring this behavior to the appropriate professional so that the situation can be dealt with quickly. Another example is to observe when a child shows a particular interest in the art area, in order to offer him or her a chance to work with various materials and maximize the development of their potential.

Preschoolers also experience emotionally difficult moments—situations involving friends, their belongings, or their desires. Because of this they may challenge authority and have explosions of rage when expressing their emotions. Understanding this helps educators to be more tolerant with the child and to help her through these difficult times.

Helping Children Learn

When children are ready to start school, support for their learning needs to awaken their interest and be fun, enticing them to learn while connecting them to nature and its processes and thus inviting them to construct knowledge. Educators and parents should identify their children’s difficulties and idiosyncrasies in order to help them channel their development through planned, coordinated education. Remember to prepare environments for incidental learning, that is, to see that the children find themselves in situations that require them to use various strategies of mental organization, classification, exploration, planning, sequencing, counting, appreciation and care for nature, observation, reading, and writing.

Observing the effect of a magnet on metallic particles in beach sand (7, 6, and 4 years).

Observing the effect of a magnet on metallic particles in beach sand (7, 6, and 4 years).

Planting seeds with Grandpa (3.8 years).

Planting seeds with Grandpa (3.8 years).


Attractive self-correcting materials (3.8 years).

Attractive self-correcting materials (3.8 years).

Coordinating support efforts for learning and development is as important as the curriculum itself. For example, if a child does not finish her work on time, or appears to be distracted, sad, or lost, it is necessary to verify whether they have a hearing or vision problem or if there is some other learning disability, and make the necessary referrals to the proper professionals. If, however, she finishes quickly and cannot stay in her place or distracts the others who are still working, she may need more challenging activities than what is offered in class.

Final Words

Children learn and channel their development through social, sensorimotor, and intellectual activities that entail cooperation, problem solving, language, science, the arts, and math. With these they develop their curiosity, self-esteem, physical strength and coordination, self-control, and ethical values. Any intentional initiative to educate children must be supported and sustained by an educational philosophy. Throughout the last two centuries various useful systems have been developed. Early childhood educators have to make a strong commitment to revising their teaching practices so that they support and embrace holistic development and the possibilities for learning that it provides. A developing child is full of possibilities!

Appropriate Materials and Activities

Remember that these activities can be changed and adapted according to the needs of the children.

  • Develop language abilities through rhymes, songs, games, and stories.
  • Recognize that letters become meaningful by means of storytelling and mini lessons focused on a particular word from the text, looking for other meanings.
  • Classify, organize, and differentiate between objects (colors, shapes, sizes) and play word games by choosing a letter for objects, fruit, and people.
  • Explore the alphabet and writing, but allow for the freedom to create and express.
Acrylic on canvas (5 years).

Acrylic on canvas (5 years).


For Reflection and Self-Assessment

The following activity was designed for educators to think about the situations or premises presented at the left and, using their knowledge and experience, evaluate whether it is appropriate or not and explain why.

Two-year-olds who are not able to articulate 10 words should be referred to Early Intervention or to a speech therapy professional or psychologist.
Preschool children behave intelligently when they say things correctly, according to adults.
Writing skills should be encouraged from the time children start school.
Early childhood sexual exploration should be seen as natural, but attention should be paid to indications of discomfort, the frequency of the action, and its context.
When children invent words they should be corrected immediately so that they do not get used to using them when correct words exist for naming things.
If we see that a child has continued discomfort with physical contact, refuses to be touched or is disturbed by it, we must refer the situation to an occupational therapist.
A logical sequence of motor development is very predictable since children go through the same stages and have the same experiences.
Children shouldn’t be read stories about real, painful topics, such as divorce or illness, because they are not able to process them.
It is recommended to begin potty training when children can walk and are able to understand simple words like “pee-pee,” “poo-poo,” or “underpants.”
Early intervention will contribute to neurological development through stimulated learning.
Children’s creativity is stimulated by providing sophisticated tools so that they can do quality work.
In order to learn how to read children need to speak (to themselves, with imaginary friends and with others), to listen and be listened to, and to have contact with the written word in a natural and pleasurable way.

Physical activity is to children what gravity is to the world. nzo

Physical activity is to children what gravity is to the world. nzo



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International Resources

Art is to children as water is to plants.

Art is to children as water is to plants.