Developmental milestones refer to a range of activities that most children do when they reach a given age. For 3-5-year-old children, the learning and development process involves the enhancement of skills, knowledge, and competencies that enable them to perform better in educational settings. Vital areas of childhood development include physical, cognitive, and social-emotional changes.

Cognitive Development

It involves the acquisition of knowledge and skills that enhance children’s understanding of their environment. Cognitive development encourages the evolution of thought processes, thoughts and feelings, decision-making and problem-solving abilities, and understanding of the world (Marwaha, Goswami & Vashtist, 2017). It includes the establishment of intellectual, memory, and reasoning skills. Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory explains the four cognitive phases (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational) through which a child develops intellectual skills.

Each of the defined stages is a continuation of the other. For instance, 3-year-old girl Juliana imagines how lovely fairies (unseen objects) look. At this preoperational stage, she is yet to develop deductive reasoning skills. In the next stage of development, concrete operations, she will understand that fairies do not exist. A child’s memory improves as they experience brain growth from birth through infancy and early childhood. Marwaha et al. (2017) stated that memory is essential for the cognitive and social-emotional functioning of a child as it aids with the retention of information.

At three years, children can use short and long-term memory to identify, remember, and reconstruct past experiences. After the holiday, I asked the children in my class to tell us about a trip they made. The class comprised 3-5-year-olds. Children who paid visits to their grandparents could clearly recall the process followed to get to their destinations and what they saw. They talked of car rides and travelling by train, the ponds and farms in the countryside, the appearance of grandparents’ homes, the food served, and the people or pets they met.  

By the age of five, a child’s memory should be developed enough to enable them to remember phonics (letter sounds) and begin to read. From two to five years, children are capable of applying logic to understand how the world runs. However, they cannot tackle more abstract issues (Marwaha et al., 2017). For instance, Jon’s nephew (3-4 years old) saw him feeding his cat. The little boy asked Jon why he fed the cat. John said “the cat is hungry.” A few days later, Jon’s nephew saw his friend’s mother feeding her cat. He asked the same question and got a similar answer. Jon’s nephew concluded that cats are always hungry. This proves the inability of children below 5 years of age to show rational thoughts and connect ideas.

Social-Emotional Development

These relate to the ability of a child to interact with other children and control his or her feelings and emotions. Sympathy, empathy, and maintaining friendly relationships show social-emotional competence. Social-emotional skills start developing from birth as a child interacts with parents and begins forming emotional attachments (Bierman 2015; Bierman & Sander, 2021. The process continues throughout early childhood into adulthood. Examples of the social-emotional reactions in early childhood include smiling at familiar people, sharing toys, and showing anxiety when with strangers.

These reactions aid the establishment of healthy socioemotional abilities that enable children to build and maintain self-confidence, awareness of self and others’ feelings, stress and anxiety management, and maintenance of positive relationships. Language development is a fundamental aspect of social-emotional competence, as it enables children to understand others and communicate their needs and feelings (Shabni & Ewing, 2016). Language refers to the use of words and gestures to understand others and share ideas. Language could be expressed through writing, verbally, or through singing. Strong language skills are also vital for solving problems and building relationships. Language skills develop rapidly when a child is 3-5 years old.  

Physical Development

Fine motor skills start at birth but become more refined from 6 months (when a child starts to grasp objects) and in early childhood. The skills involve hand control, patience, body awareness, and coordination of eyes and hands. A combination of such independent skills enables children to complete tasks such as feeding self, dressing or undressing, drawing, writing, and playing with toys (Lu & Montague, 2016). Children should get enough time to practice their fine motor skills to develop competence. Nia’s mother, for instance, would often tell her daughter to pull up the jacket’s zipper.

Although Nia would do the task too slowly, her mother resisted the temptation to do it herself. Nia, eventually, learned to do her zipper very fast. Allowing young children to pick pens and scribble on papers also enabled children in a pre-kinder class to develop good handwriting and colouring skills. On the other hand, gross motor skills are the abilities required to fulfill larger body movements. They relate to the movement of legs, neck, arms, and head in a coordinated and controlled manner (Kidman & Casinader, 2019).

The first example of gross motor skills is when a 4-month-old raises his or her head. One phase of gross motor development creates way for the next so the child begins by sitting then crawls, walks, stands, runs, jumps, and hops, among others. Gross motor skills are vital in a child’s daily activities as they aid body balance, strength, and awareness.

Critical Evaluation of the Developmental Milestones

Different theories explain the developmental milestones, as discussed below:

Physical and Cognitive Development

Adults influence children’s physical and cognitive development. Behaviourists argue adults determine how children behave, rather than letting them act out of free will. Parents are, thus, responsible for the higher-level skill that children achieve in Skill theory (Meindertsma, Van Dijk, & van Geert, 2012). If teachers and caregivers carefully shape the desired behavior, children gain information and learn morality (Anindyarini, Rokhman, and Andayani, 2017).

This implies that repetition is required to recall after-effects (such as motivation) that are satisfactory. To show that the efforts have been successful, behavioural change should be observable. Anidyarini et al. (2017) stated that the application of this theory in the classroom involves a continuous flow of activities from the specification of the desired outcome to the creation of favourable environments, selection of appropriate reinforcers, application of chosen reinforcers, reduction of reinforcers’ application, and assessment/evaluation of outcomes.

Again, there should be evidence that a child has learned the desired behavior. Behaviourists believe that learning has happened if learners exhibit changes in actions or behaviour (Ngándu, Hambulo, Haambokoma, & Tomaida, 2013). They also introduced the application of lesson objectives in the instructional procedures. Learning objectives relate directly to behavioural goals because they set the direction on the way learners should conduct themselves when the learning experience comes to an end.

In the absence of behavioural objectives, therefore, a lesson lacks direction and goals. Behaviourists ‘audience, behavior, condition, and degree’ (ABCD mnemonic device) indicates that learners should score 85% in post-test (Ngándu et al., 2013). Supporters of behaviourism also spreads the belief that educators should establish favourable environment for the young learners. Even then, teachers should only promote positive behaviour while eliminating inappropriate ones.

Partnerships between schools and families are also emphasised. Socio-cultural theories recognise the big role that families and schools play in the lives of children. In the study by Thompson (2019), teachers agreed that integrating socio-cultural aspects could enhance the kindergarten children’s cognition of language, moral, literacy and major concepts. These institutions create the venues where children socialise with adults (parents/caregivers and teachers) who influence their development in many ways. With support from adults, children employ socio-cultural tools found in the language they speak to interpret their daily classroom experiences.

The pedagogy used in early childhood is usually designed from context-based learning materials, songs, rhymes, and stories that engage children in learning processes (Thompson, 2019). This clearly shows that the development of children is impacted by their socio-cultural settings. Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory of learning helps to create new context-based language and pedagogies for teaching and learning that teachers can use to maximise the results of their instructions and its influence of children’s learning (Panhwar, Ansari & Ansari, 2016). In the Zone of Proximal development, Vygosky promotes language by encouraging communication among learners through scaffolding. This helps to develop learner’s autonomy, hence student-centred learning, and they get to learn from the more capable peers.


Social-Emotional Development

The age of 3-5 is when children start abiding by rules and experience social integration. In this process, they encounter remarkable transformations in their social reasoning and skills, emotional awareness and regulation, and exercise self-control.  Differential emotions theorists agree that emotions play a vital role in social communication, cognition, motivation, and action. The theory argues that personality is the outcome of combining emotion, motor, cognitive, homeostatic, drive, and perceptual systems. Although each of these six subsystems has a significant degree of autonomy, they tend to be interrelated in a complex way. Subsystems with the most essential part in personality or social interactions include perceptual, emotion, motor, and cognitive systems.

Social and emotional skills are vital in socio-emotional development. Bierman and Sanders (2021) defines social skills as particular behaviours that match appropriate peer relations and may become a primary target during intervention. A learner that has social competence can attain acceptance and admiration from teachers and peers, and have the ability to avoid rejection. Social skills knowledge and practice may not be attainable at times as performance is often influenced by capacities for self-regulation (like emotion regulation). Abe (2015) added that emotions contribute to personality and interpersonal procedures and emotional development requires coordination of motor, emotions and cognitive systems. Attachments are also vital in social-emotional development.

Also, attachments facilitate social-emotional development. Bosmans, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Vervliet, Verhees, IJzendoorn (2020) argued that biological processes are responsible for the formation of attachment. The development of attachment is where children grow to trust that their parents will provide protection and support when they need it.  Children’s ability to rely on parental support influences their academic achievements, health (physical and mental), and social competence. 

Developmental Issues and Early Interventions

The following are the challenges affecting physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development:

Social-Emotional Development

Factors that affect social-emotional development include lack of strong attachment between a child and caregiver(s), inconsistency of parenting bahaviours, and low economic situations. A child may also experience stress due to the absence of support or marital conflicts. Social-emotional learning (SEL) instruction and support from adults should be emphasised to help children who face these risks to understand self and others’ social roles, expectations, and emotions. These intervention can work for children aged 3-5 years because SEL facilitates mental representation capacities and language (Bierman, 2015). Play is also important in strengthening the children’s social-emotional competence. Bierman (2015) explained that play encourages communication, regulation of emotions, and boosts problem-solving abilities.

Social learning theory supports play by stating that children observe what others do then imitate them to respond to instruction and provide verbal response (Bandura 1999). Teachers should also support social skills development by allowing children to practice social skills with peers, providing social skill performance to facilitate refinement, and applying several teaching approaches (like discussion, modeling, and instruction) to strengthen the skill (Bierman, 2004). Concepts from attachment theory are also useful. The theory explains that children that experience warm and caring relationships generate a sense of security and become capable of initiating social interactions and showing affection. Teachers may use this perspective to improve how they connect with children.

Physical and Cognitive development

Physical activities in early childhood education programs may be inhibited by the absence of time and resources (like shortage of trained educators, poor weather, children’s ages-mix, and low cooperation from parents). Prioritising numeracy and literacy over physical activity or fearing the injuries that could result from these activities may also prevent physical development (Lu and Montague, 2016). These factors also affect cognitive development. The integration of play as a teaching and learning approach helps to overcome the fears associated with physical activities and also encourages provision of the necessary resources and time.

Play contributes to establishment of creative, intellectual, social, and physical skills by enabling children to interpret and understand the natural and social world. Inquiry-based learning should also solve these challenges by encouraging team learning and teaching methods that allow children to control their process of learning (Kidman & Casinader, 2019). The implementation of Reggio Emilia Approach could also help educators to focus more on how the environment and child relations affect their learning (Rinaldi, 2013), and make the necessary changes to promote physical and cognitive development.

Again, partnerships between educations and families solves some the physical and cognitive skills learning issues (Murphy, Matthews, Clayton, & Cann, 2021). Teachers, for instance, may evaluate the needs of a child and inform the parents. If effective communication and collaboration exist, the child’s challenges could be solved so that they fully participate in physical activities.