In some infants, perceptual processing that depends upon innate recognition may be damaged and perceptual attributes that lead to salience may not be perceived. Perception that depends upon temporal processing may be slowed and crossmodality may be impaired. Meaning may be more easily accessed visually (i.e. what is seen may make more sense than what is heard). Infants learn from the repeated familiar and respond to difference – a learning style used in the ‘habituation to repeat stimulus’ in developmental experiment.
Learning from the familiar needs repeated stimulus and is enhanced if as many features as possible are fixed and what is remembered depends upon the match between context and item. This is a stage of normal development referred to as ‘context bound’ learning, when children recognize their own cups or shoes, for example, but not ‘cupness’ or a sentence said by one person in one place but not another. Some children get stuck in this stage and require a sustained high degree of contextual or environmental sameness to show a skill. This is particularly shown in autism.
Children learn from ‘contingency’ – the event that follows within 3–5 seconds of their action. This may be disrupted by a number of mechanisms, such as:
1. failure of the adult to make the response (depressed/mentally ill caregiver);
2. the child not giving a clear enough signal (as for those who are blind or who have cerebral palsy).
Aspects of maternal or caregiver behavior that promote learning need to be sensitively adjusted to developmental level. Thus at 2 years of age, language input needs to be explicitly directive and adult actions tied to the focus of child interests. By 3 years less parental direction is needed because the child has more language and is learning to manage her own goal-setting and problem-solving skills.
Play complexity is enhanced by caregiver behaviors that maintain a child’s focus of attention rather than redirect it. Children also learn more through the process of learning itself. For example, learning particular names of shapes accelerates shape learning generally, as though attention to the ‘shape concept’ allows noticing of ‘shapeness’. The child’s ability to inhibit and select responses and to try alternatives is crucial to all cognitive learning. This is seen in the progression from the ‘trial and error’ approach, where repeatedly forcing the square into the round hole is a less useful strategy than trying alternative placements with inset puzzles, which shows more flexibility of mental skills.
The progress from sensorimotor play, from mouthing to manipulation at 6–10 months, then to imitation and ‘definition by use’ play by 12 months is followed by increasing creativity in play. Make-believe play with dolls, in which the child is reconstructing events observed, is an important element of this period. It indicates early symbolic representation and concept formation. The child begins to use language to direct or describe the action of his play, and as command of language improves the need to act out the events decreases. Lack of ideas, failure of pretence and inability to play constructively are indications of a developmental problem. The cognitive stage of mental symbolic development allows more complex thinking, including reflection and planning. Symbols (word ) facilitate thinking about, and reference to, situations that are not in the ‘here and now’. Answering simple questions dealing with nonpresent situations presents difficulty before 3 years and even primary and junior school children still tend to be concrete in their way of thinking (i.e. real objects, here and now). Early in school life, judgments are made intuitively on superficial appearances. With increasing experience and language at their disposal, children can imagine complex situations, think out the most appropriate solution and anticipate the outcome.
This requires the ability to think abstractly and imaginatively. Thus, children develop logical thinking from assimilating experience into schemes or general laws that they can apply to a range of situations. The use of symbols also helps to inhibit prepotent responses of behaviors and allows increasing distancing from the ‘here and now’ (rather like the red card in football games). Children are developing skills of representation and object substitution in the second year, but the skill of mentally comparing reality with representation (dual reality) is not clearly seen in research studies until aged 3 years. For example, children shown where an object is hidden in a scale model of a room can find it in the real room at 3 years, but not at 30 months. At 3–6 years, children get increasingly skilled at knowing that others can hold particular views, even false views, and thus have what has been called a ‘theory of mind’. In the classic Wimmer and Perner task, roughly half the 4- to 5-year-old children could correctly show ‘knowing’, whereas over 90% of 6- to 9