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Communicating with children

Child development

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0060/Asselin
Cote d'Ivoire: Children are playing at education session for internally displaced people in the western town of Man.

When discussing the influences of media on children, it is critical to remember their age and developmental stage. Children’s cognitive, emotional, physical and social skills develop as they go through life. As they grow and mature, their needs, abilities, interests and challenges change (3). The child’s development has direct implications to the way she or he may be able to benefit from media. For example, the older children get, the longer their attention span grows. So while toddlers may be able to listen to a story for only a few minutes at a time, preschoolers may be more attentive and older children stay attuned for much longer. Similarly, while younger children may be able to comprehend very simple language and concrete images, older children are able to process more complicated linguistic and visual expressions.

Various psychological theories on human development are based on the concept of “stage”. The key to stage theories is the understanding of stages as unique periods of development, with each stage typified by its own special behavioural and cognitive characteristics. According to child development and psychological research, all individuals progress through the same stages in a fixed chronological order, although genetic and/or environmental factors can speed up or slow down the rate from one stage to another.

Stages are perceived to be both hierarchical and integrative. This means that more advanced stages are based on earlier ones and advancement results in a “reorganizing” of various skills. Furthermore, these stages are also perceived as universal: Though children grow up in very different cultures and environments and possess very different genetic maps, they seem to generally proceed through the same stages in the same order.

There are various stage theories that highlight cognitive, physical, emotional, social and moral child development. More current theories, based on new research in child development, demonstrate that children have better capabilities and understanding than was previously thought. The new research challenges the concept of stage and offers alternative ways of explaining developmental differences. More specifically, it focuses not on the child’s deficit in comparison to other children and adults, but on the different ways children interact with their environments and how these interactions change over time.

Greater emphasis is now put on the context in which children grow and develop both in the micro-environment of their home, as well as in the more macro-environments of the society and the culture around them. Those approaches revisit some of the basic premises of stage theories suggesting that child development might be more influenced by environmental circumstances and cultural differences than we previously understood (4). For example, some argue that we should pay attention to children’s developing spiritual needs as well as to other realms of life, including social justice, from the earliest years. Survival, growth and development are all interlinked: each depends on the other and demands that communication be as holistic and integrated as possible.

Finally, there has been tremendous growth in the area of neuroscience and brain research, giving us new information about everything from how the impact of environment affects the brain structure and holistic development of a newborn to how this same brain structure might affect the behaviour and comprehension of messages in adolescents.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2314/Uddin
Friends laugh as they walk home from school in the south-western district of Barguna in Barisal Division.

Major Age Groups: Early Years, Middle Years, Early Adolescent Years

We will concentrate on three major age groups while acknowledging that these groups are not rigid; the transition from one to another is fluid and individual, and there is great variability within each one. We will discuss the early years of birth to 6 years (6 to 7 years old in most societies represents the beginning of formal schooling); the middle years of 7 to 11 (11 to 12 years old in most societies represents the average age of the onset of puberty and the beginning of adolescence); and the early adolescent years of 12 to 14. While some early childhood development specialists include children up to 8 years old in the early years, this resource pack’s use of birth to 6 years reflects the realities with regard to formal school entry in most developing countries, is compatible with literature in the field of children and media and, most importantly, is most practical in terms of guidelines for producing quality communication for different age groups of children. We have excluded discussion of older adolescents since many already have adult-like responsibilities and lifestyles. Producing media products that cater to their diverse needs deserves a separate, thorough exploration and discussions that are beyond the scope of this document.

Finally, we need to remember that “nature” and “nurture” are intertwined: these factors influence the environment in which children are growing up, the extent of early nurturing, their independence, opportunity for exploration and various other ways of learning about self and the world around them, as well as subsequent actions they might be able to take.

Let us examine these three age groups by summarizing the unique characteristics of each one, the communication needs that are derived from them and the implications they might have for using media for their healthy development and well-being.




3. See for example See, Brazelton, T. Berry, M.D. & Greenspan, Stanley, I., M.D. (2000). The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn and Flourish, Perseus Publishing.  Return to text

4. See, for example, Arnett, J.J. (2010). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural approach. NJ: Prentice Hall, Berk, L.E. (2003). Child development. NY: Allyn & Bacon; Casper, V. and Theilheimer, R. (2009). Early Childhood Education: Learning Together. NY: McGraw-Hill; Korczak, J. (2007). Loving every child: Wisdom for parents. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books. Trawick-Smith, J. (2006). Early child development: A multicultural perspective. Pearson Education, Inc.  Return to text



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