Some Special Qualities of Early Childhood By William Crain

Three toddlers play with wooden blocks on a rug, surrounded by scattered toys in a bright playroom.

My wife Ellen and I were recently in a restaurant when a toddler came marching down the aisle. The girl was smiling broadly, taking great pleasure in walking and exploring. But her mother, who was following after her, wasn’t so enthusiastic. When the two reached our table, the mother said, “She’s usually so well-behaved. I don’t know what’s got into her.” Then, the child went off in a new direction, with the mother hurrying to keep up.

Like this mother, people often fail to appreciate the toddler’s adventurous spirit. Soon after they take their first steps, toddlers become bold explorers. Thrilled by their ability to move about and make discoveries, they are impervious to knocks and falls. Their courage is like that of the deep sea diver venturing into unknown depths or the astronaut investigating the moon. The psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler observed that this period of brave exploration lasts 6 to 8 months, and it can fill adults with admiration and delight. But it’s my impression that this response isn’t typical. Instead, most adults, like the mother in the restaurant, wish children would behave with greater self-restraint.

Over my 55 years as a developmental psychologist, I have been impressed by other remarkable capacities of young children. Here is a brief summary of them. In each case, the extraordinary nature of the capacity deserves greater recognition.

The grasp of grammar. As Noam Chomsky has shown, children between the ages of about 2 and 6 years spontaneously master the highly complex grammatical rules of their native language.  And if they are exposed to a second language, they master it as well.

Artwork.  Young children love to sing, draw, dance, and invent poems. Although all their efforts can be lovely, their drawings have been most carefully researched.  Howard Gardner has shown that between the ages of about 5 and 7 their drawings routinely become fresh, lively, and beautifully balanced. He has likened them to the works of modern masters.

Make-believe play. Although young children’s penchant for fantasy play is well-known, observers haven’t paid as much attention to its richness.  As Dorothy and Jerome Singer note, it can be quite elaborate and include multiple roles. The Singers have called the ages of 3 to 6 “the high season of imaginative play.”

Sensitivity to nature. Children seem to have an innate love of nature, and they often feel oneness with it—a kind of mystical experience that is rare in adulthood.

The sense of wonder. Young children have the ability to perceive everyday objects—a flower, bird, puddle of water—as fascinating and amazing. Unlike most adults, children don’t classify and judge objects but simply behold them. They are enchanted.

Although a handful of scholars have detected these special childhood qualities, most research on child development has overlooked them. Instead, researchers have focused on the ways children master adult skills.

I believe this neglect of children’s special qualities is regrettable. As I have described in my book Forever Young, the strengths of childhood are so valuable that highly creative individuals have drawn upon them.  For example, Einstein was inspired by a childlike sense of wonder, and many of Charlotte Bronte’s poems and stories grew out of her childhood play.

Let’s appreciate the special qualities of the early years.


William Crain is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at The City College of New York and a DEY National Advisor.