Ages and Stages < Age Six

From: Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media
First edition
© 1996 by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D, Ann Orr, Ed.D. and Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D.
Last revision, September 2008 by Warren Buckleitner.

Here's an attempt to describe children’s “ages and stages”, and what younger children can do with IM, at what age. Also presented are some general developmental milestones. These age-estimates and developmental attainments are based on our past experience with standardized instruments used to track young children’s growth, e.g., ESI (Early Screening Inventory) and the Word Sampling System. While this compilation will help you get a sense of what children can do at each age level, keep in mind that individual children acquire skills at different rates. Nothing is caste in stone when it comes to human development. A working knowledge of children’s developmental abilities is particularly important when designing interactive media experiences for younger children (below age 6). Many aspects of experience will be affected, such as menu design, content, reinforcement messages and so on.

Birth to 18 Months: Digital Play Doh

To babies, technology-based devices are little more than a giant busy box. They love to look at the colors on the screen, hear the sounds from the speakers, mouth the mouse cord and touch the keyboard. Don't expect young babies to make the connection between their movements of the mouse or keyboard and events on the screen. A good concept to familiarize yourself with for this stage is called "causality" -- when you first understand that your action = an event. Its the "hey, I'm doing this" feeling that can be very empowering for young children, and adults.
EXAMPLES: Giggles (Leveractive)

18 Months to 2 1/2 Years

While interactive media experiences arel still viewed as an electronic busy box, at about 18 months, children first begin noticing that they can have an effect on objects on the screen. They'll need some assistance, as they don't have the necessary skills to use the mouse. We've seen some families successfully use a touch screen with children in this age group.
EXAMPLES: Reader Rabbit's Toddler will let children press any key on the keyboard to hear a favorite song or discover pictures and animations.

  • Can recognize pictures of objects.
  • Can identify body parts on self or on a doll.
  • Can place individual shapes on “form board” type puzzles.
  • Can use a pencil to imitate a vertical line.
  • Can match objects by color.
  • Can match objects by simple shapes.
  • Can understand the concept of “here”.
  • Can remember a missing object if it is presented and then taken away.
  • Begins to categorize objects according to function (e.g. places all of the spoons together).
  • Enjoys and remembers nursery rhymes.
  • Enjoys taking things apart and putting them together again.
  • Has limited attention span.
  • Can name 1 to 2 colors.
  • Enjoys copying activities of parents and siblings.
  • Generally plays along side of peers rather than cooperatively with peers.

2 1/2 to 3 Years

Age 2 1/2 for many children is a real turning point when it comes to interactive media use. Not only can they sit for a bit longer (we've seen kids who can sit for as long as 1 hour), but many have the fine motor control to use a mouse independently. Now they can easily negotiate the activities in programs like or Reader Rabbit's Toddler. They especially love singing along with the music, while watching events on the screen. Keep in mind that children develop their mouse skills at different rates, and with experience comes competence. Children may be ready earlier than age 2 1/2 or they may need more time. Also remember that computer use is a very social activity for young children .... they love sitting in a parent’s lap to experience the activities together.

  • Can describe the functions of objects (e.g. “What do you sleep on?”).
  • Asks “why” and “how” questions.
  • Can anticipate consequences and understand the impact his or her own actions can have (e.g. understand the relationship between clicks of mouse and actions on the screen).
  • Can recognize several colors.
  • Knows the sounds that animals make.
  • Can count to 2.
  • Engages in simple fantasy play (driving vehicles, cooking meals, feeding baby, etc.)
  • Is able to answer simple questions.
  • Usually speaks in short but complete sentences.
  • Understands the concept of “now”.

3 to 5 Years

These are the first real years of independent computer use. Children can now manipulate the mouse expertly (providing they've had plenty of time to practice), and can use a variety of programs. Kids at this age typically want to share the fun with a friend. Electronic storybooks work especially well at this stage, as do simple adventure programs like the Putt-Putt series from Humongous. The preschool activity packs like Millie and Bailey's Preschool, and creativity programs that let them print their work, are also good for this age group.

Age 3 to 4 Milestones
  • Recognizes most colors.
  • Can identify simple shapes (e.g. square, circle, triangle).
  • Understands the concepts of “same” and “different”.
  • Can play independently for extended periods (approximately 20 minutes).
  • Begins to play cooperatively with peers.
  • Enjoys and remembers a favorite song.
  • Can follow two simple directions in the correct sequence.
  • Can complete a 4 piece puzzle.
  • Can copy a cross (+).
  • Can draw a circle.
  • Build towers of 10 or more blocks, and can build simple bridges.
  • Can recognize many letters.
  • Counts to ten.
  • Shows some understanding of one-to-one correspondence (when counting, each number represents an object being counted).
  • By age 4, can use a pair of child-size scissors to cut on straight, thick lines.

Age 4 to 5 Milestones
  • Understands the concept of “today”.
  • Makes fine size discriminations (e.g. can order objects according to size, can match objects according to length).
  • Makes broad classifications according to type (e.g. animals, foods, clothing).
  • Understands the sequencing of events (e.g. First we go to the store to buy a cake mix, then we will bake it, and after dinner we will eat it).
  • Begins to comprehend simple logic puzzles (e.g. If I cut an apple in half, how many pieces would I have?)
  • Independent play is longer (45 minutes or more).
  • Plays cooperatively with peers for extended periods.
  • Abstract thinking is becoming more advanced. For example, children this age can often comprehend the concept of “opposite”. They can also complete simple analogies (e.g. Birds like to fly, fish like to ___).
  • Uses some irregular past tense of verbs (e.g. ran instead of runned, left instead of leaved, fell instead of fall), but still over generalizes rules of grammar.
  • Can play simple organized games, while remembering the rules (e.g. musical chairs).
  • Enjoys pretend play with themes familiar to child (going to work, taking care of pets or babies, etc.).
  • Can build relatively complex structures with blocks or LEGOs (houses, etc.).
  • Fine motor skills are increasing. For example, by age 5 many children can operate difficult wind-up toys, or use a key.
  • Can follow simple directions in the appropriate sequence.
  • Can answer questions about a short story.
  • Can draw a person with 5 parts (e.g. head, hair, legs, arms, eyes).
  • Can recognize letters and associate some letters with their sounds.
  • Demonstrates understanding of one-to-one correspondence.
  • Can complete puzzles with 8-12 pieces.
  • Can copy a square.
  • Can cut on curved lines.
  • By age 5 can write own name.
  • Can recognize numerals from 1 to 10.
  • Can choose objects that have a similar characteristic, and express why they are similar.

5 to 6 Years

Kindergartners and 1st graders can use pull-down menus to launch programs themselves (some will even install them for you!). They can also use the computer for simulations, creativity and even for reference. With some help, they can go onto the Internet to research a topic of interest, such as dogs, cats or that special pet lizard. This is a time when solid computer activities can play a valuable role in supporting and building school skills. By this age, children know where the keys are on the keyboard, and can hunt and peck their own names. But don't expect them to be able to type yet... formal typing skills will come much later.

  • Understands the concepts of tomorrow and yesterday.
  • Understands the concepts of morning and night.
  • Knows his or her birthday month.
  • Can tell time on the hour around age 6.
  • Associates most letters with their sounds.
  • Begins to recognize simple words.
  • Knows both upper and lower case letters.
  • Can match simple words with each other.
  • Can answer “why” questions appropriately.
  • Waits for turn while playing or while waiting for adult attention.
  • Can follow the rules and directions of a classroom.
  • Continues to engage in pretend play with themes familiar to child.
  • Can adeptly use tools such as scissors, hammers, screwdrivers, etc. Can use scissors to cut out magazine pictures.
  • Can use visual details to determine if two pictures are the same or different.
  • Can copy a triangle.
  • Can color pictures within the lines.
  • Can write numerals from 1 to 10.
  • Completes 10 to 15 piece puzzles.
  • Can solve simple addition and subtraction exercises (If I had 4 apples and added 1 apple, how many would I have?).

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