of development that are systemically defined. From Piaget’s perspective, the emerging capacities of the preschool (or “preoperational”) period involve the development of symbolic abilities: language, imitation, symbolic play, and drawing. While much learning is involved, it takes place in the here and now and focuses largely on the perceptible.
More recent research has led many to reinterpret the stage theorists’ views; there is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. These data focus attention on the child’s exposure to learning opportunities, calling into question simplistic conceptualizations of developmentally appropriate practice that do not recognize the newly understood competencies of very young children, and they highlight the importance of individual differences in children, their past experiences, and their present contexts.
Recent research on cognitive development also emphasizes the role a supportive context can play in strengthening and supporting learning in a particular domain. Indeed, techniques that provide a window into the developing brain allow us to see that stimulation from the environment changes the very physiology of the brain, interlocking nature and nurture. Research from a variety of theoretical perspectives suggests that a defining feature of a supportive environment is a responsible and responsive adult. Parents, teachers, and caregivers promote development when they create learning experiences that build on and extend the child’s competence—experiences that are challenging, but within reach. To do so, these adults must be sensitive to individual and developmental characteristics of the child.
Developmental trends occur in a similar fashion for all children. This does not, however, imply uniformity. On the contrary, individual differences due to genetic and experiential variations and differing cultural and social contexts have strong influences on development. The notion of lockstepped development in chil-