As with language learning, children's early capacities to make sense of the world around them and learn from their experiences appear to be relatively robust features of early development. Studies that examine cultural variation often find similar developmental progressions across cultures in cognitive development, although this is not uniformly true (Avis and Harris, 1991; Diamond, 1991; Fernald et al., 1989; Flavell et al., 1983; Gelman, 1998; Slobin, 1997). This may be due to certain fundamental commonalities in cultures across the world, such as opportunities to interact with other people, to observe physical events, to observe countable numbers of things, and to hear language. Moreover, despite dramatically delayed cognitive development among children reared in highly depriving institutions, their recovery upon adoption into stable and loving families is equally dramatic (see Chapter 9). At the same time, however, some aspects of early learning are more susceptible to variations in children's environments, as well as to early insults arising from exposures to prenatal toxins and other damaging influences (see Chapter 8). Finally, early interventions can have significant effects on what children know and can do at school entry and, perhaps as a result, sometimes have lasting influences on their school trajectories.
We first portray aspects of early cognitive development and learning that proceed apace for almost all children who grow up in supportive early environments. We then describe aspects of early learning that are characterized by individual differences and discuss the debate about early learning and sensitive periods. Next, following a brief discussion of early achievement motivation, we review what is known about features of environments that foster or undermine early learning, including the influence of socioeconomic status. We close with a discussion of measuring early cognitive development. A companion report from the National Research Council titled Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers (National Research Council, 2000) discusses what science now tells us about instruction and teaching during the early years.
Infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years are times of intense intellectual engagement. Even 30 years ago, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that infants have memories, that they explore cause-and-effect sequences, or that they can engage in numerical reasoning. Today, thanks to the efforts of scientists who have developed new techniques for studying cognitive development, we know that they have these and many other amazing mental capacities.