Author: Stephanie Chan
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong
What is perceptual development?
Perceptual development refers to the development of cognitive skills involved in identifying, distinguishing, and interpreting sensory information, which comprises the early steps of our everyday cognitive processes. The environment around us is full of information. We receive information every day through our multiple senses, including sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the vestibular and proprioceptive senses that involve the sensation of movements, balance and body positions. Starting from the first day of life, infants are exposed to the sensory rich environment and begin to develop their abilities to use their multiple senses as they interact with the environment. At home, infants hear familiar voices and sounds around them, see the faces of the family members, strangers and novel objects, taste and smell their milk when it is mealtime, and are in contact with mummy and daddy’s bodies and common objects.
The importance of perceptual abilities to infants’ cognitive development
According to the influential psychologist Jean Piaget, infants and toddlers are in the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development. During this stage, sensory and motor experiences are key to cognitive development. Hence, the abilities to receive sensory information make up the foundation for developing other cognitive skills. Infants develop their concept of objects by learning about the characteristics of the objects, including their appearance, texture, and smell of the objects as they begin exploring with the objects. By observing the motions of objects, infants develop their knowledge about spatial relationships. Very commonly, infants also have the opportunity to watch what happens to objects and experience the consequences of actions, which are crucial for building their emerging concept of casual relationships. For example, when they drop a spoon from their highchairs, they can see that the spoon falls and hear the sound created as the spoon reaches the floor. These perceptual abilities also form the basis of cognitive development and development in other domains (e.g., language, physical, and socioemotional domains) in early childhood and school age.
Examples of perceptual abilities in infancy
Infants’ perceptual development is reflected as they begin to show interest towards what happens around them, react based on sensory stimuli experienced, explore the environment using multiple senses, distinguish among different properties, and show preferences for what they like and dislike. Heep Hong Society’s Child Learning Framework (2012) provides indicators of perceptual and sensory abilities demonstrated by infants and toddlers at different ages. Specifically, in the first six months, infants gradually recognise familiar faces, turn their heads towards sounds, react when touched and when they experience different smells and tastes.
Promoting Infants’ Perceptual Abilities at Home
Below are some tips and ideas for parents to promote infants’ perceptual abilities at home:
- Provide a safe and pleasant environment for infants to explore freely
Since exploration with senses promotes perceptual abilities, it is important to ensure that the environment for children to explore is safe and free of hazards. These include ensuring close adult supervision, providing child-safe materials and protective mats and keeping sharp objects and electricals away. The safe environment will provide a sense of security which is necessary for infants’ exploration and prevent injuries and unpleasant experiences.
- Positive interactions and modelling interest in exploring the environment
One of the ways that infants learn is through imitation and attention maintenance. Praising your children for their interests in exploration and showing interest in exploring the environment with multiple senses by describing your feelings and sensations will encourage infants to utilise these senses and draw their attention and interests towards things around them in the environment.
- Include toys and natural materials of different properties
When deciding what toys and materials to include in the environment, you can arrange common objects with diverse characteristics that invite using different senses. By including toys and things with different shapes, textures (soft, hard, smooth, squishy, sticky) and properties (objects that are wet or dry, that bounce or roll, or have different kinds of smell and sounds). Natural materials in the environment, for example, fruits, water, rocks, leaves, and cotton naturally have different properties and are good ways of introducing the concept of objects too. Hence, exposure to outdoor environments also provides good opportunities for infants to explore.
- Galotti, K. M. (2017). Cognitive development: Infancy through adolescence (Second edition). SAGE.
- 協康會 (2012) 。兒童學習綱領。協康會。
- Illinois Early Learning Project. (2012). Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for children birth to age 3. https://illinoisearlylearning.org/ielg/