Middle childhood ushers in a way of thinking that seems somehow more familiar, more similar to the way parents think. Thinking itself is no longer magical, since children 6-7 years to 11 years have a fairly good grasp of reality. Yet thinking in middle childhood can be rich in fantasy or adventure, filled with stories of mythical superheroes, science fiction, and even some elaborate fantasy play. This shift in thinking appears because children this age begin to reason. They are able to plan, organize, imagine solutions logically, and begin to grasp consequences. In tandem with this, they are increasingly competent in activities of daily life and are able to take much more responsibility for self care and obligations.
Children this age are also building a clearer sense of self and form friendships that are satisfying and important to them.
All these expanding competencies occur on a comparatively quiet stage. Children in middle childhood have expanded confidence in their capabilities and are less likely to be frustrated. They are also free from the turbulent changes of puberty and adolescence. As a result, many parents find this a very calm and engaging time, in which they can truly get to know their child and share in exploring his or her many gifts and qualities.
Developmentalists generally agree that the way children manage and understand information changes rather dramatically after age 6.
Most parents are pretty aware of this too; children just seem more mature in the way they reason. It is clearly much more than simply having learned more facts and more words. There are different ideas about what exactly causes the change. Neurological development, growth of memory and changes in the way information is processed all seem to be involved.
One clear change is that children this age . . .
Have you noticed how children in elementary school often have collections of stuff? Rock collections, stamp collections, coin collections, all sorts of trading and theme cards, dolls from around the world, and even books from a series are incredibly popular.
Collecting tends to be very popular during middle childhood. This is largely due to an interesting and very observable change in categorization strategies. While younger children are keenly figuring out what things belong in what category and are learning words for these things– animal, toy, food, vehicle — children 6 or 7 years to around 11 years are fascinated by relationships among categories and in different kinds of hierarchical structures. This is a new way of thinking that reflects expanding abilities to use logic in grouping things together and recognize variability. While children this age are continuing to amass information, as they did when they were younger, during middle childhood they really begin to conceptually manipulate the facts they have learned.
The thinking and social abilities involved in collecting
Dinosaurs and dogs are both animals, but one is mammal and the other reptile. Dogs are related to wolves and coyotes, and both are part of a larger group called canines. Dogs and dinosaurs are grouped together as, say vertebrate animals, and they are therefore different from non-vertebrates and from plants or minerals. Yet dogs and dinosaurs also differ from one another in other ways. Thinking like this shows flexibility and logic since relationships vary by circumstance.
This fascination with principles of categorizing and classifying is clearly seen in collecting. Children this age delight in collecting, organizing and trading. While little children sometimes like to gather favorite things, like stuffed animals or stickers or different kinds of legos, they do not organize their collections or think about them as older children do.
Not only do they collect, but school age children love to talk about their collections with other children; trading items, sharing facts, exploring and telling about new additions. This reflects expanding social abilities. During middle childhood, children are opening to others and creating friendships based on shared interests and compatibility, creating with their peers new kinds of social relationships that are important and meaningful. Friendships based on shared interests are very important and different from friendships of younger children., which often turn on proximity and familiarity. Through these friendships, school age children are expanding their sense of self and building a rich range of social skills related to sharing, cooperating, negotiating and connecting. Collections provide a tangible means for doing this.
So collecting has both cognitive and social aspects to it. Happily, collections needn’t be expensive — lots of items are free or very low cost. (Nature freely provides rock and bug collections.)
Applying the information
If your child shows an interest in collecting, you may want to encourage it. Gently, not getting in the way or taking over, by Scaffolding Skillfully. You can help make it possible for your child to gather things. You may want to let her do tasks to earn spending money if it is needed. You can help your child learn to gather information about the things he collects by searching in books and libraries, using on-line search engines, going to shows, museums, exhibits or sporting events. You can make it easy for her interact with friends, in person or by sharing photos or even texting, whatever ways suit your child’s age and your guidelines. An added bonus to collecting is that it is likely to increase time spent thinking and socializing and reduce time spent merely staring at electronic devices.
Have you noticed your school age child likes to make plans? At least sometimes. This is new. Effective planning relies on the capacity to decenter, think flexibly, and take into account several factors of an event or situation. Studies of planning usually look at how well children can plan to quickly get through a maze. Mazes are drawn on paper or are small models children can look at and then figure out how to go through them. Findings from these studies consistently indicate that 7 to10-year-olds are vastly more successful than 4 to 6-year-olds.
The same planning and thinking skills are what make games of strategy so popular with this group. Board games such as checkers, Guess Who, Mastermind, and, a little later, Clue and chess are time-honored hits. Similarly, an ever expanding range of electronic and online games that require strategies, logic and planning are geared towards this age group. On playgrounds, games with rules appear, including elaborate child-invented rules.
In the real world, children this age are increasingly excited and able to plan events such as sleepovers, parties, and sports competitions and these allow them to coordinate their expanding thinking skills with their developing social skills.
Planning abilities also open the door to accepting greater responsibility. It may seem logical that during the elementary years children will gradually take control of recurring obligations, things like homework and self care for example. Yet despite the expanding capacity to plan, legions of children fail miserably at these things.
Being able to plan doesn’t equal being responsible!
The reason for the apparent discrepancy in ability and behavior is that assuming responsibility takes a lot more than being able to plan. It also requires well developed self regulation and several aspects of executive function. Self regulation involves an individual’s adopting social standards of acceptable behavior. Executive function is an array of higher level cognitive processes that regulate attention, are involved in retrieval of information from memory and enable inhibition of thoughts and activity. Inhibition here means being able to ignore distractions or being able to stop one activity and switch to another because it is appropriate to do so, not just because one wants to. Executive function develops slowly over many years and requires maturation of particular brain regions, especially those in the pre-frontal cortex. This neurological development cannot be hastened and in fact continues to mature into early adulthood.
So, your school aged child has a rapidly expanding ability to plan, but remembering, stopping pleasurable activities in order to handle obligations, and exhibiting self-regulation are still developing. This is why you may see a discrepancy between what you know your child is able to do and what she or he actually does. It isn’t necessarily being lazy or irresponsible.
Suggestions for parents
During middle childhood, your child will probably love to take charge of things or plan social events and activities, and she or he has a rapidly expanding capacity to do so. Providing opportunities to practice this build skills, confidence and enthusiasm. You may want to engage your child in planning events, for himself or the family more generally. Children this age also like to plan things together and doing so builds social skills. Collaboration with others also leads to fuller and more complete planning since suggestions are weighed and agreed on. You may want to encourage your child to plan, or help you plan, parties, sport meets, family excursions, overnight visits to friends and family, or planning meals, photo albums and other activities your family enjoys.
♥ However, you will need to scaffold implementation of plans and responsibilities by taking on some of the responsibility for regulation, remembering and balancing activities.