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What is Holistic Development in Early Childhood?

Holistic development is a commonly used term in the child development field. Here’s the definition of holistic development and why it’s important for you as a parent or teacher to be aware of it.

Holistic Development Meaning

What is holistic development in child development?

Holistic development refers to a child’s development in all areas – physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually and morally/spiritually

This usually happens through play, as play is the medium through which children learn during the formative years.

Humans are complex creatures that develop in multiple areas. This development happens at different rates, in different ways and uniquely for each child.

While there are separate areas of growth and development, they all need to develop simultaneously and they all work together to form the whole child. 

To put it simply, only focusing on one area of a child’s development – such as their intellectual skills – will not allow the child to develop fully or to reach their full potential.

What is a Holistic Approach to Development?

As the early years are a time of such rapid growth and learning, the best method for raising and teaching young children is to use a holistic childcare approach.

A holistic approach means that the parents, teachers and caregivers in a child’s life make a concerted effort to prioritise and stimulate all their developmental areas.

This means giving children learning opportunities that focus on the 5 aspects of holistic development:

  • Physical development – building gross motor and fine motor skills, sensory development and having physical needs met.
  • Social development – learning to communicate, share, take turns, work together, form meaningful friendships, resolve conflict and follow social norms.
  • Emotional development – expressing emotions in a healthy way, having emotional needs met, feeling and recognising emotions and developing emotional intelligence.
  • Mental (cognitive) development – developing intellectually, learning language and mental concepts such as sorting, sequencing and matching, and developing critical thinking skills.
  • Morals, values and beliefs – spiritual development, personality development, interaction with the environment, view of self, moral decision-making and understanding of moral norms.

In today’s world, it can be all too easy to fixate on one area of a child’s development over others. 

For example, when our babies are young, we are overly concerned with them reaching the physical milestones before the “average” for their age.

While some babies may be quick to reach these physical milestones, others may be focusing on developing their receptive language or working on other skills that may not be obvious to us as parents.

mom helping baby to paint

We would struggle to find adults who were still crawling or not yet potty trained, as they eventually develop all these skills, in their own time, and within a reasonable range of “developmentally appropriate.”

When our children grow into toddlers and preschoolers, we want them to learn all the numbers and letters and put pressure on them to show academic skills, when their social and emotional development is arguably more important at that stage.

To encourage holistic development in the early years, children must be given many opportunities and activities that develop multiple skills at once.

The best and most natural way for children to learn these skills is through play.

What is An Example of Holistic Development

An example of holistic development is when children play in a sandpit. This simple activity stimulates multiple areas of a child’s development, such as:

toddler playing in the sand pit

Any activity that is age appropriate, play-based and gives children the freedom to learn and express themselves is a great holistic activity.

The more freedom children have in guiding their own play, the more they will naturally learn. 

Take a child’s playdate, for example. If you leave kids to their own devices, without trying to plan their time for them, they will think up their own games and find ways to do things creatively.

Boredom is a wonderful starting point for a young child. It is a great motivator for thinking and finding ways to play and have fun. Try not to intervene and see what happens.

A child who is playing shop with a friend, setting up a store, negotiating prices and finding items to sell is learning far more skills than a child who is passively sitting and being “taught” with flashcards.

child playing pretend shop

Here are a few more holistic learning examples and the kinds of activities you should encourage kids to engage in:

So, the answer to the question ‘What is holistic development in the early years?” lies in appreciating that children are multifaceted and complex and that it is necessary to develop the whole child by focusing on the different areas, without losing sight of the whole.

De Witt, M. 2016. The Young Child in Context: A psycho-social perspective. Second edition. Van Schaik Publishers: Pretoria.

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Activity Pack for preschoolers

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