Child Development

To meet young people’s needs you will need to get to know them as individuals. However, there are also some theories and practical techniques that it is helpful for volunteers to understand to help understand how to support young people as they grow and develop.
Woodcraft Folk works with children and young people from birth through to adulthood. During their time as part of our organisation, young people grow and develop, physically, intellectually, emotionally and morally. While every group of young people will present its own challenges and opportunities, the Outcomes Matrix seeks to define outcomes that are broadly age-appropriate for each of our age groups. It may also be helpful for leaders to consider the wider context – the life events and the changes that take place in young people’s cognitive and emotional capabilities as they grow and mature.
Models of child development
 It is not uncommon for adults to forget that children and young people do not think and understand in the same way as they do themselves. There are a wide variety of theories and models about how children’s thoughts, feelings and social interactions develop. We have chosen to focus on two closely connected models that are easily linked into the way we work with children and young people – although these are by no means the only theories or approaches that can help to inform how adults work with children.
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, put forward his ideas about child development in the middle of the twentieth century. He suggested that children’s developing intellectual capacities are shaped by both the physical changes in the brain during childhood and adolescence and by how children make sense of the world and of others around them.
He proposed four main stages of development, which he referred to as follows:
StageApproximate Age
Sensori-motorBirth to 18 months
Pre-operational18 months to 7 years
Concrete operations7 to 12 years
Formal operations12 years and older
Babies start life with only very simple reflexes and the ability to see and hear the world around them, but rapidly develop the ability to make sense of their surroundings, control and direct their actions (e.g. to roll over or pull themselves up). This is matched by the development of the ability to hold more complicated ideas in their minds, such as understanding that an object still exists when it is out of sight.
The pre-operational stage
During this stage, a child develops the ability to think in more complex ways about the world around them. They learn to understand, for example, that pictures can represent things in the real world, and engage in imaginative play. A single item such as a cardboard box could be given many different meanings by a child, from a house to a spaceship.
However, at this stage, children will generally find it hard to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and see the world as others see it. A child will, for example, hide their face and assume that others can’t see them. They are less able to apply logical thought to a situation, and in particular find it challenging to reverse a series of events in their mind. Their understanding of how the world works can be based on imaginative ideas rather than observation and understanding of cause an effect; Piaget wrote about a conversation with a child who believed that the movement of clouds was caused by people and animals walking along.
The concrete operations stage
From around seven years old, children begin to understand more about their world, rather than making a judgement based on what they perceive around them. Piaget demonstrated by asking children to predict what would happen when water was poured in and out of different shaped containers; a ‘pre-operational’ child would not understand that a the same amount of water would reach the same level when poured back into the original container, a child at the ‘concrete operations’ stage could understand and predict the outcome accurately.
At this stage, children develop an ability to classify and order objects (e.g. to arrange them from smallest to largest), and to understand that how multiple factors can affect a situation (e.g. you can still get cold on a sunny day if the wind is blowing).
However, at this stage, children’s ability to understand big ideas and abstract concepts is not fully developed, although we can help them to understand big ideas by making them more ‘concrete’ –we might divide a cake in different ways to explore fairness, or play a game that simulates an aspect of the world in a manageable way.
The formal operations stage
From adolescence, young people develop greater flexibility of thinking and capacity for abstract thought. This increases their ability to solve problems for themselves, tackle complex and abstract ideas, and negotiate new situations with greater confidence. A successful programme for a group of Venturers, therefore, will provide opportunities for young people to explore and test these developing abilities, supported by their peers and by adult volunteers.
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg was influenced heavily by Piaget’s ideas about the development of cognitive abilities, and built on this to develop a theory about the development of children’s moral understanding, which is highly relevant both to the ways that we work with groups of children and young people, and to the big ideas about the wider world that Woodcraft Folk encourages its young members to explore. The model lays out three main phases, each of which is composed of two distinct stages:
Pre-conventional morality (childhood)1Avoiding punishment
2Instrumental – self-interest within relationships
Conventional morality (early adolescence)3Mutual expectations within relationships
4Upholding society’s rules
Post-conventional morality5Social contract – rules not absolute
Pre-conventional morality
At the pre-conventional stage, children’s understanding of morality comes from the consequences for themselves of the choices they make. At stage one, they are driven by the desire to avoid a punishment or sanction – they see something as ‘wrong’ because they were punished last time they did it. Stage two sees their understanding become slightly more complex – the child is still driven by self-interest, but will seek rewards as well as looking to avoid punishment. This also has an impact on children’s relationships with each other – they will exhibit kindness to others in the hope and expectation of receiving kindness and friendship in return. However, Kohlberg seeks to distinguish this from a sense of loyalty or respect which might be felt by an older child.
Conventional morality
The conventional level of morality sees young people measuring their actions against what they understand to be society’s standards and expectations. In this phase, the choices an individual makes are less driven by the potential consequences of their actions, but may still lack flexibility. At stage three, mutual expectations and respect begin to play a part. Young people come to understand the standards that constitute being ‘good’ and will try to live up to these to gain the approval of others. Stage four sees a developing sense of the importance of social norms – and the approval of wider society becomes important, in addition to the approval of individuals.
Post-conventional morality
In this phase, people develop their own moral and ethical sense, and come to an understanding that there are times when these might conflict with society’s rules. In stage five, there is an understanding that individuals may have hold differing moral views, and that rules and laws are socially constructed. Acting to promote the ‘greater good’, and making democratic decisions are important features of this stage of morality. Stage six sees wider ethical principles applied to moral considerations, and individuals’ actions are motivated by their conviction that their actions are morally ‘right’, according to their own system of beliefs.
Rather than moving in a linear fashion from one stage to the next, behaviour will be driven a combination of these stages of morality. Much of our adult behaviour is rooted in the fourth stage, dependent on society’s norms, including laws and social conventions. However, when we explore big ideas with groups of young people, we are encouraging them to examine their own moral sense and how this is at odds with the wider world, and our commitment to Education for Social Change drives us to explore with them how to construct a society in line with the moral principles we share.