Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
When people think of dramatic changes in children over time, they typically think about the first two or three years of life. Although these years are marked by striking changes, the developmental and social changes that occur between ages 6 and 14 are dramatic, as well. Imagine a six-year-old girl starting first grade—maybe she has braids in her hair and is wearing a cute dress; she looks like a little girl and she is likely to be quite excited about going off to school. Her parents still exercise great control over her comings and goings; their biggest worries are likely to be about her safety when crossing streets and about her adjustment to elementary school. Now imagine that same girl as a 14-year-old starting the ninth grade: She now looks like a full-grown woman, leading her parents to worry about the negative influences of peers, premature sexual relationships, and the risk that she may come to physical harm during the many hours that she is away from home.
Equally dramatic changes occur in the social contexts where youngsters spend time. A six-year-old boy is likely to be enrolled in a local neighborhood elementary school—perhaps within walking distance from home. By age 14, he will have changed schools at least once, moving into a junior high school or middle school. He may be looking forward to his classes, or he may have already psychologically turned his back on formal schooling. He may have sampled out-of-school activities from Scouts to basketball to handling a paper route. Because the experiences both boys and girls have in school and other activities will shape their development through this pivotal age period, efforts should be made to optimize these experiences, as recommended in the other articles included in this journal issue.
This article provides an overview of the kinds of biological, psychological, and social changes that characterize the years between 6 and 14. To facilitate the presentation, those years are divided into two broad periods: middle childhood (approximately ages 6 to 10) and early adolescence (approximately ages 11 to 14). Children's development during both periods is driven by basic psychological needs to achieve competence, autonomy, and relatedness. They seek opportunities to master and demonstrate new skills, to make independent decisions and control their own behavior, and to form good social relationships with peers and adults outside the family.1
Each period is marked by basic biological and cognitive changes, as well as changes in the social surroundings where children's daily lives unfold. Exercising their growing autonomy in school and organized programs, children learn about the world outside the family, match themselves against the expectations of others, compare their performance with that of their peers, and develop customary ways of responding to challenges and learning opportunities. Through these years, they forge a personal identity, a self-concept, and an orientation toward achievement that will play a significant role in shaping their success in school, work, and life. Although researchers and policymakers have focused on the school as the critical arena in which development occurs and children's futures are sculpted, out-of-school programs offer alternative environments in which children can learn about themselves and their worlds, and can discover opportunities for carving their own versions of success.