This is a time of remarkable change in social and cognitive skills. The six year old moves towards more independence, both intellectually and emotionally. There is a shift from learning through observation and experience to learning via language and logic. Choices can be difficult at this age, as the child is struggling with the impact on their decision downstream. That is, if they choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream, then they have to accept the fact that they are not going to eat vanilla ice cream. This realization of the impact of their choices on the quality of their lives can be profound in some children.

     The six year old craves affection from parents and teachers. The six year old is beginning to understand that words can hurt their feelings, and yet at the same time, each person has different sensitivities.

      As with every age, structure is important to facilitate adaptation. In the case of the six year old, the structure provides him help with adapting to school. Watching your child perform is critical to their self-esteem, as they need a meaningful audience for their newly acquired skills. Likewise, praise is very important at this age.

       The sad part about the six year old is that they are beginning to lose their imagination. Fantasy play diminishes considerably. Six year olds want to collect "real" things and they want to take "real" photographs. They want to engage in the world as if they were adults. The fancifulness of their play is receding.

       The six year old loves rules. Rules bind their anxiety so that they do not have to worry about what they should be doing. Left to their own devices, they often develop games with extensive rules and rituals. Order is extremely important. Order gives the six year old the opportunity to feel secure in what would otherwise be a scary world.

      This is the age where same-sex play is dominant. Girls and boys play differently. Boy play tends to be rough, competitive and not very berbal. Girl play involves creative fantasy and it tends to be more cooperative. Many parents worry about their child who wants to play with the opposite sex at this age, and yet, play preferences is about temperament, not sexual orientation.

      JoAnn Deak PhD has sggested that 20% of girls have a boy-style brain and 20% of boys have a girl style brain. In other words, children at this age want to play with other children who have similar brains.

       As feelings are evolving, so does the ability to have a best friend and to have an enemy. Children at six are understanding relationships, both positive and negative ones. As their cognitive skills develop, this is the age of black and white thinking. Things are right or wrong, wonderful or terrible. The middle ground has not entered into their thinking yet.

       Group play gives them a sense of security. Clubs are very helpful with this, so there is a draw towards activities such as girl scouts and boy scouts. A group activity such as working on a jigsaw puzzle or planting a garden can feel very rewarding. They need a sense of accomplishment.

      Collections are important to many six year olds as this gives them a sense of power. Collecting things reminds them about their place in the world. A collection gives them a sense of uniqueness and a sense of ownership. This also helps them develop a sense of responsibility to themselves.

     Reading begins at this age and as such they enter into a new world of story telling. Reading helps them develop ideas which they love to share with others (similar to the joy of blogging). By engaging in the written word, they are better able to understand the feelings of others.

      Sharing is common at this age. Part of sharing is the ability to wait their turn, which is part of the larger area of developing self-control. Conflicts can develop, but they can also negotiate to find happiness. They enjoy cooperating for a group goal (eg a play).

     In essence, six is the age of loving rules, goals, friendships and appreciation from others. The six year old child is developing new areas of mastery and they want appreciation for that. As adults we still crave the joy of learning new things and we still crave others to appreciate our growth. Thinking about six year olds reminds us how our past developmental stages are both past and present. As William Faulkner said, "the past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."


About the Author

Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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