Perceptual development is an aspect of cognitive development that allows a young human being to start interpreting and understanding sensory input. In the first year of life, it proceeds extremely rapidly. As many parents are undoubtedly well aware, development occurs in leaps and bounds for many children at this age as they engage with the world around them and learn more about what they touch, see, smell, hear, and taste. Perceptual development is the reason that psychologists and people who study child development recommend providing children with stimulus-rich environments.
The process of perceptual development is very closely linked to motor development. For example, as infants grow, they begin to be able to support their heads on their own, and to turn their heads so that their eyes can scan their environment. Likewise, the ability to crawl and later walk allows opportunities for purposeful engagement with the surrounding world. For example, as an infant develops manual dexterity, she or he can start to manipulate objects such as rattles and balls.
Some aspects of perception are hardwired and start to manifest shortly after birth. Others, however, need to be refined or developed. For example, newborns do not have very good vision. Within weeks, however, they start to discern between different patterns, experience sharpening and improvement in color vision, and can track movements. Being surrounded with enriching materials such as brightly colored mobiles and patterned toys encourages this development in infants.
These changes are one of the things tracked by pediatricians over the course of a series of well baby and child appointments that are designed to identify developmental problems as early as possible. If a child's development does not follow the patterns established through study and observation of other children, it can be an indicator that the child has an impairment. For example, a child who does not respond to auditory stimuli or who is inconsistent about responding to it may have a hearing impairment or an auditory processing disorder.
Parents can create an environment that stimulates and promotes perceptual development in their children. Providing children with varied sensory input allows them to establish and develop neural pathways that will be used for life. Activities ranging from singing to children to snuggling with them can be beneficial, as can providing them with tools for enrichment, such as toys, artworks, and simple opportunities to engage with the environment and with other living beings, from adult humans to household pets.