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Children's Cognitive Development

Skills must mature – the most important steps in children's cognitive development

The skills which are important for behaving safely in road traffic only develop gradually in children. The ability to see and hear, concentration skills and motor skills grow over time. We spoke to the traffic psychologist, Professor Maria Limbourg, from the University of Duisburg-Essen about children's development stages. A summary of the most important points is given below:

  • Scientists speak of a child's egocentric perspective: I can see the car so the car must be able to see me! And if I can run quickly and then come to a standstill all of a sudden, the bus over there will definitely be able to do that as well. Braking distances, the dead blind spot or the simple fact that an adult behind the wheel does not see the same things as the young road user on the sidewalk: it is very difficult for a child up to the age of around six or seven years old to understand all this. Eight-year-olds leave this egocentric perspective behind them; this is an important prerequisite for using the road on one's own.
  • At the age of eight years old, children can estimate the distance of a vehicle relatively well. By contrast, younger children think large objects are nearby and they believe smaller things are far away – even if a lorry and a small car are directly beside each other.

  • Estimating the correct size and distance is necessary to determine the approximate speed of a vehicle. Ten-year-olds generally succeed in doing this, at least in urban traffic. Making an accurate estimate is not all that easy; even adults have difficulty correctly assessing the speed of a car on freeways.

  • Awareness of dangers develops in phases: Three-year-olds generally do not recognize dicey situations at all. At around six years old, they can at least sense that they are hurtling at full speed on their bike towards an obstacle, even if there is almost nothing they can do to prevent themselves from falling off. Eight-year-olds often notice in advance whether the road is possibly unsuitable for riding their bike. At around ten years of age, they succeed in looking for an alternative route straight away.

  • Up to the age of nine years old, children's visual field is up to 30% less than that of an adult. This means that they do not notice cars coming from the side until much later.

  • Children starting school still find it difficult to locate the direction from which a noise is coming; by the time they are eight years old, doing so is no longer so difficult. Only at this age do they gradually start using their sense of hearing in order to navigate their way through road traffic.

  • Even if cycling straight ahead does not present any problems, the motor skills of a school-going child up to the age of six or seven are barely sufficient for cycling in road traffic; the sequence of motions is too complex. Keeping one's balance, braking abruptly, cycling around the bend, giving signals, avoiding obstacles: at the age of around eight, children can master these skills to the extent that they can gradually navigate their way in traffic on their own. A prerequisite for this is appropriate road traffic education in school. Up to this time, the rule is: stay on the sidewalk (even when cycling) - this is actually compulsory until children reach the age of eight years old. Up until the age of ten, children in Germany are allowed to cycle on the sidewalk, naturally as long as they pay attention to pedestrians (who have priority here). But cycling is not yet totally safe for children of this age; it is not until they turn 14 that they can concentrate and react