Cognitive Development: A Complex Process


The process a child makes between making little sounds to talking, from crying at everything to maturing is incredible. That process is known as cognitive development. What is cognitive development? What are the four big stages of cognitive development? What are the theories of cognitive development? What are the cultural influences and history of cognitive development? What are some tips to help parents with cognitive development during different stages of development?

Cognitive Development
Cognitive Development

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development, also known as intellectual development, is defined as the construction of thought processes- this includes decision making, memory, and problem-solving, throughout life from childhood to adulthood. Cognitive development is the topic of scientific study of fields such as psychology and neuroscience. It focuses on one’s cognitive development throughout the growth process. For example, it takes a specific look at language learning, information processing, perceptual skills, and conceptual resources to other processes that develop more in an adult brain. Another example could be that how a child wakes up and the process of waking up for a child is different than that of an adult.

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What are the 4 big stages of cognitive development?

Sensorimotor: Birth – 18-24 months.

The sensorimotor stage is the stage that lasts from birth to two-years-old. In this stage, behaviors don’t have logic or make sense. For example, crying because a child can’t find their blanket. The behaviors move gradually from acting upon the inherited reflexes and behaviors to interacting with the surrounding environment more reasonably. The sensorimotor stage is commonly broken down into six mini-stages depending on the child’s age.

Cognitive Development
Cognitive Development

Birth to one-month-old: everybody is born with innate and inherited reflexes that they use to gain understanding and knowledge about their surroundings. For instance, sucking and grasping.

Between one and four-months-old: Children repeat behaviors that happen due to their reflexes. For example, their reflex is to grasp the raddle and then they simply repeat that gesture. Children try to create schemes, groups of similar actions or thoughts, to create assimilation and accommodation to adapt better to the world around them.

  • Assimilation means when a child responds to a new situation in a way that is already consistent with an existing scheme. For instance, when a child gets a new toy such as a teddy bear, they often suck or put the toy in their mouths. Sucking is an existing scheme that the child is applying to the new situation of having a teddy bear.
  • Accommodation means when a child modifies, changes, or creates an entirely new scheme to deal with a new situation. For instance, an infant opens its mouth wider than usual to make way to the paw of the teddy bear.

Between five and eight-months-old:- When a child has an experience with external stimuli that they find pleasurable, they naturally try to reenact and recreate that experience. For example, when a child hits the mobile above them and it spins or makes noise, that’s pleasurable to the child and they repeat the action because the result is fun. This is the point in which habits are formed from general schemes. However, at this stage, children still can’t focus on multiple things at once.

From eight to twelve-months-old-: Behaviors happen for a reason rather than by chance. A child can begin to understand that an action causes a reaction. The child can also begin to understand object permanence. That is to say, if a baby is playing with a raddle and you put a blanket on top of the raddle, the baby begins to understand that the raddle is still there, under the blanket, rather than thinking the raddle completely disappeared.

From one-year-old to eighteen-months-old- At the stage, actions happen deliberately with a slight variation. For instance, a baby can drum on a pot of object with a wooden spoon but also drum on the table or on the floor.

From eighteen-months-old to two-years-old- children begin to pretend play and construct mental symbols. For example, a child is mixing together some ingredients but they lack a spoon. They find something else to use as a makeshift spoon. Infants begin to act with intelligence rather than habit.

Preoperational: Toddlers (18-24 months) -early childhood (age 7)

The preoperational stage begins once a child gains the mental ability to grasp reality and lasts from age 2 until ages 6 or 7. There are two ways to characterize this stage according to Piaget. In his earlier works, he described a child’s thought process in this stage as having egocentrism, animism, and the like in charge and governing the child. In other words, the child, being egocentric, acts in his own favor or sees a situation only in their point of view and doesn’t understand the perceptions of others. The child, being animistic, believes that inanimate objects are lifelike with human emotions, intentions, and thoughts which is why children love playing with dolls and adults often don’t. Children also often use symbols in this stage which can be seen when they play and pretend.  

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Concrete operational. Ages 7 to 12.

The Concrete Operational Stage lasts from ages 6/7 to ages 12/13 depending on the child. Within this stage, a child’s cognitive ambition is characterized by reality. According to Piaget, it’s the same principle that can actually be used to discern many behaviors. Another big achievement cognitively in this stage is conservation. For example, a child looks at two beakers filled with the same amount of liquid, but one beaker is shorter than the other. A child in the preoperational stage could probably say that the taller beaker has more liquid, but the concrete operational child could say that both beakers contain the same amount of liquid. The ability to reason also begins to develop in this stage because of the principle of conservation.

 Formal operational. Adolescence through adulthood.

In the Formal Operational Stage, which lasts from age 12/13 until adulthood, is when people advance from logical reasoning with concrete examples to logical reasoning with abstract examples. Young adults tend to view themselves more in the future rather than the “here and now”. Some scientists believe that this stage can be further broken down into the early formal operational stage in which thoughts are fantasies or the late formal operational stage in which life experiences change how realistic those fantasy thoughts are.

Theories of cognitive development

Piaget’s Theory

The founder of Piaget’s Theory, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) thought that people go through different stages of development that allowed them to think in more and new complex ways. These stages include the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the Formal Operational Stage. There is some criticism for Piaget’s theory because many claim that his theory has fallen out of favor. For instance, Piaget said that a young child cannot conserve numbers. However, many parents know and many experiments have proven otherwise. Furthermore, Piaget’s stages end in young adulthood whereas there are further stages of adult cognitive development given by other scientists in the field such as Robert Kegan.

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Neo-Piagetian theories

There are, of course, non-Piagetian theories concerning cognitive development which emphasize the roles of information processing systems and mechanisms such as the working memory and attention control. These scientists suggest that the Piagetian stages work more as a strengthening of control mechanisms and amplifying the storage capacity of the working memory.

Core Systems of Cognition

There are several skills that are involved in and are necessary to the cognitive development of a brain. Empiricists study how these “advanced” skills are learned in such a little amount of time. There is a debate that they are learned either by domain-specific cognition or general cognition learning devices. These researchers have set a number of “core domains” that suggest children have an innate ability to develop these.

  • Space. Young children can have navigation skills. There is evidence that these navigation and directional skills are connected to language development skills between 3 and 5 years old.
  • Numbers. Infants have been shown to have two different mechanisms to confront numbers. One deals with the larger numbers in a more approximate way while the other system deals with smaller numbers, known as subitizing.
  • Essentialism. Young children think of animals, plants, and other biological entities in an essentialistic way. They expect these things to have certain traits which gives them a certain “essence”.
  • Language Acquisition. A widely studied field, the traditional way to view it is that language is developed due to the deterministic, human-only genetic make-up and processes. The other theories believe that social interaction and experience is what helps us develop language.
  • Visual Perception. There is evidence that a child who is only 72 hours old has a depth perception for complex things such as biological motion. However, the evidence isn’t clear as to whether the visual experience within the first 72 hours contributes to this ability to whether it’s already developed when the baby leaves the womb.

Whoft’s Hypothesis

Benjamin Whoft, who lived from 1897 until 1941, thought that a person’s thinking depended on the content and structure of their language. That is to say, Whoft hypothesized that language determines how we think and perceive things. For instance, it’s thought that the Egyptians who wrote right to left thought quite differently than the Greeks who wrote left to right even though the countries are not far from each other in geographical location. Whorf’s belief was so strict that he thought that if a word didn’t exist in a language, then that person had no idea of that object’s existence. This theory went so far as to play a role in Goerge Orwell’s famous book, Animal Farm when the pig leaders eliminated words from the citizen’s vocabulary in order to render them incapable of realizing what the citizens were missing. The criticism is that people can still be aware of a concept or object even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.

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Quine’s hypothesis

Willard Van Orman Quine, who lived from 1908 to 2000, believed that there are biases that are innate and conceptual which enable language acquisition, beliefs, and concepts. His theory goes by nativist philosophical traditions which other philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, also went by.

Cultural Influences of cognitive development

Cognitive Development
Cognitive Development

Culture shapes and changes everything including perspective, thoughts, and more. Culture can influence so far as to have an effect on brain structure which then influences our interpretation of culture. There is research that has previously shown that one’s level of independence differs on cultural context. For instance and in general, Eastern Asia cultures are more interdependent compared to Western cultures which are more independent generally. Another study compared the brain of Japanese-English bilingual to American-English monolingual brains and responses in children while the child tried to understand another’s intention through cartoon tasks and false-belief stories. The study found universal activation in the bilateral region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The study concluded with the suggestion that the brain’s neural activities are culturally independent, not universal.

Tips on cognitive development

  • Sing songs and encourage the child to sing with you. This helps to create associations between images and words as well as promotes memory development.
  • Use the Alphabet Game. This involves cutting out alphabet pieces and taping them throughout the house. Have the child search for the alphabet pieces in order. Have them then tape up the alphabet while singing the song to associate image and word identification.
  • Shape Practice is using colorful, fun, or ball games which can help your child manipulate shares such as puzzles or playing with Legos.
  • Noise Identification helps teach a child to distinguish and identify sounds throughout the world- which differ greatly. It could be a tap running, birds singing, owl cooing, or a dishwasher grinding. Ask the child to identify which noise is what and then to relate them to actions in their daily environment.
  • The decision Game is all about making decisions. Ask the child if they prefer a burger or pizza for dinner; the brown sweater or green coat. By giving the child choices and enabling them to make decisions, they will feel more independent and this will facilitate their overall cognitive development as they grow.

History of cognitive development

The history of cognitive development goes a little something like this… Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, wrote On Education in 1762. Within the writing, he discusses childhood development as being three different stages. In the first stage, which goes from 0 to age 12, a child is guided by their impulses and emotions naturally. The second stage, which lasts from age 12 until age 15, is when the child’s reason begins to develop. Afterword, in stage three, which is from age 15 and up, a child begins to develop into an adult.

After Rousseau came along James Sully, an English psychologist, who wrote numerous books on childhood development. Two of these books, The Studies of Childhood and Children’s Way from 1897 used actual detailed studies he did himself.

After Sully comes Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, came up with a theory known as “the zone of proximal development”, also known as ZPD, which says that a child’s main activity should be to play in order to develop their emotions and cognitive development.

After Vygotsky, Maria Montessori had her fundamental research published in her book, The Discovery of the Child in 1946. She discusses the Four Planes of Development: from birth to age 6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. She developed the Montessori Method to help teach in each cognitive developmental stage.

After Montessori, Jean Piaget came along and tried to be the most successful in cognitive development. Piaget was the first psychologist to make a name for the scientific field of cognitive development. His biggest contribution to the field of study was his stage theory of child cognitive development. Sadly, he died in 1980.

Lawrence Kohlberg, who died shortly after Piaget, wrote the stages of moral development which took a look at Piaget’s findings and incorporated Kohlberg’s ideas, too. His notable works were Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Development Approach (1976) and Essays on Moral Development (1981).

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Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.