Cognitive development is the process of how humans acquire, make sense of, and use information.
As the brain matures, cognitive development becomes more complex.
An example of cognitive development is the emergence of language skills in children in the first 3 years of age.
Within the first year of life, children begin to understand the meaning of words, the definition of concepts, and can engage in verbal communication with others.
Cognitive develop continues to advance right through to your mid-20s to involve increasingly more complex mental processes such as abstract thinking, innovation, and scientific reasoning.
Cognitive Development Examples
- Reflex schema (0-1 months): A one-month-old infant prefers to look at faces. It is soothing to see the face of her mother.
- Primary circular reactions (1-4 months): Babies start to follow objects at they move. They can track a ball rolling along the floor.
- Object permanence (8-24 months): Raj loves his toy duck that squeaks when squeezed, but as soon as his father puts it under a hat, he forgets about it completely. By 24 months, he realizes the duck still exists even if he can’t see it.
- Symbolic play (2-4 years): Baby Sammy has started to use physical objects to represent other objects during play. She uses dolls as babies and pushes a block pretending it’s a truck.
- Another symbolic play example (2-4 years): Javier loves to pretend his board eraser is a phone and acting like he is talking to imaginary friends.
- Learning to share (5+ years): Rhea really wants to use the pink crayon, but her friend is using it. So, she offers her a pink marker instead, which her friend accepts. She seems to have moved into Kohlberg’s individualism and exchange substage in his theory of moral development.
- Intuitive thought (4-7 years): At around 4 years of age, Jason starts increasing the amount of questions he asks about the world, focusing on questions like “why?” and “how come?”
- Obedience and discipline orientation (Up to about 7 years): Evelin does what her parents want her to do because she likes rewards and doesn’t like when her mother is mad at her.
- Overcoming egocentrism (7+ years): Katie used to only be able to see things from her perspective, but lately she has surprised her dad with comments that show she can put herself in someone else’s shoes.
- Developing empathy (7+ years): Maria sees her preschool friend crying. So, she walks over and gives her a hug… and an Elsa sticker.
- Development of inductive reasoning (7-11 years): Zoe starts to make generalizations from personal experiences. She sees a truck run a red light and decides that all trucks are bad because they run red lights.
- Concrete mathematical thinking (7-11 years): Alexander can engage in mathematical thinking but stull struggles when numbers are represented by letters in algebra.
- Seriation (6+ years): Theo has learned to thread beads in a repeated pattern of red-red-blue-green to make a beautiful and sequential necklace.
- Conventional morality (10+ years): Harry starts developing a belief that people should follow the rules or else structure and order would disappear, and in his head society needs structure.
- Abstract thought (11+ years): Carla’s mother has noticed she is making up a lot of hypothetical stories in her mind which have very little to do with reality.
- Counterfactual thinking (11+ years): Jordana’s father has noticed her reflection skills are dramatically improving. She will often say things like “If I had practiced piano over the holidays, I’d be really good at it by now.”
- Metacognition (11+ years): Brenda has been thinking a lot about how she learns lately. The other day, she told her teacher that she thinks she’s better at learning by watching things than reading things.
- Postconventional morality (15+ years): Emily has started developing a sense of political morality, often making remarks about universal human rights, and is often scathing of her government for infringing on individual freedoms.
Theories of Cognitive Development
1. Piaget’s Theory
Piaget’s theory is the most influential theory of cognitive development. This theory was a foundational theory in promoting research into cognitive milestones of children.
Piaget’s theory is a stage-based theory that proposes the children develop in a series of linear and pre-set stages in their lives.
The four stages in Piaget’s Theory
- Sensorimotor stage (0 – 2 years): Babies develop cognitive skills such as object permanence, goal directed action, and deferred imitation (see image below).
- Preoperational stage (2 – 7 years): Young children develop cognitive skills such as symbolic thought (such as language use and symbolic play) yet remain egocentric (meaning they cannot see things from others’ perspectives).
- Concrete stage (7 – 12 years): Students develop more complex logical thinking skills and master the skill of conservation (see image below).
- Formal operations stage (12 – 18 years): Teenagers start developing deductive reasoning, metacognitive skills, abstract thought, and complex moral reasoning.
2. Sociocultural Theory (Vygotsky and Rogoff)
Vygotsky didn’t believe that cognitive development was stage-based. Instead, he believed that it was a function of your sociocultural context. This led to the sociocultural theory of development.
One of the greatest criticisms of Piaget’s stage-based approach is that it’s so rigid. It assumes all children develop at around about the same rate.
This opens to the door to some big questions. For example, does that mean we shouldn’t teach children? Will they just learn at their own natural pace without adult help?
Vygotsky didn’t think so. He thought that children are pushed through cognitive development by parents, teachers, and the community.
Barbara Rogoff helped back-up Vygotsky’s theory by conducting ethnographic studies outside of the West, finding that children develop certain physical and cognitive skills at different rates because it was more valuable in their society to develop at a different rate.
3. Montessori’s Stages
Maria Montessori came up with her own stages of development at around about the same time as Piaget. She developed her stages based on observations of children in her schools.
According to Montessori, each stage of development involved sub-stages of development of new knowledge and consolidation of of knowledge.
Interestingly, like Piaget, Montessori thought development was quite linear and universal among children around the world.
For more on Montessori’s stages, see our article on the four planes of development.
4. Kohlberg’s Theory
Another influential theorist is Kohlberg, who came up with stages of moral development, which we could consider to be a part of cognition.
- Preconventional morality. Up to ages 9-10. Children’s morality is generally related to rewards, punishments, and gratification.
- Conventional morality. Ages 10 and up. Children’s morality develops to think about the maintenance of social structure and fairness.
- Postconventional morality. From age 15 and up. Late adolescents and adults think about complex moral problems that balance individual and social rights. They are concerned with the social contract and cultural universals.
Cognitive Development Case Studies
1. Assimilation and Accommodation
These two concepts are the foundation of learning. Assimilation refers to how we process incoming stimuli based on our current understanding, or schema. Accommodation refers to the process of changing our understanding, or changing the schema, to adjust to new information.
For example, one day while in a stroller with mom and dad, a cat runs across the sidewalk. The baby has never seen a cat before, so he points to the cat and says “doggy”. The child’s schema for “dog” includes the concepts of: furry animal, four legs, tail.
The child interprets stimuli according to its existing schema. This is assimilation.
Mom and dad have a chuckle and then say “cat”. Now the child will modify their understanding to include two schemas: one for dog and one for cat. This is accommodation; altering an existing schema to take into account new information.
According to Piaget (1936),
“Assimilation can never be pure because by incorporating new elements into its earlier schemata the intelligence constantly modifies the latter in order to adjust them to new elements. Conversely, things are never known by themselves, since this work of accommodation is only possible as a function of the inverse process of assimilation … In short, intellectual adaptation, like every other kind, consists of putting an assimilatory mechanism and a complementary accommodation into progressive equilibrium” (p. 6-7).
The above video gives a quick explanation of how assimilation and accommodation work.
2. Stacking Blocks
One of the earliest forms of cognitive development is manifest by increased motor coordination. Babies get better at controlling and coordinating their movements. This is called sensorimotor development.
For example, an infant just a few months old can barely grasp an object and throw it. However, as they get older, the muscles in their hands grow and the brain can exert greater control over their movement.
As a few months pass, the control becomes more precise. Around the age of 18 months, children will be able to perform more advanced movements such as stacking blocks or rings.
Take a look at the baby stacking rings in the video above. Take note of their coordination and consider the mental processes they are engaging as they assess which ring should be placed next.
3. Conservation Skills
An interesting milestone in cognitive development occurs around the age of 4 years old. Children begin to understand that the quantity of an object is not purely a function of its shape.
For example, let’s suppose a very young child is hungry and says they want two cookies. So, you give them one large cookie because you know that is a big cookie and is more than enough.
However, in the child’s mind, it is just one cookie. They are unable to perform the mental operation necessary to understand the quantity is sufficient.
However, if you then break the cookie in half and give “both” cookies to the child, they will be satisfied. In their mind, they have two cookies.
Now, for a child that has developed conservation, their cognitive development allows them to understand that the two small cookies and the one large cookie represent the same quantity.
4. Engaging in Symbolic Play
Children have great imaginations. They can pretend that a stick is everything from a sword to a horse. They love to pretend that objects are really other things and they don’t mind changing the meaning of that object from second to second. This is called symbolic play.
Göncü and Gaskins (2012) offer a very straightforward definition of symbolic play:
“…the kind of play in which children use one thing, such as an object or language, to serve as a “signifier” (e.g., a stick), to represent the meaning of another entity, the “signified” (e.g., a horse)” (p. 48).
Very simple versions of symbolic play can be seen around the age of 2 years old. As the child matures, symbolic play can become more complex and abstract.
Although symbolic play just looks like play, it actually serves a very valuable purpose. It helps children exercise their imagination, organize the world they see on a daily basis, and when it involves others, teaches them about conflict resolution.
5. Development of Empathy
Empathy is an interesting phenomenon. Understanding what others are feeling represents an advanced stage of cognitive development. We can see examples of empathy in very young children beginning around the age of two or three years old.
For example, when one child sees another child being upset, they may go over to them and give them a hug or try to give them a gift to make them feel better.
This is empathy at a very rudimentary level.
Ever more advanced forms of empathy occur much later in childhood and involve perspective taking. This is when a person can put themselves in the shoes of another and understand their point of view.
Although it sounds simple enough, there are many individuals that fail to advance to this stage of cognitive development. They exhibit what is referred to as egocentrism: the dominance of one’s own opinions and views.
Other Domains of Development
Developmental psychologists tend to examine development in the following domains:
- Physical development – The development of fine and gross motor skills, representing the ability to control and use your body.
- Social development – The development of social skills in order to have fulfilling and constructive relationships with both close family members and strageers within your orbit.
- Cognitive development – As outlined in this article.
- Emotional development – The development of a child’s emotional skills, including the ability to identify, communicate, and regulate emotions.
Cognitive development is virtually synonymous with brain development. During infancy, when the brain is vastly underdeveloped, a baby’s experience in the world is processed through their senses.
They have very little in the way of “thoughts”, so external stimuli are touched, smelled, seen, and also tasted. As the brain matures, children form mental concepts for objects and experiences.
Eventually language skills develop and children can listen, speak, and communicate with the others. This leads to being able to read and write, while other aspects of cognitive development such as motor skills also continue to flourish.
Bibace R. (2013). Challenges in Piaget’s legacy. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 47(1), 167–175. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-012-9208-9
Beilin, H., & Fireman, G. (1999). The foundation of Piaget’s theories: Mental and physical action. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 27, 221–246. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0065-2407(08)60140-8
Göncü, A., & Gaskins, S. (2012). Comparing and extending Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s understandings of play: Symbolic play as individual, sociocultural, and educational interpretation. In P. E. Natahn & A. D. Pellegrini (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play (pp. 48-57). Oxford University Press. https://oi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195393002.013.0005
Müller, U., & Liben, L. S. (2015). The development of executive function. In R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben, U. Mueller, R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben & U. Mueller (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Cognitive Processes (pp. 571-613). Somerset, England: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Orr, E., Geva, R. (2015). Symbolic play and language development. Infant Behavior and Development, 38C, 147-161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.01.002
Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of Intelligence in the Child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.