December 12, 2016

Kacey Templin

Milestone Series: Cognitive Development



Every day, we as humans must reason, problem solve, conceptualize ideas, and make decisions, both minor and major. We don’t think about how we think, we just do it. As an adult, you know that when you place a cup in the cupboard and close the door, it hasn’t disappeared from existence. You know how to articulate complex ideas, such as driving directions or recipe instructions. You weren’t born knowing how to do these things, but over time, your brain developed to accommodate higher levels of cognition. Cognitive development is a complex and lifelong process. It encompasses everything from concrete knowledge about the world around us, to more abstract knowledge that includes a person’s temperament and personality. Today’s milestone post focuses on how your child’s thought process develops, and how you can help to encourage healthy development.

If we’re going to discuss cognitive development, it’s vital that we talk about Jean Piaget. Piaget was a 20th century Swiss psychologist that pioneered research on epistemology, or the study of the nature of knowledge. He was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development focusing on the process of qualitative development of knowledge (“how we come to know”) and child development.

While studying in a Parisian Lab, Piaget noticed that younger children’s answers to IQ questions were qualitatively different than older children’s answers. The younger children were not dumber, but instead, answered differently than the older children because they thought differently. This lead to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which focuses on the process of coming to know and states that a child’s cognitive development can be broken down into four stages from infancy to adulthood.  His theory has influenced developmental psychology for decades, and has increased the understanding of cognitive development greatly. 

Stages of Development

Sensorimotor Stage

During this stage, which lasts from birth to age two, children display intelligence through motor activity and without the use of symbols (language). The main achievement during this time is object permanence, or knowing that an object stills exists even if a child cannot see it. Some schemas, or a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes types of information and their relationships, are already pre-formed at birth as innate reflexes. The grasping reflex and sucking reflex would both be considered innate schemas. Touch an infant’s hand and they will instinctively grab your finger.


The beginning of true logic begins around the four to eight-month mark, when infants become more object-oriented, moving beyond self-preoccupation. Intentional actions that bring desirable results begin to occur. A child with grasp at the air in the direction of a desired object, and will differentiate between ends and means. Of the course of the next sixteen months, infants will learn the coordination of vision and touch schema, as well as goal orientation, or the deliberate planning of steps to meet an objective. The earliest forms of language and creativity are exhibited by the late part of this stage.

To promote object-permanence and memory, practice slowly hiding toys under blankets so that your child can see the toy disappear. Peek-a-boo is also a fun and easy way to develop memory skills. Expose your child to two sensory experiences at once, such as a cool and warm washcloth, or a smooth and bumpy surface. Babies can learn about object differentiation when you show them two objects with a fundamental difference such as color or size. Instead of swaddling your infant, let your child experience periods of unrestricted movement to practice motor skills. This stage is fun and easy to develop, as cognitive practices can be seen as a game.

Preoperational Stage

Between the ages of two and seven, children are able to think about things symbolically. This means that they can make one thing, such as a word or object, stand for something other than itself. There is an increase in play and pretending, but children still have trouble seeing things from different points of view.


During the first years of this stage, three concepts are of causality are displayed – animism, artificialism, and transductive reasoning. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of actions and emotions. Artificialism is the idea that environmental characteristics, such as trees or rain, can be attributed to human actions or interventions (clouds are white because they were painted). Transductive reasoning is when a child fails to understand the true relationships between cause and effect. Children will often draw conclusions between two separate events that are unrelated.

The latter part of this stage is punctuated by extreme curiosity. Children will ask many questions, and there is an interesting in reasoning. Children want to know why things are the way that they are. There is also a focus on centration, or the act of focusing all attention on one characteristic of a situation, and a lack of conservation, or the awareness that altering a substance’s appearance doesn’t change its basic properties.

Piaget’s most famous task experiment revolved around the conservation and centration. A child was presented with two identical beakers containing the same amount of liquid. The child usually noted that the beakers do contain the same amount of liquid. When one of the beakers was poured into a taller and thinner container, children who were younger than seven or eight typically said that the two beakers no longer contained the same amount of liquid, and that the taller beaker had the larger quantity (centration). These children did not take into account that they had previously seen the same amount of liquid in the originally beakers. They failed to understand that the properties of the substances continued to remain the same (conservation). 


To encourage healthy development during this stage, discuss events and how the child experienced them, as their perspective is still limited. Provide opportunities to play with objects that can be easily manipulated, such as clay or sand. Ask your child to talk about the changes they see when they play with these objects. Expand your child’s world experience by visiting new places, such as the zoo or local museum to help build learning and language concepts. It is important to provide your child with a wide array of situations in this stage, as their drive to understand the world is extremely strong.  

Concrete Operational Stage

This stage occurs between the ages of seven and eleven, and is considered a major turning point in the child’s cognitive development, because it marks the beginning of operational thought. Children can work things out in their head rather than try things out physically. Abstract, hypothetical thinking is not yet developed, but children are able to solve problems that apply to concrete events or objects. Inductive reasoning, or the ability to draw inferences from observations in order to make generalizations, is incorporated into this problem solving.


Preoperational stage egocentrism begins to diminish, as children can understand events from someone else’s perspective. An adolescent egocentrism begins to develop as children begin to think differently about social matters. Children have a heightened sense of self-consciousness, which is reflected in their sense of personal uniqueness and invincibility. This type of egocentrism can be split into two types of thinking – imaginary audience that involves attention-getting behavior, and personal fable, which involves the child’s individual identity.

Education at this stage should focus on brief, well-organized lessons. Continue to encourage object manipulation by demonstrating science experiments in which kids can participate. Give opportunities to classify and group objects and ideas on increasingly complex levels. Provide puzzles and riddles that require logical and analytical thinking. Supporting a child’s growth at this stage requires opportunities to sharpen logic skills.

Formal Operational Stage

In this final stage, beginning at age eleven and continuing into adulthood, children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts, and logically test hypotheses. Children become capable of deductive reasoning, which draws specific conclusions from generalizations. Intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts.


To encourage abstract thought, provide children with opportunities to discuss social issues occurring in “other worlds.” Discuss broad concepts, not just facts, using materials and ideas relevant to your child’s experiences. Encourage your child to explain how they solve homework problems so that they can begin to think about their logical processing abilities. When children are able to become self-aware of their thought process (known as metacognition), reasoning becomes easier.

Constructivist Learning

Piaget’s theory has helped to shape curriculum in many preschool and primary school programs, and provides the foundation for constructivist learning. Discovery learning and support of the child’s developing interest constitute two major aspects of this type of learning. In constructivist classrooms, the teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, and prompts, rather than as an expert that pours knowledge into passive students. Knowledge is not thought of as a set of facts meant to be memorized, but rather, a dynamic view of the world and the ability to explore that view. Constructionism in education settings has been shown to promote higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking.


In order to navigate our world, we must adapt and learn from our experiences. This is true for any living thing, but what sets us apart as humans is our ability to think in symbols and abstract concepts and to think about thought itself (metacognition). In a relatively short amount of time, people are able to develop these advanced cognitive skills that help us perceive everything about our existence. As your child grows, make sure to foster a healthy mind by setting the stage for cognitive competence. Children are born to learn, and when they acquire knowledge, the possibilities are endless.

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