Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience and psychology focusing on a child's development in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, language learning, and other aspects of brain development and cognitive psychology compared to an adult's point of view.
In other words, cognitive development is the emergence of the ability to think and understand. A large portion of research has gone into understanding how a child imagines the world. Jean Piaget was a major force in the establishment of this field, forming his "theory of cognitive development".
Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational period.Many of his theoretical claims have since fallen out of favor. However, his description of the more prominent changes in cognition with age (e.g., that it moves from being dependent on actions and perception in infancy to an understanding of the more observable aspects of reality in childhood to capturing the underlying abstract rules and principles in adolescence) is generally still accepted today.
Perhaps equally importantly, Piaget identified and described many cognitive changes that must be explained, such as object permanence in infancy and the understanding of logical relations and cause-effect reasoning in school age children.
A major controversy in cognitive development has been "nature and nurture", that is, the question if cognitive development is mainly determined by an individual's innate qualities ("nature"), or by their personal experiences ("nurture"). However, it is now recognized by most experts that this is a false dichotomy: there is overwhelming evidence from biological and behavioral sciences that from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment.
Children change more quickly than we’d like. It seems you can blink and your child has grown, evolved, developed or reached a key milestone. One minute they are throwing board books in the toy box, the next they are flipping through the pages of story books and as they grow older, they start reading and enjoying books they choose themselves.
Some of the changes in our kids are not so easy to spot, particularly cognitive changes. Children’s brains develop as they have new experiences. You cannot see the brain developing, but you can see what new things the child can do.
Stages of cognitive development
Piaget was a major theorist and psychologist who developed stages to understand cognitive development. There are four major periods of cognitive development in children:
First cognitive development stage: Sensory motor period (0 - 24 months)
- The following points outline the progressive nature of cognitive development and how physical actions aid the brain’s development as babies grow.
- Reflexive Stage (up to two months): Simple reflex activity such as grasping, sucking.
- Primary Circular Reactions (two to four months)
- Reflexive behaviors occur in stereotyped repetition such as opening and closing fingers repetitively.
- Secondary Circular Reactions (four to eight months)
- Repetition of actions to reproduce interesting consequences such as kicking feet to move a mobile.
- Coordination of Secondary Reactions (eight to12 months) Responses become coordinated into more complex sequences.
- Actions take on an "intentional" character such as baby reaches behind a box to grab a favourite toy.
- Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months) Discovery of new ways to produce the same goal, such as toddlers pulling a ball toward him so he can roll it. Invention of New Means Through Mental Combination (18-24 months) Evidence the toddler can problem-solve a sequence of events before actually responding. For example, can take the ball out of a cupboard if it’s not in sight and play with it.
Second cognitive development stage: The preoperational period (two to seven years)
Preoperational Phase (two to four years)
- Increased use of verbal representation, but speech is egocentric. The beginnings of symbolic rather than simple motor play. Transductive reasoning. Can think about something without the object being in front of them by using language to describe it.
· Intuitive Phase (four to seven years)
- Speech becomes more social, less egocentric. The child has an intuitive grasp of logical concepts but these are crude and irreversible. At this stage, kids believe in magical increases and decreases – their sense of reality is not firm and it is their perceptions of the world that dominate their judgments. In moral-ethical realm, the child is not able to show principles underlying best behaviour. For example, they can’t understand the reasoning behind the rules of a game, but can understand simple do's and don'ts imposed by authority.
· Third cognitive development stage: Concrete operations (seven to 12 years)
- There is now evidence for organised, logical thought. There is the ability to classify many tasks, order objects in a logical sequence, and comprehend the principle of conservation. Thinking becomes less egocentric. The child is capable of concrete problem-solving.
· Fourth cognitive development stage: Formal operations (12 years+)
- Thought becomes more abstract, incorporating the principles of formal logic. The ability to generate abstract propositions, multiple hypotheses and their possible outcomes is evident. Thinking becomes less tied to concrete reality.
· The benefits of understanding cognitive development
- Whether you believe or agree with Piaget’s complex theories of cognitive development, they at least allow parents to understand what is normal and appropriate for general age groups.
Speculated core systems of cognition
- If Infants appear to have two systems for dealing with numbers. One deals with small numbers, often called subitizing. Another deals with larger numbers in an approximate fashion.
- Very young children appear to have some skill in navigation. This basic ability to infer the direction and distance of unseen locations develops in ways that are not entirely clear. However, there is some evidence that it involves the development of complex language skills between 3 and 5 years. Also, there is evidence that this skill depends importantly on visual experience, because congenitally blind individuals have been found to have impaired abilities to infer new paths between familiar locations.
· Visual perception
- One of the original nativist versus empiricist debates was over depth perception. There is some evidence that children less than 72 hours old can perceive such complex things as biological motion. However, it is unclear how visual experience in the first few days contributes to this perception. There are far more elaborate aspects of visual perception that develop during infancy and beyond.
- Young children seem to be predisposed to think of biological entities (e.g., animals and plants) in an essentialist way. This means that they expect such entities (as opposed to, e.g., artifacts) to have many traits such as internal properties that are caused by some "essence" (such as, in our modern Western conceptual framework, the genome)
· Language acquisition
- A major, well-studied process and consequence of cognitive development is language acquisition. The traditional view was that this is the result of deterministic, human-specific genetic structures and processes. Other traditions, however, have emphasized the role of social experience in language learning. However, the relation of gene activity, experience, and language development is now recognized as incredibly complex and difficult to specify. Language development is sometimes separated into learning of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse or pragmatics. However, all of these aspects of language knowledge—which were originally posited by the linguist Noam Chomsky to be autonomous or separate—are now recognized to interact in complex ways.
Toys , games, and activities are easier to choose if you understand the stages of a child’s cognitive development. If you know that most children do some things at a certain age, you will know that you don’t need to change that behavior. You will understand that it is not your fault your child is doing something annoying.
By understanding normal development, you can tell when a child’s development may be lagging behind their peers. In most cases, it’s fine, but there are some red flags in children’s development that may be worth raising with a doctor or specialist.
How to aid their cognitive development
Use unplanned events to help children learn
Children may blow bubbles in their drink. You can ask them why they think milk bubbles last so long but water bubbles do not. You can compare them to water bubbles that disappear almost immediately. You can talk with your kids about what happens when they put different foods or objects in milk.
Encourage children’s thinking – even if it’s annoying!
Plenty of mothers worry about the mess their toddlers and small children make while eating. But sometimes this mess is the key to unlocking the next stage of your child’s cognitive development. For example, a toddler starts dropping peas on the floor—one by one—at dinner time. Wow, that’s quite a cognitive skill he’s developing there: picking up small objects one by one, understanding the power of gravity and seeing the results of his hard work.
Children use hands-on experience to learn
Children use concrete, hands-on experiences to help them understand the world around them. That toddler dropping peas on the floor may be trying to understand, “If I drop this, what happens next?” Be happy to know your child is learning, even if you will need to pick up the peas!.