Early Childhood Development: Cognitive Skills
Posted by Amanda Jacobs on
Areas of Child Development: Cognitive Skills
As infants grow and reach early childhood, they become more aware of how the world works and have a better understanding of what, where, how, and why. Cognitive development in children is the development of the skills and knowledge that help them understand their environment. It’s the evolution of their thought process - how they process information; how they think and feel; how they determine right from wrong; how they make decisions and solve problems; how they learn new things, and how they perceive the world around them.
Every day, even as adults, we gain more knowledge, learn new things, acquire new skills, form new or different opinions. Children are the same – as they explore their world and are exposed to a plethora of emotions, experiences, and situations, their brains constantly process new information and develop cognitive thinking.
Different Types of Cognitive Development
Cognitive development is often broken down into distinct categories that develop over a period of time, from birth, through to adolescence and adulthood. They include intellect, memory, and reasoning.
What do we know about cognitive development and how intellectual abilities develop? How much are children capable of learning at each stage of their development? Is it limitless or are there parameters? How do they develop the necessary skills to react and interact with the world around them? Is there an order to how their abilities develop?
These types of questions were answered by Jean Piaget. In 1952, the highly respected French psychologist, Jean Piaget, published his pioneering theory on cognitive development in children and introduced the concept of four cognitive stages of childhood development i.e. how and when a child’s intellectual skills are developed. It was controversial in its day as it contrasted against the thinking at the time that children had no cognition until they were able to speak. His theory is now well regarded as being highly influential in what we now understand about childhood cognitive development. The graphic below sets out his stages.
According to Piaget’s theory; cognitive development occurs in a series of four separate, universal stages, which always develop in the same order. Each stage builds upon what was learned in the previous one. So for example, children between the ages of 2-7 can imagine unseen objects (like a monster, or a scary ghost) but have not yet developed skills in deductive reasoning (i.e. to understand that monsters don't really exist). That would happen in the next stage: Concrete Operations (age 7-11).
Brain growth is part of cognitive development and as our babies’ brains develop in infancy and early childhood, so does their capacity to remember. Memory plays a hugely significant role in a child’s socio-emotional and cognitive functioning.
As we know, human brains aren’t fully developed at birth. The reason we can’t remember being a baby, yet we can remember every line from our favorite teen movie or song, is due to the way our brain develops, and more specifically, how our memory system develops from babyhood, through to adolescence and adulthood. While the development of memory (short & long-term) is most evident in the first 2-5 years of a child’s life, their memory continues to develop well into adulthood. Moreover, not all parts of the brain develop at the same time – in fact, the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25!
Information processing refers to how we take in and retain information. The Informational Processing Model developed by American developmental psychologists offers a contrasting take on Piaget’s model from two decades earlier. Whereas Jean Piaget’s theory suggests that thought development occurs in stages at a time, the Information Processing Model considers it more as a continuous pattern of development and likens a child’s mental process to a metaphor of a computer processing, encoding, storing and decoding data. The Model theorizes that children process the information they receive using their short and long-term memories, rather than responding solely to stimuli i.e. information they receive through their senses (sensory memory). In other words, children form the majority of their memories through their experiences and from talking about it with others (and their communication skills play a huge part in their ability to recollect events).
By ages 2-5 years, most children will be able to hold their attention for longer periods and recognize and recall information they’ve previously encountered. They’ll be able to recount an experience and reconstruct it in the present day. The formation of their short- and long-term memory helps children understand patterns and sequences of events. For example, they know that a visit to grandma’s involves a specific sequence of steps - a car ride, a short walk up the driveway, past the pond, being greeted by her two dogs, a homemade cookie and some milk for a snack, etc.
Between the ages of 5 and 7, children learn how to focus and use their cognitive abilities for specific purposes. For example, they can memorize lists of words (like “sight” words for reading) or facts. They can memorize letter sounds (phonics) and start learning to read. It’s at this age, where they also develop auditory processing, which is critical for good reading skills.
Tips on how you can help develop your child’s memory:
- Helping develop his language skills (see the section below)
- Teaching her songs – repetition is key. The more you play her and sing her favorite songs, the more familiar she’ll become with them. Add actions to match the words
- Asking her to repeat certain sounds or words, teach her colors and numbers and shapes
- Playing familiar games so he can use his recall to figure out what to do and how to do it.
- Developing her recall with age-appropriate questions or give her instructions to follow like; “where did you put the red ball?” “point to the doggy's tail”, or "did you have fun at Amy's house yesterday?"
- Fostering his imagination – he needs to be able to remember things in order to use his imagination! Pretend or imaginative play are great ways to trigger memories and form new ideas.
- As they get older, play memory games like “I went shopping” or use picture/playing cards.
Between around the ages of 2-6, children develop the ability to apply logic to situations as they learn more about how the world works. At the same time, they have trouble solving hypothetical or more abstract problems. For example; if they meet a dog that barks a lot, then they meet another dog that barks a lot, they may come to the conclusion that all dogs bark, as they still see the world in how it relates to them and through their own experiences. The school of thought is that very young children aren't capable of reason and don't show rational thoughts until between 5 and 7 years old, at which point they are better able to make connections between ideas.
There are many things we can do as parents to help promote our children’s cognitive development. This can literally start from the moment they’re born. The more we engage and interact with our children, the more opportunities we present them with to develop the necessary skills and abilities. As with adults, every child is different. For example, some will have excellent memories, others may have weaker memory skills but may show strength in logic and reasoning instead. Celebrate their strengths while gently working on their weaker skills.
Read our blog posts for more on the five main areas of child development and important developmental milestones for under 5s.