Cognitive development refers to the way children learn and process information. It includes improvement in attention, perception, language, thinking, memory and reasoning.

According to Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, our thoughts and reasoning are part of adaptation. Cognitive development follows a definite sequence of stages. Piaget described four major stages of cognitive development:

  1. Sensori-motor stage (Birth - 2 years)
  2. Pre-operational stage (2 - 7 years)
  3. Concrete operational stage (7 - 11 years)
  4. Formal operational stage (11+ years)

Cognitive Development in Early Childhood (2 to 6 years)

During this period children become increasingly proficient in using symbols such as words and images to represent a variety of objects, situations and events. By the time children enter school they have a reasonably good vocabulary. In fact, children are very receptive at learning language when they are exposed to multiple languages in different contexts. They often grow up as bilingual or multilingual children. They have better understanding of language compared to monolingual children who use only one language.

Capacity for sustained attention improves during the early childhood. A 3-year-old child may persist on a task such as coloring with crayons, playing with toys or watching television for not more than 15-20 minutes at a stretch. By contrast, a 6-year-old can be found to be working on an interesting task for an hour or more. Children also become more selective in their attention. As a result their perceptual skills also improve.

Thinking becomes more logical and capacity to remember and process information also improves. Through interaction with the environment the child learns the rules of appropriate social behavior which prepare him or her for schooling.

Early childhood, from 2 to 6 years, is the phase when the child progresses through the Pre-operational stage. There are 2 sub-stages of the Pre-operational Stage:

  1. Symbolic Function (2 to 4 years)
  2. Intuitive Thought (4 to 7 years)

During the Symbolic Function sub-stage, children can create mental images of objects and store them in their minds for later use. For example, such a child can draw a picture of or pretend to play with a puppy that is no longer present there. Children can talk about people who are traveling, or who live somewhere else. They can also talk about or draw places they visited, as well as create new scenes and creatures from their imagination. Children can also use their mental images of things to role-play in games.

Piaget also believed that pre operational children have a style of thinking characterized by Egocentrism, or the inability to see the world from someone else’s point of view. According to Piaget, children with egocentrism explain situations from their own perspective and understanding.

The next sub-stage in Piaget’s Pre-operational cognitive development stage is the Intuitive Thought sub-stage, which spans ages 4-7 years. Children in this substage of development learn by asking questions such as, "Why?" and "How come?"

Piaget labeled this "intuitive thought" because he believed that children at this stage tend to be so certain of their knowledge and understanding that they are unaware of how they gained this knowledge in the first place. These children show Centration. They focus on one characteristic of object and base their decisions or judgment on that only.

During early childhood, children’s ability to understand, process, and to produce language also improves rapidly. There is a ‘language explosion’ between 3 and 6 years. At age 3, their spoken vocabularies consist of roughly 900 words. By age 6, spoken vocabularies expand dramatically to anywhere between 8,000 and 14,000 words.

As children move beyond using two word sentences, they start to learn and understand grammar rules. Beyond growing their vocabularies, young children start expanding their ability to use different forms of words (e.g., irregular verbs such as "She brought" rather than "She brang")? They also begin to form more complex sentences.

Cognitive Development in Middle Childhood

Children at the middle childhood level are full of curiosity and are keen to explore the environment. Memory and conceptual knowledge improve, facilitating logical thinking beyond the immediate situation. Children can also engage in aesthetic activities such as music, art and dance and develop hobbies of their own.

In Piaget’s theory, characteristics of the Concrete Operational Stage during middle childhood are as follows:

  • Understanding of logical principles.
  • Improvement in spatial reasoning.
  • Logical thinking limited to real and concrete situations.

In middle childhood years, language development proceeds in many ways. More than just learning new words, children are acquiring more adult definitions of the words they know. They create relationships among words, understand synonyms and antonyms, and understand how prefixes and suffixes affect word meaning.