Author: Sandhya Basu
“A child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world, there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world, there will not be, another child like him.” ~ Pablo Casale
Do you remember the day when your child just learned how to walk? Or when your child started speaking the very first words? How do babies as young as two years old learn to speak or react? If we observe these events, we will realize that the babies are growing both physically and mentally. We are all aware of our children’s physical growth, but how much do we know about their mental, or in other words, cognitive growth? Hence, in this article, I will specifically write about cognitive growth in children. But before getting into the specifics, let’s meet the pioneer who came up with the theory of cognitive development in children—Jean Piaget.
Jean Piaget (1952) was a French psychologist who did exceptional work on child development. He started his research with a motive to find out how children reacted to their environments and ended up with the most influential theory of cognitive development. His observations challenged the initial belief that children can have no thinking skills until they start speaking. He gave his theory that involved the following four stages of development: a) sensorimotor stage, b) pre-operational stage, c) concrete operational stage, and d) formal operational stage.
The sensorimotor stage starts when a child is born and lasts until the child turns two years. In this stage, the thinking skills of the babies are still under development. For example, babies are only aware of the objects that they can see and vice-versa. If there is a toy behind the sofa which the baby cannot see, then that object does not exist for that child. Also, they end up continually experimenting with the objects they find around them by repeatedly throwing things and putting them inside their mouths. This repeated behavior of throwing and putting things in mouth implies that they are learning about their environment through the trial-and-error method. A significant milestone in this stage is the formation of memories by the time they are around nine months. We know that the babies can now form memories when they realize that an object can exist even if they cannot see it, i.e., the baby will know that there is a toy under the sofa even when she or he can’t immediately see it. The most adorable part of this stage is that instance, when the babies just cover their eyes during the hide-and-seek game, thinking that if ‘I can’t see myself, then no one can see me as well!’
The next stage, called the preoperational stage, lasts roughly until the child turns seven years old. Here, the children develop memory as well as imagination. They can imagine things more symbolically, and hence, their reasoning skills also improve. For example, when a child sees his mother’s car keys, he may see them as a symbol of going out somewhere. A child can use a mental symbol, word, or object to represent something absent at that moment. For example, children may understand that their toy car represents a real car, and they don’t actually need to sit in the car to understand its basic use.
The third stage, called the concrete operational stage, begins at the age of seven and lasts till 12 years of age. In this stage, the children start applying logic to their thinking abilities. For example: if a child is asked to determine whether the amount of water when poured from one bottle to another of a different shape is the same, the child will be able to answer it using logic and not the appearance of the container. Had it been a child of the previous stage, she or he would have answered based on the appearance of the bottle only. Children in this stage also understand the concept of time, speed, and reversibility, i.e., if 3+5 = 8 and 5+3 = 8, then 8-3 equals 5.
The last stage is called the formal operational stage. This stage is that point in a child’s life wherein she or he develops abstract thinking skills. Piaget suggested that children of 12 years and above (adolescence period) enter this stage. Children now can indulge in proportionate thinking – a type of thinking that utilizes abstract logic. For example: deducting a conclusion from All Xs are Y (Statement 1); Z is an X (Statement 2), and thus, Z is Y (Conclusion).
The following table is a summary of the developmental stages discussed above:
|Name of the Stage||Child’s Age||Main Characteristics|
|Sensorimotor||Birth to 2 years||Developing thinking skills; memory formation|
|Pre-operational||2 to 7 years||Formation of memory, symbols, and imagination|
|Concrete operational||Till 12 years||Formation of logic and reversibility|
|Formal operational||Above 12 years (adolescence period)||Formation of abstract thinking|
Table1: Developmental Stages (Horback & Feldman, 2008).
Now that we are familiar with the cognitive development involving various thinking skills that go hand-in-hand with the child’s physical growth, we may also acknowledge that this development can vary from one child to the other. Not all children grow in the same way. Some may have a higher rate of growth than the others and vice-versa. Also, sometimes the stages may overlap with each other and not come in a specific sequence.
Moreover, caregivers also play a significant role in furthering this development. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that every child is different in terms of their developmental patterns. Hence, we need to make sure that we don’t push children to achieve these stages prematurely. At the same time, we also need to make sure that our children get the right environment to grow. Positive reinforcement and unconditional regard are the two most important criteria for a child’s development. In other words, reinforcing a child to act desirably by appreciating or giving rewards (of any kind) to the child after every desirable action, certainly encourages children to behave well. Unconditional regard may refer to your affection towards your child without any expectations or returns. For example, your endless love towards your child even if she or he has failed to reach your expectations. The effects of such practices last a lifetime and also contribute to the child’s emotional well-being. The ideal environment would also consist of warmth, proper food, exercises in the form of co-curricular activities, playing out with friends, and meaningful interactions with the caregivers. We need to take out time from our busy schedules to be with our young ones. This helps in bonding, creating trust, and boosts affiliations.
A child needs a positive and fulfilling environment to grow to their fullest potential, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they get the most conducive environment to blossom into healthier global citizens.
Early Childhood Cognitive Development: Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gracepointwellness.org/462-child-development-parenting-early-3-7/article/12757-early-childhood-cognitive-development-introduction
Horback, S., & Feldman, R. S. (2008). Student study guide: Development across the life span, fifth edition, Robert S. Feldman. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Mcleod, S. (n.d.). Jean Piaget’s Theory and Stages of Cognitive Development. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
National Research Council (US) Panel to Review the Status of Basic Research on School-Age Children. (1984, January 01). Cognitive Development In School-Age Children: Conclusions And New Directions. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216774/