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Cognitive Development During Childhood

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Childhood is a time in which changes occur quickly. The child is growing physically, and cognitive abilities are also developing. During this time the child learns to actively manipulate and control the environment, and is first exposed to the requirements of society, particularly the need to control the bladder and bowels. According to Erik Erikson, the challenges that the child must attain in childhood relate to the development of initiative, competence, and independence. Children need to learn to explore the world, to become self-reliant, and to make their own way in the environment.

These skills do not come overnight. Neurological changes during childhood provide children the ability to do some things at certain ages, and yet make it impossible for them to do other things. This fact was made apparent through the groundbreaking work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. During the 1920s, Piaget was administering intelligence tests to children in an attempt to determine the kinds of logical thinking that children were capable of. In the process of testing the children, Piaget became intrigued, not so much by the answers that the children got right, but more by the answers they got wrong. Piaget believed that the incorrect answers that the children gave were not mere shots in the dark but rather represented specific ways of thinking unique to the children’s developmental stage. Just as almost all babies learn to roll over before they learn to sit up by themselves, and learn to crawl before they learn to walk, Piaget believed that children gain their cognitive ability in a developmental order. These insights—that children at different ages think in fundamentally different ways—led to Piaget’s stage model of cognitive development.

Piaget argued that children do not just passively learn but also actively try to make sense of their worlds. He argued that, as they learn and mature, children develop schemas—patterns of knowledgein long-term memory—that help theremember, organize, and respond to information. Furthermore, Piaget thought that when children experience new things, they attempt to reconcile the new knowledge with existing schemas. Piaget believed that the children use two distinct methods in doing so, methods that he ca lled assimilation and accommodation (see Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2 Assimilation and Accommodation 

When children employ assimilation, they use already developed schemas to understand new information. If children have learned a schema for horses, then they may call the striped animal they see at the zoo a horse rather than a zebra. In this case, children fit the existing schema to the new information and label the new information with the existing knowledge. Accommodation, on the other hand, involves learning new information, and thus changing the schema. When a mother says, “No, honey, that’s a zebra, not a horse,” the child may adapt the schema to fit the new stimulus, learning that there are different types of four-legged animals, only one of which is a horse.

Piaget’s most important contribution to understanding cognitive development, and the fundamental aspect of his theory, was the idea that development occurs in unique and distinct stages, with each stage occurring at a specific time, in a sequential manner, and in a way that allows the c hild to think about the world using new capacities. Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are summarized in Table 6.3".

Table 6.3 Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development


Approximate age range


Stage attainments


Birth to about 2 years

The child experiences the world through the fundamental senses of seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting.

Object permanence


2 to 7 years

Children acquire the ability to internally represent the world through language and mental imagery. They also start to see the world from other people’s perspectives.

Theory of mind; rapid increase in language ability

Concrete operational

7 to 11 years

Children become able to think logically. They can increasingly perform operations on objects that are only imagined.


Formal operational

11 years to adulthood

Adolescents can think systematically, can reason about abstract concepts, and can understand ethics and scientific reasoning.

Abstract logic


The first developmental stage for Piaget was the sensorimotor stage, the cognitivestage that begins at birth and lasts until around the age of 2. It is defined by the direcphysical interactions that babies havwith the objects around them. During this stage, babies form their first schemas by using their primary senses—they stare at, listen to, reach for, hold, shake, and taste the things in their environments.

During the sensorimotor stage, babies’ use of their senses to perceive the world is so central to their understanding that whenever babies do not directly perceive objects, as far as they are concerned, the objects do not exist. Piaget found, for instance, that if he first interested babies in a toy and then covered the toy with a blanket, children who were younger than 6 months of age would act as if the toy had disappeared completely—they never tried to find it under the blanket but would nevertheless smile a nd reach for it when the blanket was removed. Piaget found that it was not until about 8 months that the children realized that the object was merely covered and not gone. Piaget used the term object permanence to refer to the childs abilityto know that an object exists even when theobject cannot beperceived.