Cognitive Development — How Infants and Children Think

As you know, cognition refers to all the mental processes associated with thinking. This section will rely heavily on the research of Jean Piaget (1896– 1980) on the development of children's cognitive abilities. While previous theories often suggested that children passively absorb information around them, Piaget was the first to suggest that children actively work to make sense of the world around them. Although some of his findings have been proved different by later research, his theories about the basic process of development are still useful.


Piaget's work used the concept of schemata to understand the cognitive processes of children. Basically, Piaget suggested that children make a mold for an experience and will put everything similar to that experience in the same mold. For example, a child will be familiar with the family dog and the proper word for it, but when she sees a dingo on television, she still calls the dingo a dog, assimilating it into her schema for dogs. Later on in the cognitive development of the child, she will understand that there are different kinds of dogs, and even later that a dingo is not a dog and accommodate for this change.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget categorized the cognitive development into four stages: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. The transitions between these stages do not occur abruptly, but rather, are gradual.

The first stage, the sensorimotor stage, begins at birth and lasts until the child is about two years old. In this stage, a child experiences the world solely through his five senses. The second stage, the preoperational stage, lasts from around two years old to six years old. This stage is the stage in which a child learns to use language but doesn't yet understand concrete logic, even though children in this stage do possess the ability for symbolic thought. Egocentrism is introduced in this stage as well. Piaget did not mean that children were egocentric in that they were selfish, but that they did not yet have the mental ability to take the perspectives of other people.

For example, if a child draws a picture and shows it to his mother, he will expect her to know exactly what is drawn on the page, because in his eyes, the picture is as plain as day. Egocentrism also explains why a child who hides her eyes thinks her mother cannot see her — which leads to countless rousing games of “peekaboo!”

The next stage, the concrete operational stage, lasts from when a child is about six years old to around eleven years old. In this stage, children are able to use the mental operations needed to think logically about concrete events. In the concrete operational stage, children begin to grasp the concept of jokes and arithmetic problems. As the name implies, children at this stage tend to think in very concrete terms and often struggle with hypothetical or abstract situations.

The final stage, the formal operational stage, begins around age twelve. This stage is when children are able to think logically about abstract concepts. Although there are certain pieces of Piaget's theory that are being challenged, the general cognitive development of human beings seems to follow the basic outline of his model.

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