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An Overview of Early Childhood Development

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Cognitive Development in Early Childhood
Cognitive Develolopment in Early Childhood

Children aren't just growing physically during early childhood, they are also developing new cognitive abilities as they mature.

Image courtesy Joanne Green / iStockPhoto

Early childhood is not only a period of amazing physical growth, it is also a time of remarkable mental development. Cognitive abilities associated with memory, reasoning, problem-solving and thinking continue to emerge throughout childhood. When it comes to childhood cognitive development, it would be impossible to avoid mentioning the work of psychologist Jean Piaget.

After receiving his doctoral degree at age 22, Jean Piaget began a career that would have a profound impact on both psychology and education. Through his work with Alfred Binet, Piaget developed an interest in the intellectual development of children. Based upon his observations, he concluded that children are not less intelligent than adults, they simply think differently. Albert Einstein called Piaget's discovery "so simple only a genius could have thought of it."Piaget created a theory of cognitive development that described the basic stages that children go through as they mentally mature. He believed that children are like "little scientists," actively trying to make sense of the world rather than simply soaking up information passively.


One of the key concepts in Piaget's theory is the use of schemas. According to Piaget, schemas are cognitive frameworks or concepts that help people organize and interpret information. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to or completely change previously existing schemas. For example, a young girl may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a cat. According to her schema, cat's are furry and have four legs. When she first encounters a dog, she might initially believe that the animal is a cat. Once the she learns that this is actually a dog, she will revise her schema for cats and create a new category for dogs.

Stages of Cognitive Development

  • The Sensorimotor Stage: A period of time between birth and age two during which an infant's knowledge of the world is limited to his or her sensory perceptions and motor activities. Behaviors are limited to simple motor responses caused by sensory stimuli.

  • The Preoperational Stage: A period between ages two and six during which a child learns to use language. During this stage, children do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information and are unable to take the point of view of other people.

  • The Concrete Operational Stage: A period between ages seven and eleven during which children gain a better understanding of mental operations. Children begin thinking logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.

  • The Formal Operational Stage: A period between age twelve to adulthood when people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.
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