Cognitive Development by @wescogb

Re-Blog: The Science of Child Development - Cognitive Development by David Williams

Cognitive development is a term used to describe incremental changes which occur as a child’s thinking and understanding unfold through the pre-school years and beyond. Though some of the most dramatic changes a child undergoes occur in this cognitive domain, it is nevertheless important to remember the ‘holistic child’ does not experience developments in isolation, but as a seamless complementary and interdependent stream of phases and events. Thus, for example, a baby’s obvious joy in recognising its mother is a strong social advance suggesting a healthy social attachment, but recognising others as ‘non-mothers’ also represents a cognitive advance in terms of classification of objects, and so on…

All cognitive advances clearly impact upon a child’s learning abilities, and much of the skilful part of a childcare professional’s role lies in recognising such progression in reasoning and then assessing when, and how, to introduce new initiatives to further enhance development. Professional, evidence-based assessments are essential to avoid what Fontana (1988) (1) describes as the risk that ‘forms of thinking are demanded of children that they are incapable of supplying’. A rich field of research is available to inform such decisions and the work of landmark contributors to the study of children’s cognitive development will now be reviewed, together with significant modern additions.

Helpful article: Cognitive Learning through Rough & Tumble Play, the Benefits & Legislation

Piaget’s theory

Piaget (2) developed a comprehensive account of child development in the context of the child’s constant interaction with the outside world. According to Piaget, the child continuously ‘accommodates’ the world by adjusting to meet its demands, and also ‘assimilates’ new situations by working out how any new knowledge fits with what is already understood. Two further key concepts – schemas and equilibration – are central to Piaget’s ideas. A schema is a model which a child develops, and continuously updates, thus adding to it’s complexity – for example, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are similar separate schemas which progressively become ever more divergent as the growing child adds detail. Equilibration, Piaget thought, drives a child to reconcile each new piece of knowledge – by accommodation and assimilation – with what is already known. This theory explains ‘trial-and-error’ learning as the mind’s attempt to restore a balanced state whilst new learning is taking place.

Early learning professionals will mostly encounter children at Piaget’s ‘sensori-motor’ phase (birth to around 2 years), or else the ‘pre-operational’ phase (2-7 years). The sensori-motor phase is characterised by the child’s attempts to master the co-ordination of senses with motor responses – described by Piaget as gaining ‘intelligence through action’. During the following pre-operational phase, the child’s own knowledge and perception of the world becomes the dominating influence, with some more-advanced ‘symbolic functioning’ emerging around four years old.

Vygotsky’s theory

Where Piaget emphasised the child’s discovery of the outside world, Vygotsky (3) held that a child’s cognitive development was primarily the result of social communication and interaction. Basically, Vygotsky points out, a growing child will always learn more from others than they learn alone – especially when the help is offered by ‘experts’, or is grounded in the child’s cultural context. Allied to this point is Vygotsky’s concept of a ‘zone of proximal development’: the notion, familiar to many educators, that a child (when tested) appears not to know something but becomes altogether more capable once the social context includes an adult guide, or more-advanced peers. Thus, building on Vygotsky’s work, Wood, Bruner and Ross (4) advocated the practice of ‘scaffolding’, in which adults, for example, gave confidence-building contextual assistance which was then sensitively withdrawn as the child developed skill and self-assurance.

The modern view, whilst not abandoning Piaget, considers his groundbreaking work takes a linear approach to child development, whereas observations suggest this is often a more complex matrix of multiple elements with different children progressing in different ways. Vygotsky’s theories, on the other hand, have proved more enduring with Rogoff’s extensive research (5), for example, describing guided participation involving adults as the most effective means of promoting cognitive development, and Bronfenbrenner’s child-centred account (6) of the context of children’s development highlighting the importance of social and cultural elements. The latter is set out below in the diagrammatic form favoured by the author.

There is universal agreement about the positive benefits of children’s play in stimulating cognitive development. It is also generally acknowledged that any play involving one or more senses similarly offers enhanced learning potential. As US childcare expert Angie Dorrell (7) comments, this can sometimes be essential: ‘Imagine trying to teach a group of four-year-olds about melting without allowing them to hold an ice cube as it melts in their hands, or to watch cheese on bread in the microwave.’

Helpful article: Encouraging the use of natural materials & the benefits in your Nursery Environment.

In some play/learning contexts practitioners can provide a rich sensory environment whilst encouraging a variety of problem solving activities, such as how to make sand stick together, or how to build a boat which will float. Piaget’s self-discovery approach would see wholesale trial-and-error engagements, which might then be followed by some light-touch adult scaffolding – of which Vygotsky would very much approve. Though the outcomes would be different, in each case there is clear potential for cognitive development.

As Bronfenbrenner’s diagram shows, learning takes place in multiple contexts and parents too can promote a host of cognitive learning opportunities from within everyday activities. Such ‘active learning’ (8) opportunities at home, or in the nursery, might include offering a choice of food, identifying a selected range of noises, or playing either ‘Peek-a-Boo’ or age-related board games as appropriate.

Rather than offering competing or contradictory claims, the theories and research outlined above are always best considered as different perspectives on child development. For practitioners, such information provides a variety of ways of viewing and describing examples from their own practice. For example, when considering how a baby’s natural reflexes at birth develop into controlled conscious movements, Piaget and Vigotsky would almost certainly account for the same progression in very different ways.


1 Fontana, D. (1988) Psychology for Teachers. London: Macmillan.

2 Piaget, J. (1967). The child’s conception of the world. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

3 Vygotsky, L.S. (1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. In J.V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: Sharpe

4 Wood, D.J., Bruner, J.S. & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17.

5 Rogoff, B. (1993). Children’s guided participation and participatory appropriation in social activity. In R. Wozniak & K Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments.Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

6 Bronfenbrenner, U., (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.



This is a re-blog post originally posted by David Williams and published with kind permission. The article was originally published in 2015, and updated in 2019 by UKEd Editorial in accordance with website policy and upgrade changes.

The original post can be found here.

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