Kids Health: Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

Kids Health: Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

From birth until 12 months old, newborns almost triple their weight and increase their length by more than a half.

This rapid physical development, however, is only one of the developmental milestones you will notice in children, which also include social and emotional development, speech and language development and cognitive development.

Discussed below will be the stages of cognitive development in children.

Cognitive Development in Children

little smart girl depicting intellectual development and children progress

Cognitive development is the ability to learn and solve problems. For a child of 12-24 months, this might include a basic understanding of their surroundings.

Alternatively, for a school-age child, this may include learning simple maths problems (like subtraction). A Child’s cognitive development milestones occur in the blink of an eye and are closely linked with their experiences in the world around them.

According to Development Psychologist and Philosopher Jean Piaget, children develop and go through Four Universal Stages of Cognitive Development.

While each child development may progress through stages at different rates, no stage can be missed and every individual will complete them in order (i.e. firstly, sensory-motor, secondly, pre-operational, thirdly, concrete operational and finally, formal operations). Learn more about Piaget’s theory below and get to know more about young children and their cognitive development

Stage 1: Cognitive Development Milestone – Sensory-Motor Stage

brain vector for sensori motor stage ages — theory of cognitive development

The first of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development is the sensory-motor stage. Piaget believed this generally occurs in children between birth and 24 months of age.

During the first two years of life — which are the first few developmental stages of human development, children experience fast cognitive growth.

While remaining egocentric (the inability to consider other people’s needs and views), babies of this age begin to experience the outside world and acquire knowledge of the objects around them.

Around the age of 8 months, this knowledge of external objects develops into object permanence – an understanding that even when objects are not visually present, they still exist. By learning through the senses, cognitive development within the sensory-motor stage usually comprises of 6 Sub-stages:

Sub-stage 1: Use of Reflexes

  • When: Birth – 2 months
  • What: An example of reflex use is clutching, reaching for or sucking objects.

Sub-stage 2: Primary Circular Reactions

  • When: 2 months – 4 months
  • What: Primary circular reactions represent the use of reflexes in a repetitive way from an unintentional occurrence. An example might be sucking a thumb.

Sub-stage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions

  • When: 4 months – 8 months
  • What: Secondary reactions, while not based on reflexes, but do amount from an unintentional occurrence. An example is a child kicking their feet to move an object.

Sub-stage 4: Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions

  • When: 8 – 12 months
  • What: In this stage, children’s cognitive development allows them to understand the concept of a chain of events. An example is where a moves an object which is obstructing a toy.

Sub-stage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions

  • When: 12 months – 18 months
  • What: During the fifth stage, actions start to occur deliberately. It is defined as a new way to produce the same goal.

Sub-stage 6: Coordination of Tertiary Circular Reaction

  • When: 18 months – 24 months
  • What: The final sub-stage of Sensory Motor cognitive development is where the internalisation of behaviour occurs. For example, if the toddler needs an object that is not present, they will realise this need and seek out that object or something of similar value.

Stage 2: Cognitive Development Milestone – Pre-operational Stage

small baby playing with toys to help mental processes and early cognitive development

Usually, children reach the pre-operational stage between 24 months and 7 years of age.

There are two phases to this stage. Firstly, all thoughts and communications are egocentric (self-centred).

Children believe everyone shares their view and that they are the centre of the world. The second defining characteristic of this stage is the absence of a logical thought process.

Here, children are still developing a sense of reality and haven’t yet distinguished morality or understand rules and others behaviour.

Children also show signs of animism, which is the belief that inanimate objects experience the same feelings as them.

Another noticeable characteristic of this stage of cognitive development is a child’s newfound ability to rationalise the presence of objects, even when they cannot see them.

Stage 3: Cognitive Development Milestone – Concrete Operational Stage

childhood cognitive development represented by smart toddler with glasses

The third stage is known as the concrete operational stage and is typically reached by children between the ages of 7 and 11 years, it has been defined by some as a major turning point in cognitive development. During this stage, children gain the ability to replace their egocentric behaviour with logic and work towards problem-solving.

Children also learn the concept of conservation. Conservation is where the same amount of an object can transform to another shape, without minimising in quantity. An example of this is building blocks. When combined into a tower, they minimise in physical volume, but not in quantity. A child who has not reached this stage will think some blocks have disappeared.

Stage 4: Cognitive Development Milestone – Formal Operations Stage

little boy depicting formal operational stage in child development

Finally, cognitive development in children ends with the formal operation stage. Generally, children experience this development from 11 years onward. Here, cognitive development suggests the thought process is transitioning to that of an adult and becomes more abstract.

Children are able to problem solve and create hypotheses for situations. For example, they may be given simple maths problems that call for inferential reasoning.

Children are able to consider a conclusion to a problem that has not physically presented itself to them.

While Piaget’s theory has its critics, it is indisputable that he revolutionised the way children are studied and changed the world’s understanding of cognitive development in children.

Are You a Parent or Child Care Worker?

childcare worker teaching student lessons on logical thinking to promote intellectual development and human development

Have you noticed these cognitive developments in younger children or have any experience/knowledge on kids health and development milestones?

In any case, we hope this blog on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development enlightened you as a parent, or as a child care worker.

May it guide you on how to understand the mental processes of children, how to better teach/introduce abstract concepts for learning, create fun physical interactions so children learn how to socialise, and teach younger children concrete operations that aid in every child’s development.

Topics: Cognitive Development, Cognitive Development in Children, Kids Health, Development Milestones


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