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Cognitive Development: An Introduction

Amazing brain development happens during childhood. Your interactions with children support their developing brains. Each day, you build a strong foundation for their future school and life success. Cognitive development is nurtured through relationship-based caregiving. This lesson will introduce you to important concepts about how the brain develops from birth to age 12. It will end with suggestions about what you can do to help make sure all children meet their potential.

  • Define cognitive development.
  • Describe what cognitive development looks like during childhood.
  • Identify ways you can support cognitive development.



As an adult, you have already developed many of the thinking skills that help you navigate the world around you. Think about the skills and strategies that have helped you succeed at daily tasks like:

  • Reading and following a new recipe
  • Finding a different way home when traffic is heavy
  • Estimating the amount of material you will need for a home improvement project
  • Finishing a book and discussing it with friends
  • Filling out a job application
  • Fixing a leaking faucet or pipe
  • Budgeting for groceries and other essentials

What thinking skills have helped with these kinds of tasks? Reading, writing, measuring, calculating, problem-solving, hypothesis testing, comprehending, and recalling facts all are essential for many of the tasks you accomplish every day. You started developing those skills as a child, and they continue to develop as you encounter new situations as an adult.

The children you care for are just beginning their own learning journeys, and their brains are developing in amazing ways. The work you do every day lays the foundation for these children to develop the thinking skills they need to be successful in school and life. Your commitment to relationship-based care helps support children’s growth and development. This course will help you understand how your work contributes to the development of children’s thinking skills.

What is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development is all about learning, including the development of memory, symbolic thought, reasoning skills, and problem solving skills. When a child imitates an adult, builds a tower out of blocks,  pretends to be a doggy or a daddy, or solves a math problem that is cognitive development in action. Take a moment to consider other examples of cognitive development that you have observed in children. 

Cognitive development happens all the time and is influenced both by our genes and our experiences. According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2002), “Cognitive development refers to the mind and how it works. It involves how children think, how they see their world, and how they use what they learn.” While the brain can be influenced at any age, it is the most impressionable in the early years. The experiences that children have early in their lives, the experiences they have while in your care, build the foundation for later learning. Outside of their families, you might be the person they spend the most time with during these critical years of development, so it is important to understand the foundation of cognitive development.  

We know that brains are built over time, and that experiences affect growth and development. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget provides a theory of cognitive development which explains how a child develops an understanding of the world. He describes development as a process that occurs due to interactions with the environment. According to Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development, which are listed below. All children progress through the stages in the same order; however, the ages in which children progress through these stages will vary.

1. Sensorimotor (birth to age 2): Children in this stage learn about their world by using their senses to interact and explore their environment. They touch, squeeze, poke, shake, bang, and mouth materials. A child’s main achievement is developing object permanence, which is the knowledge that a person or object still exists, even if the child can no longer see it. This requires a child to have the ability to form a mental representation of the object.  

Examples of this stage include: 

  • An infant who cries when you leave the room.  
  • An infant is startled during a game of peekaboo.  

2. Preoperational (from age 2 to age 7): Children in this stage think about things symbolically. This is what allows them to use a word or object as something other than itself. During this time, children’s thinking is still egocentric, so they have difficulty seeing the viewpoint of others. Children in this stage are still working toward understanding that other people may see, hear, and feel differently than they do. As children progress through this stage, they begin to see other’s perspectives and their play is more likely to involve the participation of other children.  

Examples include: 

  • A child uses a block as a cellphone and pretends to call the doctor to check on a sick doll. 
  • A child uses a blanket as a superhero cape, tying it around their neck and running around the room. 
  • A child starts a story by saying “When I was a little kid ….” 

3. Concrete Operational (from age 7 to age 11): Children in this stage begin to transition from symbolic thought to logical, or operational thought, which is the ability to process thoughts and ideas internally. They also begin to develop the understanding of conservation. Conservation is the concept that something stays the same in quantity even though its appearance may change. 

Examples include:  

  • Jake will understand that if it is cold outside, and a coat keeps him warm, he should wear a coat outside.  
  • Emma understands that five pennies stacked on top of one another and five pennies spread across a table are the same amount. Just because they physically look different, there are no more or no less than five pennies in each scenario.  

4. Formal Operational (from age 11 through adulthood): During this stage, youth and adults develop the ability to think about abstract concepts and logically test hypotheses. 

Examples include: 

  • A child can write a paper on what freedom means to them. 
  • A child can solve a math word problem. 

The Importance of the Early Years

Brain development is influenced by both biology and experiences. The experiences a child has early in life are crucial for brain development as they help to shape the architecture of their brains. New brain connections are being developed every second. These are called synapses. The more often a child has an experience (positive or negative) the stronger those synapses will become. Adults can support healthy brain development by including the following in their work with children: 

  • Engage in tailored, back and forth interactions (both verbal and nonverbal). 
  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and needs aloud. 
  • Support active, child-led learning. 
  • Model attention and persistence. 
  • Provide responsive caregiving that builds self-regulatory skills. 
  • Create flexible, individualized routines. 

Cognitive development is strengthened when children are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. It is your job to make sure: 

  • They are healthy, by keeping a clean environment and promoting healthy habits. 
  • They are emotionally secure, by responding to their cues and addressing their needs immediately and in a nurturing manner. 
  • They are socially connected, by fostering relationships among them and others in the community during play and caregiving routines. 
  • They are supported as they construct their own ideas of the world around them and investigate their ideas through open-ended, safe experiences. 

Early experiences are powerful. Children who accumulate negative experiences in their early years carry the effects with them throughout their lives. In other words, early experiences last a lifetime. Remember that while you help wash hands, pick up toys, sing songs, plant seeds to create a garden, and perform all of the other tasks you do on a daily basis, you are also influencing a developing brain.


The brain does amazing work during childhood. Watch this video to learn more about how experiences influence the developing brain.

Cognitive Development: An Introduction

Experiences that shape cognitive development


Children are active learners. They learn by pretending, exploring, and testing out their own thoughts and ideas. Cognitive development is connected to all other developmental domains. The experiences offered across areas of development contribute greatly to growth and learning. Take time to review the strategies listed below which highlight ways to support cognitive development for the children in your care: 

Infants and Toddlers

  • Touch, cuddle, and sing to babies and toddlers.
  • Read to individual infants and toddlers. Let them explore the pages, illustrations, and textures. Talk about colors, sizes, shapes, and other features of the book.
  • Provide toys that make simple, pleasant noises, such as rattles and shakers. Help infants discover the connection between their movements and the noises. Talk with toddlers about the different sounds objects make—compare the sounds of different drums, bells, or shakers.
  • Place shatterproof mirrors at infants’ and toddlers’ eye levels. Describe their movements as they explore their own images.
  • Engage the senses. Talk about the taste and smell of bottles or food. Offer easy-to-clean chew toys with a variety of textures that are safe for infants to put in their mouths. Consider mats or soft spaces with different fabrics.
  • Respond to each child. Hold and rock infants and toddlers to communicate reassurance and comfort.
  • Play simple movement games like row your boat, pat-a-cake, and peekaboo.
  • Extend the sounds and words used by infants and toddlers; for example, if a toddler says, “Me home,” you might say, “You want to go home. After snack time, Daddy will be here to pick you up and go home.”


  • Provide a variety of acceptable choices. Giving preschoolers modified independence to make decisions about what to play with, read, eat, and who to play with can help them build the cognitive and self-regulation skills they need. 
  • Sing rhyming songs and read books throughout the day. Take time to play with language during free play and transitions and throughout the day. Children think it is fun to make up silly rhymes, but they are also learning! 
  • Respond honestly to children’s questions. Preschoolers are famous for asking, “Why?” When you do not know the answer, suggest that you and the child research the topic to find the answer to it.  
  • Look for simple math problems throughout the day. “Hmm, we’ve got four children at this table and two bananas. What could we do to make sure everyone gets some banana?” Lead the children to think about math concepts like dividing objects in half. Practice counting during routines and play. 
  • Read alphabet books and talk about letters and the sounds they make. 
  • Talk about sizes, shapes, and colors. Compare objects using words like “big,” “bigger,” “biggest” and “light” and “heavy.” Point out shapes you see around you: octagon stop signs, rectangle doors, circle light fixtures, and square floor tiles. Play “I Spy” in your care environment or outside to find objects of different sizes, shapes, and colors. 


  • Offer a variety of materials that capture children’s interest and provide a challenge. Jigsaw puzzles, model airplanes, musical instruments, woodworking, and crafts can all provide chances for school-agers to exercise their cognitive skills.
  • Make sure plenty of books and writing materials are available. Provide interesting, age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction. Also provide reference materials that children can use to research topics that interest them. Provide a comfortable, quiet space for reading and writing.
  • Use age-appropriate technology with adult supervision. School-age children can play games on the computer, learn to write code, and use the internet to research interests.
  • Give school-agers a sense of ownership. Involve them in making decisions about changes to the indoor-outdoor environment (e.g., what plants to grow, whether to build an outdoor fort). Provide authentic responsibilities like caring for plants and cleaning up play spaces.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Cognitive Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Cognitive Development Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


How do you define cognitive development? What experiences have helped you develop as a learner? Read and review the information in the Exploring Cognitive Development activity. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


What are your thoughts and beliefs about children’s cognitive development? Each of us has different opinions and ideas about what and how children learn best. Sometimes our opinions and beliefs are based on facts, but sometimes they are not. To best serve all children, it is important to separate myth from fact. Use the Myths about Learning guide and label each of the statements as myth or fact. Then, write a brief response explaining your answer. Compare your answers to the suggested responses. 

To best serve all children, it is important to know the foundational stages of cognitive development through which all children progress. Use the Stages of Cognitive Development guide to review Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. Print the chart to use as a tool in your classroom. 


Specific aspects of growth and change in human development. The major domains of development include social-emotional, physical, language and cognitive
Thinking only of oneself without regard for the feelings or desires of others
The ability to process thoughts and ideas internally rather than physically trying out each hypothesis
The ability to represent different objects or experiences using the things at hand


True or false? A child’s cognitive development is primarily influenced by genes.
Which of the following is not an example of cognitive development?
Which does not help strengthen children’s cognitive development?
Which of the following is not a stage of cognitive development according to Jean Piaget? 
References & Resources

Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about one’s thinking. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc. 

Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. William Morrow Paperbacks an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. 

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Cengage Learning, Inc. 

McLeod, S. (2018). Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Simply Psychology. 

The Center for The Developing Child. (2021). Harvard University. 

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. (3rd ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.