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Cognitive Development: An Introduction

During the school-age years, children develop the complex cognitive skills that will carry them through school and beyond. The strong foundational cognitive skills they have developed as children prepare them for learning as teens and adults. When you support the developing brain you are building a strong foundation for school and life success. This lesson will introduce you to important concepts about how the brain develops during the school-age years. 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 the school-age years.
  • 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 the recipe for a new meal
  • 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. This course will help you understand how your work contributes to the development of thinking skills in the school-age children you serve.

What is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development is all about learning and reasoning, including the development of memory, symbolic thought, and problem-solving skills. When a school-age child solves a math problem, questions something they have read, makes a snack, or learns to knit, that is cognitive development. Take a moment to consider other examples of cognitive development that you have observed with school-age children.

According to Dodge et al. (2010), “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.” We know that who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives; the experiences they have while they are in your care. 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. All children progress through the stages in the same order, however the age at which they progress through each stage may vary.

  1. Sensorimotor (birth to age 2)
  2. Preoperational (from age 2 to age 7)
  3. Concrete (from age 7 to age 11)
  4. Formal Operational (from age 11 through adulthood)

The school-age children in your care will likely be working through the Preoperational Stage and the Concrete Operational Stage. During the Preoperational Stage, children 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.

Examples of this stage include:

  • A child uses a block as a cell phone and pretends to call the doctor to check on a sick doll.
  • A child creates a house out of boxes and blankets.
  • A child uses a blanket as a superhero cape, tying it around their neck and pretending to fly.
  • A child starts a story by saying “When I was a little kid ….”

During the Concrete Operational Stage, children 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 of this stage include: 

  • Jake understands that if it’s 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. 

The Importance of Childhood and Early Adolescence

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 school-age children:

  • Engage in tailored, back-and-forth interactions (both verbal and nonverbal).
  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and needs aloud.
  • Support active learning.
  • Model attention and persistence.

Scientists no longer debate which is most important, genetics or experience; the same is true for developmental domains. All of the domains of development are important, and they are inextricably linked. 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 respecting the intense emotional changes that happen during the school-age years and providing consistent, nurturing support.
  • They are socially connected, by fostering relationships between them and others during out-of-school time.
  • They are allowed to explore thinking in different ways and encouraged to express their own ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.

Learning is both individual and social and takes place within social and cultural contexts. Children who accumulate negative experiences carry those effects with them throughout their lives. In other words, experiences last a lifetime. Remember that while you are helping settle an argument over a basketball game, preheating the oven for a cooking activity, building a model airplane, and performing all of the other tasks you do on a daily basis, you are also influencing a developing brain.


The experiences you provide every day matter. Look at all the ways school-age children are learning in your programs.

Cognitive Development: You Make a Difference

Experiences shape learning


School-age children spend their days in structured school settings. Your program can provide a space for school-age children to connect with others, explore their own interests, discover new skills, and apply their knowledge in interesting ways. It can also provide them the time and space they need to process all they are learning. Take time to review the strategies listed below which highlight ways to support cognitive development for the school-age children and youth in your program:

  • Offer a variety of materials that capture children's interest and provide challenges. Model airplanes, jigsaw puzzles, musical instruments, woodworking, and crafts can all provide chances for school-agers to exercise cognitive skills.
  • Offer free choice, open-ended play experiences. School-age children are learning in more formal ways now, but play is still important for a school-age child’s cognitive development.
  • 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 facilities (e.g., what plants to grow in the lobby, whether to build an outdoor stage, etc.). Provide authentic responsibilities like caring for plants and cleaning up program 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 School-Age 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? Use the Exploring Cognitive Development activity to further reflect on cognitive development. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or 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 recognize 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. Share them with your trainer, coach or administrator. Then 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 the four stages in Piaget’s theory 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 are social-emotional, physical, language and cognitive)
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


Which of the following is not an example of cognitive development?
A coworker asks for ideas about how to support school-age children’s cognitive development. What do you suggest?
True or false? Cognitive development is influenced primarily by genes.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that school-age children are going through which two stages?
References & Resources

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

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, Inc.

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

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