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    • Define cognitive development.
    • Describe what cognitive development looks like during the school-age years.
    • Identify steps you can take to 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'll 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 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. When a school-age child solves a math problem, that's cognitive development; when a school-age child questions something she has read, that's cognitive development; and when a school-age child makes a snack or learns to knit, that's cognitive development. Cognitive development happens all the time and is influenced by both 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." Who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives. Brains are built over time, and each experience affects growth and development. While genetics are important, the interplay between genes and experiences is the focus of research today.

    Scientists no longer debate which is most important, genetics or experience; the same is true for which developmental domain is most important. All of the domains of development are important, and they are inextricably linked. Carol Dweck of Stanford University says, "We can't carve people up-there isn't the cognitive person, the emotional person, the motivational person, the social person. All of these co-occur in the brain" (Galinsky, 2010).

    Learning is both individual and social and takes place within social and cultural contexts. Cognitive development is strengthened when children are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. Children who accumulate negative experiences carry those effects with them throughout their lives. In other words, experiences last a lifetime.

    The Importance of Childhood and Early Adolescence

    Brains are built over time, and each experience affects growth and development. Outside of their families and their teachers at school, you might be the person they spend the most time with during these critical years of development. 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

    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. Take a 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:

    • Provide a variety of materials that capture children's interest and provide a challenge. Model airplanes, jigsaw puzzles, musical instruments, woodworking, and crafts can all provide chances for school-agers to exercise cognitive skills.
    • Make sure plenty of books and writing materials are available. Provide interesting, age-appropriate fiction and non-fiction. 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? Take a look at 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 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’s important that you recognize myth from fact. Label each of the statements as myth or fact and write a brief response explaining your answer. Share them with a coach, trainer, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested answers key.




    Which of the following is an example of cognitive development?


    A co-worker 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.

    References & Resources

    Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about One's Thinking. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Accessed from

    Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, Third Edition. 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.

    The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: