What is cognitive development in early childhood

Cognitive development in early childhood means how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, problem solving and dispositions, which help children to think about and understand the world around them. Brain development is part of cognitive development.

Cognitive development refers to a set of intellectual abilities that researchers consider to be ‘normal’ for an infant, toddler, pre-schooler or kindergartener. In other words, it’s the quantification, or systematisation of how much a child should be able to do or understand by a certain age.

Examples of cognitive skills

Some of the most important cognitive skills for a child are:

  • Attention and response
  • Language learning
  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Information processing
  • Problem-solving
  • Simple reasoning
  • Understanding cause and effect
  • Pattern recognition

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came up with the theory of cognitive development in 1952. According to Piaget, the environment does not shape the child’s behaviour; rather, children and adults actively seek to understand their environment and adapt.

Piaget’s theory is the most comprehensive theory of cognitive development in children. The theory propagated that we can learn as much about children’s intellectual development from their incorrect answers to test questions as we can from their correct answers. He describes four distinct stages in cognitive development in children: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal.

The four stages of growth:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: This is the stage from birth to age 2 where the child is able to differentiate between himself/herself and the environment.
  2. Preoperational Stage: At this stage (age 2–7), the child needs concrete physical situations. Objects are classified in simple ways based on their important features. The child is not able to conceptualise abstractly.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: At this stage (age 7–11), the child begins to think abstractly and conceptualise things, creating logical structures that explain the child’s physical experiences.
  4. Formal Operations Stage: This is the stage from age 11–15 in which cognition reaches its final form. The child’s abstract thinking is similar to that of an adult, and he or she is capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning.

Benefits of cognitive development:

  • Promotes long-term learning: Learning, as we all know, is a lifelong process. Cognitive learning encourages students to take a hands-on approach to learning which will help them make important decisions later in life by studying all the pros and cons.
  • Develops problem-solving skills: Problem-solving skills are essential later in life, both for career-building and for managing a family.
  • Improves comprehension: Cognitive learning helps students to comprehend things clearly and develop a deeper understanding of situations and circumstances.
  • Improves confidence: With deeper comprehension skills and more knowledge, children can approach life with greater enthusiasm and confidence, helping them be successful in all their endeavours.
  • Improves memory: A deeper understanding of the subject makes the student retain the knowledge gained for a longer time, thus improving their memory.
  • Instills a love of learning: Concept-based education instills a lifelong love of learning in the student, pushing them to continue gaining knowledge and developing new skills. Both of these things are important for career success.
  • Emphasises innovation: In cognitive learning, students reflect on problems, explore different ideas and come up with new solutions.

Children should be able to improve their ability to focus, to remember information and think more critically as they age. Cognitive skills allow children to understand the relationships between ideas, to grasp the process of cause and effect and to improve their analytical skills.

Why an early focus on cognitive skills is crucial

Some young children may have developmental delays or challenges that can be identified and addressed if caught early. Because of this, parents, teachers and caretakers should keenly observe each child’s development and address any issues as early as possible. This can prevent the child from struggling later on in life.

In a fast-developing, competitive world, cognitive skill development from an early age is very crucial for a child. Young children grow physically during their early childhood, and they also grow mentally by observing and interacting with the world around them. It is important for parents to foster cognitive development in their child as soon as the child is born, because it is the foundation for the child’s success later on in their life. For example, research shows that children who can distinguish sounds at six months of age are better at acquiring the skills for learning to read at four and five years of age.

To promote your child’s cognitive development, it is important that you actively engage in quality interactions on a daily basis. Examples include:

  • Talk to your baby. You can start doing this while you’re pregnant. One important aspect of a child’s cognitive development is language learning. Research has proven that children acquire language abilities long before birth. At birth, babies recognise their mother’s voice and can discriminate between the language spoken by the mother and foreign languages. It is important for the mother to keep up a conversation with her child, even when he or she is still in the womb.
  • Help your baby learn the names of objects. Once your baby has been born, continue talking to them, and share the names of commonly used objects. Studies have shown that talking to babies boosts their brain power and helps them to learn languages faster.
  • Let your children explore and observe. Children have a natural curiosity for the things around them, and they should be allowed to explore and learn things by observing. Overly protective parents may actually hinder their child’s natural growth and learning.
  • Singing and reading to your baby. Studies have shown that music helps children develop healthy skills as it soothes and creates a positive environment.
  • Exposing your toddler to books and puzzles.
  • Expanding on your child’s interests in specific learning activities. For example, your toddler might show an early interest in dinosaurs, so you can take him/her on a trip to the natural history museum to learn more about the time that these creatures roamed the earth.
  • Answer your child’s questions. As your child grows up and starts asking questions, answer them accurately and patiently. Children are naturally inquisitive. Parents should whet their children’s curiosity, since it will help them learn.

Another way that you can foster your child’s cognitive development is to provide them with choices and prompt them to make thoughtful decisions. You should also allow your child to explore different ways of solving problems. While you may want to provide some gentle guidance and encouragement, allow your child some time to figure out things, like a new puzzle. This may require some patience on your part, but it will ultimately help them to learn.

Building a strong foundation for future success

Research has shown that there is a strong link between the development a child undergoes in early childhood and the level of success they experience later in life. The brain is the most incredible network of information processing, and both interpretation and thinking skills improve as children learn. Parents, teachers and caretakers should help children develop their cognitive skills at an early age so that they can grow up with confidence and with the skills to succeed.

If a child does seem to have a learning disability, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Today, there are various methods to assess and train children who have learning disabilities. Not all children are born with the same cognitive abilities, but they all have the potential to develop into able and efficient individuals. With the help of caring, nurturing parents and teachers, children can utilise their potential to a maximum extent and grow up to be well-rounded and successful individuals.

Should you wish to deepen your knowledge and skills to develop your child’s cognitive abilities, why not enrol for our Diploma in Early Childhood Development and become the best parent or caretaker you can possibly be!

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