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Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

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Theories of cognitive development focus on the development of cognitive processes, including thinking and memory (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget and Vygotsky each theorize the process of cognitive development during early childhood. Several methods can be used to test cognitive development during early childhood depending on age.

Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

It is believed cognitive development is most profound during infancy and early childhood (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Much research has been devoted to finding out how infants and young children develop thinking skills, memory, and language (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget and Vygotsky are two theorists who each developed their own theory of cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Piaget's Theory

Piaget placed heavy emphasis on knowledge constructivism (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). He believed children construct their knowledge through assimilation and accommodation (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). When a child experiences something new, he or she distorts the new information to fit in with what he or she already knows to make sense of the new information (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Assimilation of information causes changes in existing information to accommodate the new information so it will all make sense (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget's views on knowledge constructivism is evident in his theory of cognitive development. Piaget's theory explains the development of cognitive processes as occurring in a series of stages divided by age that build on one another (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). What one learns in one stage provides a foundation or precursor to what is learned in subsequent stages (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Two of Piaget's stages occur during early childhood: Sensorimotor and preoperational (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Sensorimotor Stage

Piaget believed cognitive development occurs in stages (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). The first stage of cognitive development begins at birth and is called the sensorimotor stage (Ojose, 2008). During this stage, infants acquire object permanence, which is the understanding objects still exist even if one cannot see them (Ojose, 2008). Infants who have acquired object permanence are capable of representational thought (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Infants also learn to connect objects and numbers during this stage, laying the foundation for counting and math (Ojose, 2008).

Recognition memory and recall memory begin to develop during this stage (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Recognition memory involves the ability to recognize what one has and has not experienced before (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). An example of recognition memory is recognizing a face in a crowd, even if you have only seen that face once before. Recognition memory begins to develop during early infancy (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Recall memory involves the ability to remember something one has experienced before (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Recall memory does not begin to develop until late infancy (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Another developmental milestone during this stage is the ability to have intentions (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). According to Piaget, infants begin acting intentionally during early infancy (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children not only learn the consequences of actions through operant conditioning, but also understand the connection between the stimulus and consequence (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Infants are able to intentionally act in certain ways to reach a goal (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Preoperational Stage

The second stage of Piaget's theory is known as the preoperational stage (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). This stage of development occurs from ages of two to about five (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). By the time a child enters this stage, he or she can demonstrate object permanence, recall memory, and intentional behavior (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children also have the ability to count and participate in exploratory play during which they manipulate and organize objects (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children during this stage have the ability to think of only one thing at a time (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). The ability to only focus on one thing is known as centration (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Rational thought is lacking during this stage (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

An important aspect of this stage is a child's lack of ability to see another's point of view (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget called this phenomenon preoperational egocentrism (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children only recognize their own points of view and do not believe any other points of view exist (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

It is during this stage a child's language development begins to take off (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Preschoolers can use complex sentences, take turns speaking in conversations, and begin to learn simple rules of grammar (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children increase their vocabulary ten-fold during this stage (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Vygotsky's Theory

Unlike Piaget's theory, Vygotsky's theory does not explain cognitive development in a series of stages (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky's primary focus is on the influence of one's culture and cultural knowledge transmission on cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky believed thinking is facilitated by the tools, such as writing, language, and numbers, one uses (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). According to Vygotsky, children learn to associate words with things based on cultural meanings for things (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). This is known as mediated learning and is similar to Piaget's assimilation and accommodation except that Vygotsky's emphasis is on cognitive development within one's cultural context whereas Piaget's emphasis is on a cognitive development within the child (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky believed a person can never be separated from his or her culture and that thinking is based on the collective experience of oneself and others (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky's beliefs in the social mediation of development lead to interest in the research differences in development across cultures (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Like Piaget, Vygotsky emphasized the influence of others on cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky believed it is possible to improve one's thinking (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). He believed that advances in thinking improve society (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Those who demonstrate advanced thinking provide scaffolding that helps others climb to reach more advanced thinking as well (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). He believed people desire to become advanced thinkers (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

A major difference between the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky centers around the level of importance associated with egocentric speech (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget did not believe there was any usefulness in egocentric speech (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky, on the other hand, found egocentric speech, or private speech, to be essential to later cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky believed private speech to be a precursor for several cognitive skills, including planning and problem solving (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Testing Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

Several tests can be conducted at different ages to determine one's level of cognitive development. Some tests are appropriate for children during infancy. Other tests are used to determine one's cognitive development during early childhood.

Testing During Infancy

Two tests based on Piaget's theory used to measure one's cognitive development during infancy are the hidden objects test and the deferred imitation test (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). The hidden objects test can be used to determine if an infant has acquired object permanence (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). In this test, an object of interest to the infant is hidden behind or under something else. If the child searches for the object, the test proves the infant has acquired object permanence (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). If the child acts like the object no longer exists or has disappeared, he or she has not yet acquired object permanence (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). This test is appropriate for infants between one and two years old (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).
Testing for deferred imitation during infancy is used to determine if one has developed recall memory (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). During this test, an infant is asked to imitate something he or she watched someone else do at an earlier time (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). For example, a child watches his mother wipe the table with a napkin after lunch. The following day, the child is asked to wipe the table after lunch. If the child uses a napkin and wipes the table like his or her mother did the day before, he or she is demonstrating his or her ability to recall past experiences. Testing for deferred imitation is appropriate once a child reaches about nine months old (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Testing During Preschool Years

Tests based on Piaget's theory used to measure one's cognitive development during preschool years include the number conservation task (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). The number conservation task involves lining up the same number of objects the same way in two even rows, one below the other (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Children are asked whether the rows each have the same number of objects (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Most children will say both rows have the same number of objects (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). If the researcher spreads the objects of the second row farther apart than the objects in the first row, children will usually believe the second row has a different number of objects even though it does not because that row is now longer than the first row (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).


Cognitive development begins at birth and progresses most during infancy and early childhood (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Both Piaget and Vygotsky theorized about the progression of cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Piaget believed development occurs in a series of stages that build on one another and thinking forms within the child (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Vygotsky did not believe development occurred in stages and placed a heavy emphasis on one's culture and mediated learning in cognitive development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Both theorists believed the social influence on cognitive development is important (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Tests, such as the hidden object test and number conservation task, can be used to determine one's level of cognitive development during infancy and early childhood (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2015). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Ojose, B. (2008). Applying Piaget's theory of cognitive development to mathematics instruction. The Mathematics Educator, 18(1), 26-30. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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