What Is Cognitive Development? (2023)

Cognitive development is the process by which we come to acquire, understand, organize, and learn to use information in various ways. The late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was a major figure in the study of cognitive development in children. He believed that it occurs in four stages—sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

This article discusses Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, including important concepts and principles.

What Is Cognitive Development? (1)

History of Cognitive Development

In the 1920s, a psychologist named Jean Piaget was given the task of translating English intelligence tests into French. During this process, he observed that children think differently than adults do and have a different view of the world. He began to study children from birth through the teenage years—observing children who were too young to talk, and interviewing older children while he also observed their development.

Paiget published his theory of cognitive development in 1936. This theory is based on the idea that a child’s intelligence changes throughout childhood and cognitive skills are learned as a child grows and interacts with their environment.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory suggests that cognitive development occurs in four stages as a child ages. These stages are always completed in order, but last longer for some children than others. Each stage builds on the skills learned in the previous stage.

The four stages of cognitive development are:

  • Sensorimotor
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete operational
  • Formal operational

Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage begins at birth and lasts until 18 to 24 months of age. During the sensorimotor stage, children are physically exploring their environment and absorbing information through their senses of smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound.

The most important skill gained in the sensorimotor stage is object permanence, which means that the child knows that an object still exists even when they can't see it anymore. For example, if a toy is covered up by a blanket, the child will know the toy is still there and will look for it. Without this skill, the child thinks that the toy has simply disappeared.

Language skills also begin to develop during the sensorimotor stage.

Activities to Try During the Sensorimotor Stage

Appropriate activities to do during the sensorimotor stage include:

  • Play peek-a-boo
  • Read books
  • Provide toys with a variety of textures
  • Sing songs
  • Play with musical instruments
  • Roll a ball back and forth

Preoperational Stage

The preoperational stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development occurs between ages 2 and 7 years. Early on in this stage, children learn the skill of symbolic representation. This means that an object or word can stand for something else. For example, a child might play "house" with a cardboard box.

At this stage, children assume that other people see the world and experience emotions the same way they do, and their main focus is on themselves. This is called egocentrism.

(Video) What is Cognitive development?, Explain Cognitive development, Define Cognitive development

Centrism is another characteristic of the preoperational stage. This means that a child is only able to focus on one aspect of a problem or situation. For example, a child might become upset that a friend has more pieces of candy than they do, even if their own pieces are bigger.

During this stage, children will often play next to each other—called parallel play—but not with each other. They also believe that inanimate objects, such as toys, have human lives and feelings.

Activities to Try During the Preoperational Stage

Appropriate activities to do during the preoperational stage include:

  • Play "house" or "school"
  • Build a fort
  • Color
  • Paint
  • Play with Play-Doh
  • Use building blocks
  • Play charades

Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage occurs between the ages of 7 and 11 years. During this stage, a child develops the ability to think logically and problem-solve but can only apply these skills to objects they can physically see—things that are "concrete."

There are six main concrete operations that develop in this stage. These include:

  • Conservation: This skill means that a child understands that the amount of something or the number of a particular object stays the same, even when it looks different. For example, a cup of milk in a tall glass looks different than the same amount of milk in a short glass—but the amount did not change.
  • Classification: This skill is the ability to sort items by specific classes, such as color, shape, or size.
  • Seriation: This skill involves arranging objects in a series, or a logical order. For example, the child could arrange blocks in order from smallest to largest.
  • Reversibility: This skill is the understanding that a process can be reversed. For example, a balloon can be blown up with air, then deflated back to the way it started.
  • Decentering: This skill allows a child to focus on more than one aspect of a problem or situation at the same time. For example, two candy bars might look the same on the outside, but the child knows that they are different flavors on the inside.
  • Transitivity: This skill provides an understanding of how things relate to each other. For example, if John is older than Susan, and Susan is older than Joey, then John is older than Joey.

Activities to Try During the Concrete Operational Stage

Appropriate activities to do during the concrete operational stage include:

  • Use measuring cups (for example, demonstrate how one cup of water fills two half-cups)
  • Solve simple logic problems
  • Practice basic math
  • Do crossword puzzles
  • Play board games

Formal Operational Stage

The last stage in Piaget's theory of cognitive development occurs during the teenage years into adulthood. During this stage, a person learns abstract thinking and hypothetical problem-solving skills.

Deductive reasoning–or the ability to make a conclusion based on information gained from a person's environment–is also learned in this stage. This means, for example, that a person is able to identify the differences between dogs of various breeds, instead of putting them all in a general category of "dogs."

Activities to Try During the Formal Operational Stage

Appropriate activities to do during the formal operational stage include:

  • Play board games
  • Learn to cook
  • Solve crossword and logic puzzles
  • Explore hobbies
  • Play a musical instrument
  • Read books


Piaget's theory of cognitive development is based on the belief that a child gains thinking skills in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. These stages roughly correspond to specific ages, from birth to adulthood. Children progress through these stages at different paces, but according to Piaget, they are always completed in order.

(Video) Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

A Word From Verywell

Piaget's theory of cognitive development is just one of many different developmental theories in the world of psychology. Even if you don't completely agree with Piaget, his stages of development can provide practical ways for you to encourage your child's cognitive development.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some examples of cognitive skills?

    Cognitive skills include memory, attention, thinking, problem-solving, logical reasoning, reading, listening, and more.

  • Why is cognitive development important?

    Cognitive development helps a child obtain skills needed to live a productive life and function as an independent adult.

  • What are some ways to improve cognitive development?

    Activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing games, learning a new language, and exploring new hobbies can all help improve cognition.

5 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Library of Medicine. Cognitive testing. MedlinePlus.

  2. Oklahoma State University. Cognitive development: The theory of Jean Piaget.

  3. SUNY Cortland. Sensorimotor stage.

  4. Marwaha S, Goswami M, Vashist B. Prevalence of principles of Piaget’s theory among 4-7-year-old children and their correlation with IQ.J Clin Diagn Res. 2017;11(8):ZC111-ZC115. doi:10.7860%2FJCDR%2F2017%2F28435.10513

  5. Börnert-Ringleb M, Wilbert J. The association of strategy use and concrete-operational thinking in primary school.Front Educ. 2018;0. doi:10.3389/feduc.2018.00038

(Video) The importance of cognitive development

What Is Cognitive Development? (2)

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.

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(Video) Piaget: Theory of Cognitive Development
(Video) Cognitive Development | Psychology


What defines cognitive development? ›

What is Cognitive Development? Cognitive development means the development of the ability to think and reason. Children ages 6 to 12, usually think in concrete ways (concrete operations). This can include things like how to combine, separate, order, and transform objects and actions.

What is an example of cognitive development? ›

Examples include: Talking with your baby and naming commonly used objects. Letting your baby explore toys and move about. Singing and reading to your baby.

What is cognitive development in child development? ›

Cognitive development means the growth of a child's ability to think and reason. This growth happens differently from ages 6 to 12, and from ages 12 to 18. Children ages 6 to 12 years old develop the ability to think in concrete ways. These are called concrete operations.

What are the 4 aspects of cognitive development? ›

Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development, and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking. Each stage is correlated with an age period of childhood, but only approximately.

Why is cognitive development important? ›

Why is Cognitive Development important? Cognitive development provides children with the means of paying attention to thinking about the world around them. Everyday experiences can impact a child's cognitive development.

What is an example of cognitive behavior? ›

What are examples of cognitive behavioral therapy? Examples of CBT techniques might include the following: Exposing yourself to situations that cause anxiety, like going into a crowded public space. Journaling about your thoughts throughout the day and recording your feelings about your thoughts.

What affects a child's cognitive development? ›

Children's cognitive development is affected by several types of factors including: (1) biological (e.g., child birth weight, nutrition, and infectious diseases) [6, 7], (2) socio-economic (e.g., parental assets, income, and education) [8], (3) environmental (e.g., home environment, provision of appropriate play ...

What are the 3 areas of cognitive development? ›

Critical Thinking and the Three Stages of Cognitive Development
  • Pre-operational (ages 2-7)
  • Concrete operational (ages 7-11)
  • Formal operational (adolescence-adulthood)

What are cognitive functions? ›

Cognition basically means using your brain. It is a very broad term that includes many varied and complex brain activities (or cognitive functions), such as attention, memory, processing speed, and executive functions (i.e., reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking).

What are the two factors of cognitive development? ›

The risk factors and interventions influencing cognitive development in children can be divided into three domains: nutrition, environment, and maternal-child interactions.
  • Nutrition. ...
  • Environment. ...
  • Maternal-Child Interactions.
Apr 1, 2017

What are the 7 areas of cognitive development? ›

Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence , reasoning, language development , and memory. Historically, the cognitive development of children has been studied in a variety of ways.

Can cognitive skills be taught? ›

While research has found that genetics play a role in a child's cognitive skill development2 , generally these skills can be taught through practice and training. A child, without a disorder such as ADHD, can learn to pay attention.

What are examples of cognitive needs? ›

Cognitive needs - knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

What is the most important stage of cognitive development? ›

Piaget considered the concrete stage a major turning point in the child's cognitive development because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought. This means the child can work things out internally in their head (rather than physically try things out in the real world).

What is the most important influence on cognitive development? ›

Cognitive development is influenced by how a child approaches learning as well as his or her biological makeup and the environment. A child's background knowledge, or knowledge base, also affects the way a child thinks.

What age is most important for cognitive development? ›

From ages 12 to 18, children grow in the way they think. They move from concrete thinking to formal logical operations. It's important to note that: Each child moves ahead at their own rate in their ability to think in more complex ways.

What are signs of cognitive behavior? ›

Examples of cognitive symptoms include:
  • Problems remembering.
  • Difficulty speaking.
  • Difficulty understanding.
  • Problems concentrating.
Dec 8, 2021

How does cognitive affect our behavior? ›

Cognition is defined as 'the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. ' At Cambridge Cognition we look at it as the mental processes relating to the input and storage of information and how that information is then used to guide your behavior.

How does cognitive affect human behavior? ›

We use affect, behavior, and cognition to help us successfully interact with others. Social cognition refers to our thoughts about and interpretations of ourselves and other people. Over time, we develop schemas and attitudes to help us better understand and more successfully interact with others.

What causes poor cognitive development? ›

– A child can develop a cognitive delay as a result of injury during pregnancy or inability to develop within the womb. Natal conditions such as the presence of drugs, alcohol, or infections (e.g. rubella) can also cause cognitive delays.

What causes cognitive issues in kids? ›

It can be caused by injury, disease, genetic condition, or a brain abnormality. This can happen before a child is born or during childhood. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is not known.

What happens when a child lacks cognitive development? ›

Children with intellectual disabilities (sometimes called cognitive disabilities or, previously, mental retardation) may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school.

What activities promote cognitive development? ›

Read books and tell jokes and riddles. Encourage stacking and building games or play with cardboard boxes. Do jigsaw puzzles and memory games. Play games that combine moving and singing – for example, 'If you're happy and you know it'.

What are the 4 cognitive types? ›

According to Jung's theory, people display four primary cognitive functions—Sensing, Intuition, Thinking, and Feeling—with either extroverted (or extraverted) or introverted tendencies.

What is poor cognitive function? ›

What is cognitive impairment? Cognitive impairment is when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. Cognitive impairment ranges from mild to severe.

What is the most important cognitive function? ›

One of the most important cognitive skills is attention, which enables us to process the necessary information from our environment. We usually process such information through our senses, stored memories, and other cognitive processes. Lack of attention inhibits and reduces our information processing systems.

How does ADHD affect cognition? ›

Impaired cognitive development is also reported to be associated with ADHD [10–12]. The domains of cognitive function that are often impaired in ADHD include those relating to executive functions, such as impulse control and working memory, as well as non-executive functions, such as memory and reaction time [10].

What are the three factors that help improve cognitive decline? ›

Physical activity, diet, and social activity are additional factors linked to maintained cognition in aging that have been used as a basis for interventions to prevent cognitive decline.

What are the 5 cognitive skills? ›

Cognitive skills are often divided into five categories.
Each of these cognitive skills reflects a different method that your brain uses to effectively interpret and use information.
  • Attention. ...
  • Long-term and short-term memory. ...
  • Logic and reasoning. ...
  • Auditory and visual processing.
Oct 7, 2019

What are the 9 cognitive skills? ›

Cognitive Skills
  • Sustained Attention. Allows a child to stay focused on a single task for long periods of time.
  • Selective Attention. ...
  • Divided Attention. ...
  • Long-Term Memory. ...
  • Working Memory. ...
  • Logic and Reasoning. ...
  • Auditory Processing. ...
  • Visual Processing.

What are the six cognitive skills? ›

Bloom's taxonomy describes six cognitive categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

What are the 5 aspects of cognitive development? ›

Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence , reasoning, language development , and memory.

What are the 3 aspects of cognitive development? ›

The focus is upon three aspects of development: specific knowledge governing task performance, responsiveness to experience, and basic processes that underlie differences in the other two areas.

What skills should be included in cognitive development? ›

Cognitive Skills
  • Sustained Attention. Allows a child to stay focused on a single task for long periods of time.
  • Selective Attention. ...
  • Divided Attention. ...
  • Long-Term Memory. ...
  • Working Memory. ...
  • Logic and Reasoning. ...
  • Auditory Processing. ...
  • Visual Processing.

What are the 7 cognitive areas? ›

  • We have 7 areas of cognitive. “brain skills” that help us learn. ...
  • ▪ What you know. ...
  • ▪ Your skills for solving problems. ...
  • ▪ How quickly you perform mental tasks. ...
  • ▪ How you use your eyes for learning. ...
  • ▪ How you use your ears for learning. ...
  • ▪ How you hold information in your. ...
  • ▪ How you store and later remember.

What do cognitive skills include? ›

Cognitive skills are the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. Working together, they take incoming information and move it into the bank of knowledge you use every day at school, at work, and in life.

What affects a child cognitive development? ›

Children's cognitive development is affected by several types of factors including: (1) biological (e.g., child birth weight, nutrition, and infectious diseases) [6, 7], (2) socio-economic (e.g., parental assets, income, and education) [8], (3) environmental (e.g., home environment, provision of appropriate play ...

What 3 factors can strengthen a child's cognitive development? ›

The risk factors and interventions influencing cognitive development in children can be divided into three domains: nutrition, environment, and maternal-child interactions.

What is an example of cognitive development in early childhood? ›

Cognitive development is important for knowledge growth. In preschool and kindergarten, children are learning questioning, spatial relationships, problem-solving, imitation, memory, number sense, classification, and symbolic play.


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