Cognitive Development: Definition & Examples

Cognitive development is an important part of overall child development developmental psychology. This is about the development of central abilities of the human brain, for example the ability to classify objects and people and to be able to tell them apart.

Cognitive development definition

Cognitive development is understood as the formation of central abilities of the brain. This includes a variety of cognitive skills.

According to the German Federal Association for Logopedics eV one also calls the cognitive development of children mental or intellectual development. It is about the ability to recognize and classify objects, situations and people.

To the cognitive functions include for example:

Would you like to learn more about a child’s language development? Then take a look at our article!

The importance of cognitive development

The development of intelligence plays a central role in cognitive development. The prerequisites for thinking and intelligence are perception, memory and language skills. These conditions are also called «cognitive support functions»because cognitive development relies on these functions.

Cognitive development examples

There are many different cognitive abilities that are central to a person’s everyday life. They are all developed step by step during childhood. In the course of childhood, the following cognitive skills in particular are learned:

  • Troubleshooting
  • creativity
  • decision
  • planning
  • orientation
  • imagination
  • argumentation
  • Introspection/Introspection

There are different theories as to how exactly these skills develop in children.

Cognitive development theories

Thinking is usually understood as an expression higher mental processes. Examples of mental processes are logical reasoning and problem solving. However, thinking is and is internal to the brain cannot be observed from the outside.

Younger children can hardly describe their thinking in words. It is therefore a great challenge to study children’s thinking.

Jean Piaget

Probably the most influential theory of cognitive development comes from the Swiss researcher Jean Piaget (1896-1980). He began studying child development in the 1920s. One of his main teachings is that children four phases or stages that build on one another run through. Each stage contains its own characteristics of thinking.

If you are interested in Piaget’s research, you can also check out the article on attachment behavior on .

Lev Vygotsky

At the same time as Piaget, another influential theory of cognitive development emerged: The sociocultural theory of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

Figure 1: The psychologist Lev WygotskiSource:

In his theory, Wygotsky examined the importance of the cultural context, i.e. the environment in which one grows up, for cognitive development.

In his theory, the child is primarily considered social being that develops its thinking in the context of the thinking of other people. Vygotsky assumed that a child’s diverse thoughts result from the exchange between the child and other people.

Vygotsky was also convinced that children can help themselves psychological tools to form. For him, language is the most important psychological tool. Other tools are the number and writing system as well mnemonics. These are techniques to improve memory performance, such as mnemonics.

Domain Specific Theories

Nowadays there are also the so-called domain-specific theories. It is assumed that cognitive development is not based on different levels of thought, as Piaget believed. Instead, it is assumed that the changes in the child’s thinking influenced by certain experiences and acquired knowledge will. According to these theories, humans are equipped with certain learning mechanisms from birth, with the help of which they can quickly absorb new knowledge, for example the urge to explore the environment.

In cognition research, the term domain-specific means that cognitive development depends on knowledge of certain facts.

Childlike knowledge can three areas be assigned:

  • knowledge about the behavior of objects,
  • knowledge about human behavior
  • Knowledge of the behavior of non-human beings.

Using the following example, the domain-specific theories become clearer:

Babies are born with certain cognitive abilities, such as the ability to process voices. These allow them domain-specific knowledge systems (e.g. physical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, biological knowledge). They form the core knowledge. The further acquisition of knowledge is characterized by the continuous expansion of core knowledge.

Piaget’s cognitive development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is one comprehensive theory of human development intelligence. The theory deals with the nature of knowledge and with how people acquire, build and use knowledge. One calls Piaget’s theory too Developmental Stage Theory.

basics of the theory

In 1919, Piaget was working at the Alfred Binet Laboratory School in Paris and was fascinated by the fact that children of different ages made different mistakes when solving problems. Sexperiences and observations there were the beginning of his theory.

Figure 2: The developmental psychologist Jean PiagetSource:

Piaget believed that children are not «little adults» who simply know less, but have a different way of thinking than adults. Based on the belief that children have great cognitive abilities, Piaget developed four different stages of cognitive development. He succeededto assign these individual phases to different age groups. It was thus possible to understand how children develop their cognitive abilities.

For Piaget was cognitive development one progressive reorganization and reorganization of various mental processesthat result from biological maturation and environmental experiences. He believed that children construct an understanding of the world. In doing so, they perceive discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover around them. Along these discrepancies, they can then adjust their ideas of the world accordingly.

From child to adult – The stages of cognitive development

In his theory of cognitive development Piaget assumed that a child goes through four developmental stages or phases. He distinguished:

  • the sensorimotor phase
  • the preoperative phase
  • the concrete operational phase
  • the formal operational phase

The sensorimotor phase

This phase extends from birth to language acquisition. Babies construct here gradually the knowledge and understanding of the world by giving experiences bodily interactions with objects link. Infants gain knowledge of the world through physical actions they perform in it.

Here is an example that makes the principle clearer:

For example, a child may have different experiences of seeing or hearing while reaching for toys or kicking objects.

Children also learn that they are separate from the world around them. They learn to think about aspects of the environment even when they are not within the reach of the child’s senses. In the sensorimotor phase, the development of object permanence one of the most important developments.

object permanence is a child’s understanding that an object (such as a toy) still exists even when they can no longer see or hear the object.

At the game «peek a boo« Young children who do not yet have perfect object permanence respond to the sudden hiding and revealing of a face. At the end of the sensorimotor phase, children finally develop a permanent sense of self and object and therefore quickly lose interest in «peek a boo«.

There is six sub-stages the sensorimotor phase:


age of the child


Simple reflexes

Birth up to 6 weeks

  • Three main reflexes: sucking objects in the mouth, tracking moving objects with the eyes, and closing the hand when an object touches the palm.
  • The reflexes become concrete actions.

First habits and primary circular reaction phase

6 weeks to 4 months

  • habits/reflexes and reproductions of an initially random pattern in the area of ​​the infant’s body, e.g. B. Gripping movements.
  • Lots of self employment.

Secondary circular reaction phase 4 to 8 months

  • Habits are formed, actions with interesting results are repeated.
  • The distinction between means and ends begins.

Coordination of secondary ring reaction stages

8 to 12 months

  • The visible and the tangible are coordinated.
  • The logic evolves.
  • Orientation towards a goal that can be achieved through individual steps begins.

Tertiary circular reactions, curiosity 12 to 18 months

  • Children experiment with different objects and new behaviors.
  • New means of achieving one’s own goals or overcoming challenges are discovered.

Internalization of schemas 18 to 24 months

  • The beginning of the development of the child’s insight and creativity.

The preoperative phase

By observing game situations, Piaget was able to complete the second stage of his theory, the preoperative stage, demonstrate. DThis phase starts at about end of the second year with learning to speak and lasts up to the age of seven.

Here you can children yet no concrete logic understand and have Difficulty looking at things from different angles. The thinking is egocentric. The child finds it difficult to understand the point of view of others. However, the children are usually able tomagical beliefs» to build.

magical thinking In psychology, refers to a manifestation of child development in which a child assumes that his thoughts, words or actions can influence events that are not causally connected. Conventional rules of cause and effect are ignored.

the preoperative phase is in two subphases subdivided:

  • the symbolic subphase
  • the intuitive subphase

the symbolic lower level is that children are able to understand, represent, remember and imagine objects in their mind without having the object in front of them. The children can think in pictures and symbols and play role-playing games, for example.

Here is an example to make the symbolic lower level clearer to you:

Little Marie is four years old. Her big brother, seven-year-old Paul, and she always play with his toy car together. When Paul stayed at his friend’s house and his toys…