Understanding the Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

Understanding the Stages of Cognitive Development in Children

Intellectual growth is an ever expanding process which accumulates and combines all that is learnt by the child as he is growing. There are various stages of cognitive development and all of them are interlinked. It’s not like stair steps, in which moving from one step to the other means forgetting the previous step. It is an additive progression where the preceding experiences play a mighty role in the succeeding ones.

For example as a child understands that not all four legged animals are dogs, he doesn’t forget how a dog actually looks like. He might club horses, donkeys, zebras and cows all under the ‘horse’ category, but eventually he learns to sort out all of them like an adult.

Intellectual growth

Psychologists and researchers delineate four big stages of cognitive development. (Piaget, 1963) These stages are from birth till late adolescence.

1) Sensorimotor Intelligence (Birth to two years)-

Most behaviours during this stage are reflexive. That is, the child interacts with his environment in physical and untrained ways. There is hardly any manipulation of ideas. The cognitive development occurs swiftly in this stage. Examples include –Preoperational Thought (Two to Seven years) – This is the most brisk period of language acquisition. The child can conceptualize and categorise things in his environment and can solve physical problems.

During this period, children use the ideas learnt in the first two years to form higher concepts. Children at this age are not able to reason from their own experiences about things outside their range as older children are able to do. For example – A two year old child might expect a wooden block to float in water because he has seen a plastic block float. He may focus only on one aspect of the object or might construct ideas that are inaccurate due to his limited experience.

  • Infants learn to suck objects/toys other than mother’s milk/bottle. They learn to move their legs wildly for sheer sake of pleasure.
  •  Infant might pull the cord of a bell hanging on his crib, hence producing some music.

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  1. Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years):

The preoperational stage spans from approximately 2 to 7 years and is characterized by significant advancements in language and symbolic thinking. Children in this stage use symbols to represent objects and engage in pretend play. Key features include:

a. Egocentrism: Children at this stage often struggle to see things from others’ perspectives, and they may assume everyone thinks and feels as they do.

b. Animism: Children may attribute human-like qualities to inanimate objects, such as thinking a toy is sad if it’s put away.

c. Centration: They tend to focus on only one aspect of a situation and have difficulty considering multiple dimensions simultaneously.

Understanding the preoperational stage helps adults communicate effectively with children, respecting their perspective while gently guiding their thinking.

  1. Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years):

Around the age of 7, children enter the concrete operational stage, which lasts until approximately 11 years. During this phase, children become more skilled in logical thinking and begin to understand concrete principles. Key characteristics include:

a. Conservation: Children grasp the concept that certain properties of objects, such as volume or quantity, remain the same despite changes in appearance.

b. Reversibility: They can mentally reverse actions and understand that some processes can be undone.

c. Classification: Children can classify objects into multiple categories based on various criteria.

Understanding the concrete operational stage enables educators to design learning experiences that emphasize hands-on, concrete learning opportunities.

  1. Formal Operations Stage (11 years and beyond):

The formal operations stage, starting around 11 years old and continuing into adolescence, marks the pinnacle of cognitive development. In this stage:

a. Abstract Thinking: Adolescents can think abstractly and reason about concepts beyond the concrete realm, such as love, freedom, and justice.

b. Hypothetical Reasoning: They can contemplate “what if” scenarios and engage in deductive and hypothetical-deductive reasoning.

c. Metacognition: Adolescents are more self-aware of their thinking processes and can monitor and control their cognitive activities.

Understanding the formal operations stage helps parents and educators foster critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills in adolescents.


Understanding the stages of cognitive development in children provides crucial insights into their evolving minds. As parents, caregivers, and educators, we play pivotal roles in supporting and nurturing children through these stages, creating a conducive environment for their cognitive growth and development. By recognizing and appreciating the unique characteristics of each stage, we can better engage with children, stimulate their curiosity, and guide them toward becoming confident, independent thinkers.

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