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What Is Cognitive Development? (Explained!)

You might have come across the term cognitive development several times in almost every parenting reading material that you’re following. If you’re still wondering what it is, here’s a bit of help your way. 

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Read on to get answers to practically all your questions- right from ‘what is cognitive development’ to how you can help influence it, as a parent. 

What is Cognitive Development?

When a baby is born it has no knowledge of anything, but as they grow older and experience more things they begin to understand them better. Simply put, cognitive development is the process through which the child acquires knowledge and learns how to put it to use. It also refers to the process of learning more about the world and developing the powers of reasoning and problem solving, among many others. 

In children, cognitive skills develop over time along with their other skills like walking and talking.

Why is Cognitive Development Important?

We are born with general capabilities to interact with the world around us. Think about it this way- have you ever seen a baby in its early months? They can grab onto things, they smile when seeing their mother's face, and they cry when uncomfortable. It is almost as if these young infants have an innate idea of what they should do in certain situations. We then use our surroundings to nurture that ability into something greater- we learn to crawl, walk, run, talk, etc.

The question is- what happens during this process of development that allows us to gradually improve our cognitive abilities? How does one go from not knowing how to function outside of his or her home (a 1-year old infant cannot be left alone at home) to being able to leave home and knowing how to do everyday things?

Cognitive development is the study of the mental processes that form the basis for specific behaviors. It focuses on a broad range of human abilities including learning, problem-solving, remembering, and using language.

But why is cognitive development important? Well, here’s why. 

  • It helps your child develop the ability to focus and understand with reason. 
  • It helps him understand how to process events and situations, and act accordingly. 
  • It helps him understand cause and effect, and eventually, improves his analytical skills. 
  • Polishing cognitive skills have been linked to better scores and performance in academics. 

In general, optimum cognitive development can help your child develop the skills and mindset necessary to go on and live a productive and fulfilling life as an adult. 

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What Are the Types of Cognitive Development?

According to Jean Piaget's theory, children go through four key stages of cognitive development as they grow. These are-

  • Sensorimotor period, which develops between 0-2 years of age
  • Preoperational period, which progresses between 2-7 years
  • Concrete operational stage, which happens between 7-11 years of age
  • Formal operational stage, which occurs at 11+ years.

Some other theorists divide cognitive development into three components. The first is the sensorimotor stage, which begins at birth and lasts until the child is about two years of age. During this stage, infants develop object permanence (the understanding that objects still exist even though they cannot be seen). Differential psychologists believe that a child's performance on traditional intelligence tests can accurately reflect his or her level of cognitive ability during this period of time.

In the next stage, from about two to seven years of age, children begin developing their logical thinking ability. This marks the beginning of what Piaget called the preoperational stage. In order to give children ample opportunity to learn these skills, Piaget designed many games and puzzles involving shapes, math, and matching.

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During the next phase of cognitive development, which continues through elementary school age, children become more proficient at logical reasoning and information processing. Piaget called this stage the concrete operations stage because children develop the ability to solve problems that have definite answers, without being influenced by other factors. 

They are able to organize numeric sequences, classify objects according to specific criteria, sort shapes according to certain rules, conserve number quantity when counting larger sets of objects, understand simple abstract mathematics concepts (such as addition or subtraction), comprehend time sequences (such as “first” or “before”), understand the principle of conservation (that number quantity remains constant even after an exchange occurs), and distinguish appearance from reality. The concrete operational stage generally lasts from early childhood through about the third grade.

The final stage of cognitive development is called formal operations, which begins around age 11 or 12 and continues into adulthood. During this time, adolescents begin to learn how to think abstractly and reason systematically. They become better able to use inductive reasoning (by applying general rules to specific problems) and deductive reasoning (by applying general rules to hypothetical situations). 

At first, they are able to consider only concrete scenarios when using inductive reasoning; for example, they may be able to tell why a match lit when it was struck if they know that striking objects together produces fire, but not if they simply see someone else light a match in a dark room. Once children reach adolescence, though, they begin to develop the ability to reason abstractly and can understand that a person who strikes a match in a dark room lights it because he or she wants light.

What Are the Five Cognitive Skills?

There are several cognitive skills, not just five. It is these core skills that the brain uses to learn how to read, think, write, reason, and make decisions.  

The five cognitive skills that are the most important for growing children are

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What is Cognitive Development in Early Childhood?

Jean Piaget was one of the first psychologists to study cognitive development in young children (before birth to age 8). He believed that our knowledge comes from interaction with the world around us, so as children grow, they construct their own knowledge from their experiences. The emphasis on individual thought as a child grows is at the heart of Piaget's theory.

In his view, there are four stages of cognitive development that each child progresses through sequentially during early childhood, and these correspond to specific ages. 

More recent ideas about cognitive development in early childhood also emphasize the importance of social interactions but suggest that children's thinking is shaped by culture-specific input rather than simply being driven by biological maturation. Cognitive development takes place through these dynamic interactions between children and their environment.

The environment we live in plays a significant role in our cognitive development. The more stimuli we are exposed to, the more our minds can learn. Exposure to new environments provides opportunities for learning and the development of cognitive capabilities. This significantly influences whether or not a person succeeds in life because it determines how successful that individual is at establishing personal relationships, holding a job, keeping up with bills, etc.

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How Does Play Affect Cognitive Development?

You probably already guessed it- play plays an incredibly important role in your child’s cognitive development. It is one of the initial ways your child makes sense of the world around him, and it is through play that he explores and understands more about objects and situations around him. 

Engaging in playtime can help influence your child’s ability to think, understand and even communicate. 

How Can Parents Encourage Cognitive Development?

Depending on their age, children have different needs and abilities. The first step to helping children develop their cognitive abilities is learning and understanding the child's needs and abilities as he or she grows, which can, admittedly, be a bit confusing and even overwhelming at times. 

As a parent, here’s how you can help improve cognitive development in your child. 

  • Encourage pretend play, which helps develop fantasy, imagination, and creativity
  • Help your child become comfortable using the language. Use books to help them associate names with different objects. Speak out words animatedly and with emphasis. 
  • Sing songs together that involve actions. Focus on building the association between the word and the action. 
  • Engage your child in problem-solving tasks such as finding a hidden toy, which enhances logical reasoning skills
  • You can also enhance your child's spatial awareness by hiding toys under blankets and asking your child to find them.
  • Read books together. Choose books that also offer your child a sensory experience. 
  • Engaging in simple activities like solving a puzzle or sorting beads of different colors in different plastic cups can also be beneficial for toddlers. 

Remember that infants explore their environment through simple sensory activities. As children grow older, parents can encourage them to participate in more complex cognitive activities. The most important thing for parents to do when encouraging cognitive development in their children is to remain patient and be willing to repeat an activity many times. 

And of course, outdoor play can always help. Children have a natural curiosity. Let them explore at their own pace without forcing them too much, or being overly protective. 

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How Does Screen Time Influence Cognitive Development?

Gadgets have evolved a lot in recent years, and have gone from being a source of entertainment to a vital tool in the education industry. Potentially all of your child’s study material can be found online, and what’s even more interesting is the fact that it has managed to make the material more presentable and understandable, if not more. 

The downside to the use of gadgets and being exposed to screen time on a daily basis is still there, no doubt. That said, you’re probably wondering if all that screen time actually has any significant impact on your child’s cognitive development.  

There are a staggering number of studies that have linked the use of gadgets in the early years of life to everything from impaired motor skill development and other developmental delays to communication delay and language difficulties. Some experts also claim that screen time in toddlers and growing children could lower their reasoning and thinking abilities and also hamper their ability to process the language. Children who got more screen time were found to have a thinner cortex- the brain area responsible for critical thinking and reasoning. 

In addition, higher screen time could lead to sleep cycle disturbances, behavioral changes, and even emotional imbalances in children. 

While all of that is understandable, it is also a fact that limiting screen time in children has now become even more difficult. Start by trying to create a balance between the time your child spends offline and online. If you’re offering screen time, plan it out wisely in terms of the selection of the content that your child is exposed to. 

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How Does Reading Influence Cognitive Development?

Reading is undoubtedly one of the best things that you can do as a parent to support your child’s cognitive and overall development. Be it reading a nice bedtime story or just pointing at different pictures in a picture book and naming them- all of that can have a profound positive impact on your child’s mental development. And of course, there are several studies that back this up. 

When you, as a parent, read out to your child, you are helping your child’s vocabulary grow and assisting their cognitive development. In fact, researchers also believe that this simple activity can actually improve your child’s academic scores, and make them more likely to perform well in their formal education span. Children that read daily have been found to have better communication skills, social skills, critical thinking abilities, and stronger vocabularies than children who do not. 

In addition, reading also supports motor development in children- your child holds a book or tries to flip its pages. You can start with a few simple board books to keep your child interested, and then move on to more age-appropriate ones. 

One of the best ways to raise a reader is to start early. Make reading a part of your child’s daily routine. 

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Activities that Support Cognitive Development in Children

There are certain activities, in particular, that can really support cognitive development in children. Try to plan out and execute these activities for your child. 

  • Offer opportunities for open-ended exploration and play. Allow young children to explore and experiment with objects, people, and activities in order to learn about themselves and their world. This provides many opportunities for cognitive development. For example, you could set up a soft play area with cushions, pillows, and mats and encourage crawling, climbing, and jumping as well as provide gentle tactile experiences such as squishing pillows.
  • Help develop language skills by talking and helping them understand the words they hear, which in turn, helps them think about what they might say in return The more that children talk with adults, the more they learn about conversations and relationships. The more that caregivers can encourage young children to ask questions or make observations, the more opportunities are created for talking together.
  • Encourage pretend play- this one’s super important. Imaginary friends are often formed during the early years of your child’s development, and games of “let's pretend” can help expand young minds even further!
  • Engage in dramatic play- it is a huge part of growing up! It helps to build social skills and language skills while allowing children to use creativity and imagination. 
  • Singing songs with children also offers an excellent opportunity for cognitive development. It encourages movements that are essential for muscle growth, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility. Singing along also helps your child build his vocabulary while giving him an idea of how the language works.
  • Arts & crafts activities are not only fun but they encourage kids to think creatively! They stimulate the mind by challenging them to make decisions and think about things from their own perspective instead of mimicking rules or actions without question like they might when playing video games or watching the TV. 

Stacking toys and shape sorters can be excellent toys to invest in if you’re looking to boost your child’s cognitive development. Here are a few good options to pick from. 

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Outdoor Activities that Support Cognitive Development 

Physical activity is one of the most powerful yet underrated activities that support cognitive development in children. Recent studies have found that children who spent more time being engaged in physical activities had faster processing speeds than those who were not active at home. 

As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to harness its benefits. But before you go ahead, here’s a bit more you should know about the kind of outdoor activities you can set up for your child. 

  • Choose open, unstructured forms of play. This is what allows your child’s brain to perform at its best, and even supports your child’s ability to reason, think independently and develop self-esteem and confidence. 
  • Try to set up the outdoor playtime in a space that has greenery. A study recently found that the amount of greenery correlated with faster processing speed performance among all children regardless of their individual levels of physical activity.
  • Depending on your child’s age, you might also want to introduce some risky play. Risky play has been found to have many benefits and can help support your child’s physical and mental growth and development in more ways than one. 

Start with simple activities like cycling at the local park or tossing a boomerang back and forth or even just blowing bubbles! Another simple way to get your child some more time outdoors is to set up his puzzles, building blocks, or his craft and art essentials in the backyard. 

And of course, you can also invest in some good outdoor toys like dome climbers and water tables. 

Cognitive development is an important part of early childhood. Taking steps to improve your child’s cognitive development can influence language, communication, social skills, and physical development. 

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