Cognitive Skills

Cognitive development refers to the process in which our brain builds, processes and develops information to allow us to understand the world around us. It helps us to develop skills such as thinking, memory, processing and understanding. 

Cognitive Skills – Thinking and processing

Cognition is the process and mental action of acquiring knowledge. Cognition comes as children are exposed to new experiences and they use their senses to experiment and explore the world around them. 

Everything is a new experience to a new-born baby and over time the development of cognition will support your child in processing, understanding and retrieving information. It is an essential part of overall development allowing a child to understand the world and interact with it safely.

Furthermore, the development of cognitive skills eventually aids children in developing an understanding of emotions and the ability to adapt thinking and behaviours in response to those emotions.

Some examples of cognitive skills include:

  • Making Decisions
  • Predicting outcomes
  • Problem Solving
  • Communicating
  • Imagining 
  • Developing short- and long-term memory

How does cognitive development occur?

Every child’s development is completely unique to them and the way in which they acquire cognitive skills is difficult to sometimes notice because there are lots of things that go on in our brains that we cannot see. The way we acquire cognition has long been debated by theorists and is thought to be influenced by a mixture of a child’s genetics and their environment. A child is born with their brain fully formed, but the architecture of it is built through the experiences they receive after birth and it is thought within the first year of life a child can build over one million neural connections. As children grow and have more experiences, they begin to process and link information more competently and so they make more neural connections and their cognition develops.


Why is cognitive learning important in early childhood?

Cognitive learning is so important in early childhood as scientists believe that the first five years are a particularly important period for acquiring information as the brain is more malleable for absorbing new information.  The experiences children receive help neural connections to grow and they are then strengthened through repetitions. 

  • Supporting Social and Emotional Development
    Cognitive development and personal, social and emotional development are thought to be very unified parts of a child’s development.  They work together to help a child understand situations and influence their behaviour towards those situations using the emotion that has been processed in the brain. They are also jointly responsible for attention, making decisions, regulating feelings, empathy, social understanding and processing.
  • Supporting Physical Development
    Physical activity brings with it exploration and an opportunity to experiment and discover. Cognitive development, alongside physical development, allows a child to explore their surroundings and process systems such as cause and effect, imitating play and following instructions.

  • Supporting Speech and Language
    Speech and language provides us with the ability to talk about what is going on inside our heads. It allows us to open up about our thoughts, feelings and ideas and therefore the more developed our children’s speech and language is, the more developed their cognition is also.

Can we increase the speed of cognitive development?

Children all develop at their own rates and in their own time. Piaget, who is a renowned philosopher, believed that children are born with innate tendencies to acquire cognition and that to do so they go through four phases:

1. The Sensorimotor Stage – Children in this phase learn about the world around them through their senses, basic reflexes and motor (physical) responses.

2. The Preoperational Stage – Children begin to think in a more symbolic manner and will be able to use words and pictures to represent their thoughts and ideas.

3. The Concreate Operational Stage – Children begin to think more logically and are more organised in their thoughts. They will also become more reasonable and less egocentric.

4. The Formal Operational Stage – Children begin to be more abstract in their thoughts and can hypothesis answers, outcomes and be logical with their responses.

Piaget believed that you couldn’t speed up cognitive development and that children needed to reach each of these stages organically and that to rush children through stages of cognitive development might mean they miss learning important skills.

Many still believe this element of his theory today and that even the art of measuring cognitive development is floored because of how difficult cognition is to measure. 

Here at My First Five Years, we believe children all develop at their own pace and supporting children through play to master individual skills is more effective than focusing on speeding up areas of development.

How does cognitive development affect learning?

It is believed that children think and learn in the same way that adults do, however they don’t have the same experiences.

Recent studies of the brain have found that learning requires the integration of different areas of the brain and therefore children need to draw on lots of different experiences in order to make sense of situations and retain information as learnt.

How does cognitive development affect behaviour?

As we’ve already explored, cognitive development is heavily influenced by our environment and learnt experiences. The way in which we learn about behaviour also comes from these learnt experiences with behaviour simply being a physical response to what is happening inside our brains. When children first experience feelings and emotions they can be uncomfortable and difficult, so it’s our job as adults to help children to understand their feelings and talk to them about appropriate ways to respond.

Children over time will then learn what their feelings mean and by watching and observing how to respond to these feelings, they will learn how to regulate their emotions.

Cognitive and intellectual development: Babies

As with any areas of children’s learning and development, play is the way to promote it and we must remember that all children develop in a way that is unique to them. A babies cognitive and intellectual development is rapid, and you might see it by the way they begin to take interest in familiar people, toys and surroundings.

You can promote this type of play through something called ‘Serve and Return’. This is where you interact with your baby and respond to the facial expressions and the noises they make. Things such as peek-a-boo, sticking out your tongue, waving hello and sharing books are all great serve and return activities.

Cognitive and intellectual development: Toddler

As your child grows you might see them begin to more frequently mimic familiar facial expressions, body movements and activities. They might even be able to understand more difficult concepts such as pointing to body parts or objects and can act upon two or three simple orders.

You might notice your toddler begin to participate in more games and begin to play with others more cooperatively. Playing alongside your toddler and making up games and stories are great ways to support development during this period.

Cognitive and intellectual development: Pre-schoolers

As your child’s language begins to develop you may find that they begin to ask more questions, take part in more cooperative play and act out things they have seen or done. They will also begin to share more of their acquired knowledge by counting, recognising shapes, letters and numbers. You might notice that they produce more intricate drawings and say more elaborate sentences.

You can support your child’s development during this period by asking them questions, using difficult words and sentences whilst talking to them, mastering puzzles together and by reading to them and encouraging them to read things to you.

Parental notes on supporting cognitive development

Supporting cognitive development might seem like a bit of a mammoth task on the surface, however all it takes is simply ‘serve and return’. Which is spending time with your child and following their cues.

This might be playing games, reading books, talking or simply passing objects from one another. An environment that is full of love, positivity and stimulation are the best way to support any element of your child’s development journey.


Streams of Development

At My First Five Years, we have divided your child’s unique learning journey into 6 streams of development focusing holistically on physical, emotional and cognitive development.

  • Gross Motor Skills – Bodies, arms and legs
  • Fine Motor Skills – Hands and fingers
  • Cognitive Skills – Thinking and processing
  • Language, Speech and Communication Skills – Making sounds and talking.
  • Social and Emotional Skills – Understanding feelings
  • Sensory Development – Senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, proprioception, interoception)

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