Child Development: Cognitive Development

By Milton V. Uecker, Ed.D.

Part 2 

Cognitive Development

Early childhood cognitive growth will be examined from the perspective of Jean Piaget’s developmental model and recent brain growth research.  Piaget’s stage theory became the cognitive focal point during the late 60s and 70s as scores of authors began to apply Piaget’s theory to educational practice, while brain research and its instructional implications is the dominant influence within current literature and practice.   

A teacher must understand Piaget in order to read professionally or understand the rationale for many early childhood instructional practices.  Early childhood practice relates to two of Piaget’s four stages---Sensorimotor and Preoperational.


During the first two years a child increasingly gains control of reflexive movements and through this control, movement can be purposeful.  Because of this the child is able to choose to interact with the environment and people.  Control allows for acting upon objects with intent since there is now awareness that he or she can make things happen to external objects (Black and Puckett, 1996).  With each new experience the child is confronted with new information that must be assimilated into an existing scheme, the internal general form for a knowing activity (Furth, 1970).  The modification of a scheme or creation of a new one is referred to as accommodation.  The child’s continual movement from old to new scheme through the activity of assimilation and accommodation is called equilibration.  Each child during the sensorimotor period seeks after the new through motor exploration.  This exploration is characterized by direct action upon objects and interaction with people.  The sensorimotor child’s repetitive activity (4 to 8 months), where a simple activity is repeated over and over is at times an effort to bring about equilibration and at other times the earliest form of memory.   After 8 months, an increasing number of actions are based upon imitation.  The combination of imitative activity with repeated explorations gradually takes on the characteristics of play.  Close observation of early childhood play illustrates the principles of sensorimotor cognition.  As the child reaches the end of the sensorimotor stages he or she can think about objects and people that are not present.  It is this ability and the emergence of symbolic play (picking up a block, holding it to the ear and saying hello) that marks the transition to the preoperational stage. 

The child’s thought during the sensorimotor stage is egocentric.  This refers to the child’s inability to take the perspective of another.  Everything is viewed from the child’s position alone.  This can be observed as the child grabs a toy from another.  There is no thought or awareness of the relationship of that toy to the other child.  Egocentric thought delays the emergence of empathy, which will be discussed within the context of social development.    

Teachers during this stage should be viewed as facilitators.  Teachers provide age appropriate objects for exploration, encouragement, and language explanations for what is happening.  An observant teacher moves objects within the focus of the child and within the reach of the child.  As the object is moved comments like “when we touch the ball it moves” or “this rattles as we shake it.”  Interaction is also facilitated by playing alongside the child while thinking out loud about the actions.  Egocentric actions should be not be viewed as misbehavior but rather stopped with verbal explanation, “You took the toy from Mary and now she is sad.  This one is for you to play with.  We will give this one back to Mary.” 


The second of Piaget’s stages extends from approximately age two through age eight.  Preoperational thought is marked by an ever increasing ability to think through forms of internal representations or symbols.  Internal representations for thought are demonstrated through imitation, symbolic play, mental imagery, and language.  The child busies himself with representational activities and language exploration (Labinowicz, 1980).  However, the nature of thought at this time is considered prelogical (Piaget, 1952).  This is demonstrated through the child’s inability to reverse a mental action.  The logical relationship between addition and subtraction is not evident (if 2+3=5 then 5-3=2).  If a ball of clay is rolled into a snake there is more clay because it covers more area (it is not mentally reshaped into its original form).  This inability to see logical relationships is implied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 when he referred to the talk, thought, and reasoning of a child as different from that of the adult.  Paul goes on to compare the difference between childish and mature thought to knowing in part as compared to knowing fully (I Cor. 13:11-12). 

Preoperational thought is characterized by several easily observable cognitive behaviors. Children are perceptually bound.  What is presently seen or experienced always holds greater validity for the child.  This was illustrated through the common Piagetian task of comparing two rows of cookies matched one to one.  The child recognizes them as being the same.  However, if the examiner spreads the cookies in one row further apart, the appearance of a longer liner means that there are now more cookies in that row.  The recent statement made by the child that the cookies were the same no longer is evident and thus could not be true.   

The inability to focus on only one variable at a time is referred to as centration.  Two factors are not considered simultaneously.  This is exemplified during a seriation task.  As the child attempts to line up a group of wooden rods from shortest to longest, one will observe the preoperational child carefully arranging the tops of the rods in a stair step while the bottom of the rods are not along a common baseline.  The focus was on one dimension rather than on the tops and the bottoms of each rod.

Language representations along with other symbols have a single, literal meaning.  Preoperational thinkers are like Amelia Bedelia, the immature thinker in the stories written by Peggy Parish.  Amelia sees only the concrete literal meaning for all words.  If she is asked to dust the house she throws powder around all the rooms and if she is to dress the turkey she outfits the turkey with fancy ribbons.  “Why can’t I play football in this coat?  It is called a sport coat,” declares the preschool boy in Family Circus.  The preoperational child often takes the exhortation to “invite Jesus into their heart” literally and the fear of this physical transaction can result in a conflict within the child’s spirit.

These illustrations of preoperational thought point to the importance of concrete experiences if concepts are to be formed and understood.  As the child “moves his or her muscles through each concept,” the language of a more mature thinker prompts the child to assimilate and accommodate a more accurate understanding of the world.  Adults should respond to the child’s statements by expanding upon their language with additional ideas and new vocabulary.

The nature of preoperational thought points to the importance of play as a means of promoting and clarifying learning and testing language.  As teachers promote and observe play and listen to the child’s language during imitative play, the child’s level of understanding will be revealed.  Imitative play demonstrates the representational thinking that dominates cognitive development at this time.  A class of preschool children returns from an airport field trip.  The teachers are disappointed with what appeared to be a guided presentation that was “above the heads” of the children.  Given an opportunity for play later in the day the children demonstrate the relationship between play and learning.  The puppet stage became an airport ticket counter, large cardboard blocks were divided out as suitcases, sheets of scratch paper became tickets, and wood blocks became microphones for announcements, telephones, and rubber stamps for marking tickets.  Students played the roles of ticket agents, passengers, and security inspectors.  As the teachers listened to the role-playing, the language and activity demonstrated the educational impact of the “failed” fieldtrip.

Works Cited

Black, J. K., & Puckett, M. B. (1996). The Young Child. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Furth, H. G. (1970). Piaget for Teachers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Labinowicz, E. (1980). The Piaget Primer: Thinking, Learning, Teaching. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc.

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