Cognitive Development in Early Childhood Essay

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This paper explores two fundamental theories that are considered to be worthy guides and reference points in different discourses of early childhood cognitive development and education. Scientists and scholars world over hold the principles established in the two theories in high esteem. However, the theories, though explicably analyzed the behaviors and learning abilities at each developmental stage of early childhood, but have divergent opinions on how those behaviors early are formed. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) theory basically attributed a child development and learning process to self-discovery and natural abilities. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) on the other hand, believed a child’s learning abilities and mental development are facilitated by his immediate socio-cultural environment. This paper focuses more on early childhood as presented in the preoperational stage of Piaget's theory’s, and the information processing, language development and individual differences in mental development as established in Vygotsky's sociocultural theory.

Keywords: early childhood, cognitive development stages, preoperational, psychology, socio-cultural.

Cognitive Development in Early Childhood


Early childhood is one of the most important stages of human development. It is the period which all components of human nature and abilities are formed, and, therefore, has a direct influence on personality formation. The intricacies of this crucial stage of human development have been a major interest to scientists and psychologists in different fields of human studies. There have been many studies conducted to help proffer clear understanding of children’s cognitive development. Some of the most prominent amongst the theories in this regard are by the two psychologists whose findings have been center of reference in academic discourses regarding early childhood cognitive development. The two renowned psychologists are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget Cognitive Development Theory

According to Piaget theory, sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations are the four universal and consecutive stages through which a child’s cognitive development is formed from infant to young adult stage. By universal, Piaget believed that this concept is the same everywhere and works the same way in every child. Sensorimotor developmental stage is between the ages zero to two. Piaget called this stage sensorimotor because it is the stage of infancy which a child “uses senses and motor abilities to understand the world” (Boeree 1999). An infant’s sensorimotor phase can be categorized into four sub-stages which are: primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, tertiary circular reactions, and mental representation.

A child’s first to the fourth month is the first phase of reaction whereby his activities are limited to the abilities and skills he was born with. By default, infants suck, look, grasp, listen and perform other tasks which they are capable of at this stage. As such, if they try any of these, for instance, and derive pleasure in it, they continually develop these set of reactions as their regular activities. During secondary circular reactions sub-stage, however, which is from fourth to the eighth month, an infant moves from those activities limited to their bodies to engage in actions that involve other things around them. For instance, at this sub-stage, they take pleasure in repeatedly clinging on to toys, clothes, and other items they can lay their hands on. The secondary circular reactions usually span through the 12th month, which is sometimes, referred to as coordinating secondary scheme. At this phase, they have the ability to “remember [things], and may even try to find things they can no longer see” (Boeree 1999). During tertiary circular reaction and mental representation stages of infancy (12th to 24th month), a child now makes a more interesting practice of all the acquired skills from the first and second sub-stages of sensorimotor.

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At this stage, they have developed the ability to solve simple tasks when playing with their toys and peers.

Preoperational stage is what immediately precedes the sensorimotor stage in human development. A child’s preoperational stage according to Piaget’s theory is between age two to seven. At this stage, a child’s traits are more of “an increase in language ability (with over-generalizations), symbolic thought, egocentric perspective, and limited logic” (Ojose 2008). This is one of the most crucial developmental stages of life. The key elements of the preoperational stage include centration, egocentrism, symbolic representation and pretence and animism (McLeod 2018). The attributes of this stage and…

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…themselves based only on their natural abilities.

Another important feature of Vygotsky’s theory is the scaffolding approach to a child’s cognitive development. Scaffolding is one of the ways through which Vygotsky expressed the importance of the social environment to a child’s cognitive growth. It states that a child develops and learns faster when supported with clues or hints needed for task-solving. The scaffolding approach has been a major instructional method in early childhood learning environments for many decades and is considered to be one of the most efficient approaches to a child’s cognitive development. Contrary to Piaget’s theory which believes that many inabilities at the childhood developmental stage will prevent a child from solving some tasks, Vygotsky, on the other hand, believed that with encouragement, support and other strategies in scaffolding approach will help the child will achieve learning objectives faster.

Vygotsky's theory, just like Piaget’s also covered the aspect of language as part of early childhood cognitive development. For Vygotsky, self-talk or private speech usually exhibited by children at their developmental stage is part of the normal communication development process. He also linked that to the socio-cultural factor of early childhood development as he explained that it stems from their social interaction and then develops into talking aloud as they grow. (Golhami, Salehi, Azizi, and Fazli, 2016). Language is believed to be a core element of the learning process and has a very strong relationship with cognitive development. Language, according to Vygotsky, “shapes and encodes our world” and it is a system and cultural tool through which human beings “communicate, cooperate and interact” (Golhami, Salehi, Azizi, and Fazli, 2016). While the two foremost cognitive development theorists might have different opinions on language development in child cognitive development, it is, however, worthy of note to state that they both agree on its significance to human development.


The knowledge of cognitive development will help parents, caregivers other members of a child’s community relate well with him. The discoveries and teachings of the two psychologists discussed in the paper remain pivotal to having understanding of children’s growth process. Although Piaget and Vygotsky might hold divergent….....

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Boeree, G. (199). JEAN PIAGET 1896 – 1980. 1-9. Shippensburg University

Gholami, M., Salehi, N., Azizi, E. and Fazli, B. (2016). Article Private Speech and Cognitive Development: A Review of The Two Theories. IIOAB Journal. 7., 260-268. Research Gate.

McLeod, S. (2018). The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development. Simply Psychology

Ojose, B. (2008). Applying Piaget’s Theory Applying Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development to Mathematics Instruction. The Mathematics Educator, Vol. 18, No. 1, 26–30 26.

“Piaget’s Theory of” Cognitive Development. Lumen: Education, Society, & K-12 Learner

Shabani, K., Mohammad, K., Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers' Professional Development. English Language Teaching. 3. 10.5539/elt.v3n4p237., 237-245's_Zone_of_Proximal_Development_Instructional_Implications_and_Teachers'_Professional_Development

Williams, D. (2018). Child Development Theories: Lev Vygotsky. First Discoverers

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