A child laughing at a new discovery

Stages of Child Cognitive Development 

Often when I am talking with a parent, or a couple with children, I will get questions about the development of their children.

Sometimes, they are seeking confirmation that their child is indeed the brightest and fastest-developing child in the history of children. 

Other times, they are secretly probing to see if the delays they think they have witnessed are evidence of significant cognitive delay about which they should worry.

Almost 100% of the time, the answer to both is “no.”

The developmental milestones that we parents depend on so strongly are not really “milestones” in the typical sense. That is, they do NOT definitively mark the line at which one property ends and another one starts. They do NOT serve as very reliable markers as to whether your child is gifted or accelerated or slow or experiencing cognitive delay.

Instead, they should be thought of as guides, and things to look for. 

One of the prominent theorists whose ideas inform our thinking and periodically inspire or afflict parents is Piaget. His theory of cognitive development describes broad age ranges for each of the important steps he outlined in his professional career.

I explain them below.


Sensorimotor or Pre-concrete stage

This stage, as described by Piaget, is where a child’s cognition starts. Your child is just beginning to respond to her environment. She can interact with objects, respond to sounds, make their own sounds, and more. They try to do this every possible way while they are awake. They taste things, hit them against other things, smile when something pleases them, and stare when something unexpected happens.

Young children in this stage can even be reduced to tears just by their mother hiding her face behind her hands. 

Why? Because in this stage if they can’t see something, they think it is gone. At least, they don’t have evidence that it exists, and since it does not immediately impact them, they forget about it. 

Children in this stage start to develop object permanence about 8 months old. This is when they realize that behind her hands, their mother is simply just hiding.

What if this doesn’t happen at 8 months? 

Well, Piaget described the stage as lasting the first two years of life, so children are still typically working out the nuances of reality for a really broad range of ages.

A child concentrates as she stacks blocks
What seems like play is children at work learning about the world around them. Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Pre-Operational stage

Piaget generally named his stages by calling them what children weren’t quite able to do. The same goes for the second stage, which he called pre-operational.

Over time your child will be able to perform complex mental gymnastics, but right now, they are just playing around on the mat. 

In the pre-operational stage, children are still at the center of their own experience. This is why they cry and make a scene anywhere – because they are simply trying to get their own needs met.

Your pre-operational child can’t consider things from another person’s point of view because the concept is completely alien to them. They have one point of view, their own.

And they seek to use all their skills to manage their own comfort. Am I fed? Am I warm? Do I know the people around me? Is it relatively quiet and orderly? Then all is good.

This stage often lasts through age 7.


Concrete Operational Stage

In this next stage, your child has figured out quite a lot of relatively tricky cognitive problems. 

For instance, they have mastered object permanence. If you put their favorite toy under a sheet, they won’t think it has disappeared, they’ll know exactly where it is. And they can even look for it if it is not where they expected it to be. They know that if it is missing from its usual spot, someone probably moved it.

A child laughs as he learns something new about the world, mastering another Piaget stage..
A child laughs as he learns something new about the world. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

This saves you a lot of tears and work as a parent! 

In this stage, your child really enjoys working with their important new skills, including classification. They will stack similar objects, sort things by color, and find new and interesting way to classify their toys. 

They delight in this skill because it gives them new ways to interact with their world. 

This work can go on until they are 12 years old. 

And it does not necessarily mean they will want to keep their room clean, sadly.


Formal operations

Piaget considered this the goal of brain development – to get to the adult stage of formal operations.

Simply put, the child of about 12 years of age can start to reason in a formal way. They can understand that objects exist all the time, separate from being seen. These objects belong in categories, but this can change base on the particular properties of the object.

More importantly, they can work with abstract concepts. They love questions that start with “what if …” and end by changing something they believe to be true. What if gravity pulled us sideways? What if grass was blue? 

They know these are theoretical questions, and they love to grapple with abstract ideas.

Worried about your child’s development, or just looking for an outlet for the stress of parenting? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.

A photo of therapist Sakina Issa working at her computer.
Contact Sakina today.

Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.

Want to learn more about parenting or managing tricky sibling relations? Maybe you are working out a new set of goals for yourself?

Continue reading the blog, or maybe subscribe to receive one in your mailbox each week.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *