Cognitive Development in Childhood: Milestones & Stages

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Cognitive Development in Childhood: Milestones and Stages

Cognitive Development in Childhood: Milestones and Stages

You may not know a lot about cognitive skills but they include some of the core brain functions that you use every day.

You will be using these skills as you explore and consider current thinking about cognitive development in children. You will read, think about, critique and integrate new information with your current knowledge about the topic.

The discussion explains the cognitive development stages and milestones that children progress through as they grow and develop. While some experts consider cognitive development to be a life-long process, this discussion focuses on children’s cognitive development.

It is a synthesis of current professional and research literature and is intended to provide information not advice. If you, or someone you know is seeking advice or support regarding a child’s development, you should seek expert professional help.

What are cognitive skills?

What are cognitive skills in children?

Cognitive skills are the mental processes our brains use to acquire, manipulate, store, and use information. They include include memory, language development, solving problems, and critical analysis. They are skills we use rather than the actual knowledge that results from using them.

We use cognitive skills every day to make even the simplest decisions. Take shopping as an example. When choosing between two products at the supermarket, we read the labels and draw on our knowledge to critically analyse the ingredients. We compare the quality and select a product based on our analysis. Thus, cognitive skills are essential for understanding and interacting with our world.

However we are not born with fully functioning adult cognitive abilities. They develop and change as we grow and mature. This process is referred to as cognitive development.

What is Cognitive development?

Cognitive development in children

Cognitive development refers to changes and development in our cognitive abilities as we grow and mature. An example of cognitive development is the emergence of language skills in children in the first 3 years of their life.

It was once thought that babies lacked the capacity for complex thought. An infant’s brain was sometimes represented as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the knowledge supplied by someone else. It was also thought that language was a prerequisite for abstract thinking and that, in its absence, a baby could not have knowledge.

We now know that this is not the case. Throughout the twentieth century cognitive science researchers have highlighted that from birth (some suggest even before birth), infants are actively using cognitive processes to understand and interact with the world. For example, studies point to newborns being able to discriminate between between faces and to recognise their mother’s voice (Steri et al 2013).

Explaining Cognitive Development

One of the first to study cognitive development processes in very young children was Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget theorised that children think differently and see the world in different ways to adults. He further theorised that there is a qualitative change in how children think as they grow and develop. Their ideas evolve as they build on prior knowledge. At age 7, children don’t just have more information about the world than they did at age 2; there is a fundamental change in how they think about the world (Cherry, 2022).

Piaget viewed this cognitive skill development as occurring in discrete stages. His theory is thus sometimes referred to as a stage theoryPiaget’s theory identifies four distinct stages of a child’s cognitive development.

Sensorimotor stage

The sensorimotor stage is the first stage of a child’s cognitive development. It lasts from birth to approximately 2 years. During this stage, babies learn about their world through sensory experiences like seeing and hearing, and motor activities such as reaching, touching, and grasping.

A key aspect during this stage is the development of a sense of object permanence. For example, at the beginning of this stage, if you place a toy under a blanket, the child behaves as if the toy has simply disappeared. A child who has achieved object permanence knows it is there and can actively seek it. Thus, children come to understand that objects exist even when they cannot see them.

Demonstrating object permanence is considered to indicate that the child is moving to the next stage of cognitive functioning– the preoperational stage

Preoperational stage

From 2 to 6 or 7 years of ageyoung children begin to develop their language and abstract thinking skills. They are able to think about concepts and ideas that are not primarily physical. They begin to use mental imagery rather than focus primarily on objects or people. For example, they actively engage in pretend play, draw pictures, and talk about things that happened in the past.

Concrete operational stage

From approximately 7 to 11 years, children start developing logical, concrete thinking skills. They begin to understand rules about physical objects, such as height, weight, and volume. For example, they come to understand that an object’s properties stay the same, even if the appearance changes (e.g., play doh).

During this stage children also become capable of solving problems by considering numerous outcomes and perspectives.

Formal operational stage

From 11 or 12 years onward children develop logical thinking and problem solving skills. Abstract thought characterises this stage and they can think about hypothetical situations with alternative solutions. They come to understand abstract concepts. For example, they may understand the concept of justice.

Piaget believed that all children progress through these stages, but they differ in the rate at which they do so.

(Cherry, 2022; Sherrill, 2023),

Later studies have both critiqued and expanded upon Piaget’s theories. Some suggest that cognitive development is considerably more continuous than he theorised. Others, such as Lev Vygotsky critique his focus on the individual child, arguing that he didn’t consider how a child’s culture and social environment affect their development.

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory explores this aspect of child development. The theory emphasises the importance of cultural context, exploring the way attitudes, values, and beliefs of the surrounding culture influence children’s cognitive development. Vygotsky viewed learning is an inherently social process (Mcleod, 2023).

Evolutionary developmental psychology offers an additional perspective, exploring genetic and ecological factors, as well as the effect of cultural contexts on cognitive development.

Despite criticism of his work Piaget has been very influential in the field of child cognitive growth. His four stages still influence much contemporary research. At the same time, professionals and researchers draw on a variety of theories and perspectives to understand and explain how children develop their cognitive skills within their social world.

Why is Cognitive Development Important?

Cognitive skill development is the process by which children acquire, organise, and learn to use knowledge. It enables children to learn new things, to understand and participate in the world around them and to resolve challenges by themselves. Cognitive skill development is therefore essential for understanding and interacting with the world. However we are not born with fully functioning cognitive skills. They develop and change as we progress through life. From birth (or before) our brain is developing cognitive skills that enable us to think, read, learn, reason, pay attention and remember.

Since these skills provide the means for successful lifelong participation in society, it is important to foster a child’s cognitive development from birth.

Cognitive milestones are used to monitor and support a child’s cognitive development.

Cognitive Development Milestones

Cognitive development milestones are skills and behaviours demonstrated by most children within a specified age range. They reflect how a child’s brain is developing and using cognitive processes such as thinking, learning, exploring, and problem-solving skills. An infant learning how to respond to facial expressions and a preschooler learning the alphabet are both examples of cognitive milestones.

Assessment of milestones can help determine if a child’s development occurs within the normal range or is delayed in one or more areas.

Researchers and professionals in child psychology, child health, early learning and education around the world are concerned with ensuring that children successfully achieve cognitive development milestones and in providing support for children if they experience delays. These professionals utilise a variety of assessment tools and checklists to observe, describe and assess a child’s achievement of developmental milestones.

Milestones are usually grouped by age, beginning with infancy and progressing on to, and sometimes beyond, early adolescence. Many of these reflect Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages.

Examples of milestones might include:

Birth to 3 Months

  • Demonstrates anticipatory behaviours, like sucking at the site of a nipple or bottle
  • Focus on moving slow moving objects, for a brief periods
  • Looks toward direction of sound
  • looks at edges, patterns with light/dark contrast and faces
  • Imitates adult tongue movements when being held/talked to
  • Repeats actions but unaware of ability to cause actions

2 to 3 Years

  • Uses logical reasoning skills to explain events
  • Understands how to use objects in new situations
  • Uses observation and imitation to transfer new experiences and facts
  • Observe and imitate adult actions, for example pretending to drive a car
  • Makes mechanical toys work
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Sorts objects by colour
  • Recognises and identifies common objects and pictures by pointing

5 to 8 years

  • Collects items like cards or shells, and enjoys grouping them
  • Be able to read on their own (from about 7 years old)
  • Knows left from right
  • Is able to understand you if you try to reason or negotiate with them
  • Wants to follow the rules and play fairly in games

(Verywell mind, 2023; Aussie Childcare Network, 2023; Australian Parenting Netwi).

The Early Years Learning Framework Practice Based Resources is an example of a checklist of cognitive milestone for children from birth to five years of age.

Rigid or Flexible Milestones?

There is limited research into when children reach specified milestones. Current evidence suggests that there are quite broad individual variations. These variations occur both across different cultures and also within cultures. Therefore, while checklists generally specify the ages or age ranges when children are expected to achieve a milestone, the actual age when a normally developing child reaches that milestone can vary quite considerably. Stages and milestones should therefore be considered as representing broad parameters rather than prescriptive checklists.

At the same time, slow development in one or more skill areas may suggest that a child needs extra support from a professional.

Final Word

Developmental milestones provide guideposts so that parents, and professionals can better understand how a child is developing. However, it is important to remember that children develop at their own pace. They may achieve some cognitive milestones earlier or later than specified. This need not be a cause for concern. Milestones are meant to be helpful rather than a source of anxiety.

At the same time, you can actively engage with your child to encourage their cognitive growth.

As noted, sociocultural theories view cognitive development as a collaborative, social process. A significant social influence on a child’s development, particularly early childhood cognitive development, is close family relationships with parents, grandparents and other carers.

This means that you can, as a parent, foster your child’s development by providing them with opportunities to participate in age appropriate experiences from infancy onward.

Your child’s interest in the world can be stimulated through age appropriate activities such as helping an infant touch and explore objects, encouraging children in middle childhood to engage in problem solving and critical thinking activities and puzzles, or helping children in early adolescence to explore and discover their environment through nature walks and visits to museums and libraries. Incorporating these kinds of activities into your daily life, can stimulate your child’s cognitive development. (HelpMeGrow, 2023; Torrensville Community Centre, 2023).

However, if there are concerns, talk to a cognitive psychology or other professional.


Aussie Childcare Network (2023)

Babakr, Zana H.; Mohamedamin, Pakstan; Kakamad, Karwan (2019), Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory: Critical Review Education Quarterly Reviews, v2 n3 p517-524

Cherry, K (2022), Piaget’s 4 Stages of Cognitive Development Explained: Background and Key Concepts of Piaget’s Theory, verywell Mind

Help Me Grow (2023), Ways to Encourage Cognitive Development

McLeod, S (2023), Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development, Simply Psychology,

Raising Children Network Australia (2023), Australian Parenting Website

Streri A, De Hevia MD, Izard V, Coubart A. What do We Know about Neonatal Cognition? Behav Sci (Basel). 2013 Feb 27;3(1):154-169.

Sherrell, Z (2023), What are Piaget’s stages of development, and what are examples of each? Medical News Today,

Torrensville Community ChildCentre (2023), Supporting Key Developmental Milestones in Children.

Please note that the information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not substitute professional medical or mental health advice. If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or needs assistance, please reach out to a mental health professional or helpline in your country or state.

About the editor, Holly Jade

Holly Jade is a Social Worker / Counsellor at Counselling in Melbourne with the following qualifications: BA Social Work, BA Arts, Accredited Holistic Therapist.

Holly works with a wide range of clients, from children to adults, relationships and parenting.

Find out more about Holly here.

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