What does Cognitive Development Mean?

Cognitive development simply means how the brain learns and grows.

Cognitive development means more than just achieving age-appropriate milestones for our children.  It’s all about how the brain learns, too!

Many theories exist regarding the definition of cognitive development, but most theories include some common themes of how a child’s brain develops.


The term cognitive simply means thinking — the brain’s higher level functions such as problem solving, regulation of emotional response, remembering, and also learning.

Cognitive development refers to how a child’s thinking changes with age or experience.  There are two main components to cognitive development:

  1. Maturation:  As children get older, their brain naturally grows and develops.  This is what is meant by age-appropriate, often called developmentally appropriate, milestones for young children. The brain must mature before it can handle certain tasks.
  2. Equilibration: According to the theory of Jean Piaget and others, the brain also develops by learning.  When children are exposed to new experiences, information, and ideas, the brain must ‘equilibrate’ this new information. Piaget argued that exposure to novelty was an essential process of cognitive development.

There are many theories of cognitive development, but most theories include the following four themes:

  1. Readiness is essential, but not absolute.  Most theories, including Piaget, support the concept that maturation occurs simultaneously to equilibration and learning.  That means you can positively influence a child’s cognitive development by providing them with challenging and new activities. But that also means you could negatively impact their cognitive development, if a child is not mature enough yet for the task.
  2. Practice is important.  Children’s brains benefit from repetition of meaningful tasks in order to re-enforce cognitive development.
  3. Learning should be meaningful and goal-directed.  Children’s brains develop best when the task is meaningful to them and relevant.
  4. Previous knowledge affects future learning. Children learn from previous experience.  This means there is an order to learning, and the brain must be ready to build upon previous experience before it can incorporate new information.

To support your child’s brain development, parents need to provide their children with age-appropriate challenges, novelty, and positive support. It’s balance between your child’s readiness and positive challenges.  Don’t hold them back, but don’t push them either.

And remember, cognitive development is a life-long process.  Even adult brains are constantly learning, and changing, how their brain thinks.  Old dogs do learn new tricks!

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