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Early Childhood Cognitive Development: Introduction

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Young children are not only growing physically during early childhood, but they are also growing mentally. Children of this age continue to advance their skills in observing and interacting with the world around them. They also make tremendous leaps in how they process, store, and use information. As mentioned in the introduction, quantifying cognitive change is a bit tricky. We do not count the number of new neurons or measure the amount of connections between synapses and come up with averages for different ages. Rather, we rely on theories, such as Piaget's stages of cognitive development, Erickson's psychosocial stages, and Bronfenbrenner's ecological model to give us a way to understand and to measure children's mental and social development and progression.

According to Piaget, children in the Preoperational stage of development build on skills learned and mastered during the Sensorimotor stage. For a review of Sensorimotor development, please click here. During this stage, young children's play becomes increasingly imaginary and filled with fantasies. As children develop cognitively, their play will move from simple make-believe to plots involving more characters and scenarios, games with sophisticated rules, etc. According to Piaget, playing isn't just fun; it is an important part of brain development.

The Piagetian milestones described in this section are typical or average for young children ages 2-7 living in Western countries. Once again, however, each child is unique and will grow in his or her own time and way. As with physical milestones, if caregivers suspect that "something isn't right" or that their child is failing to complete major developmental tasks, they should discuss their concerns with a pediatrician or family doctor. Some young children may have developmental delays or challenges that can be identified and successfully addressed if caught early.

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