Watching a child grow is perhaps one of the most fascinating life journeys a parent can witness. Babies come into the world knowing very little, but they’re primed to learn. Children are as unique as their genetic makeup. Every step of the way proves that.

Parenting books are a great resource to help you understand your children better, but they can also be a source of unrest. Many parents feel the pressure of milestone achievements and meeting milestones at the same age as other kids.

Remember, each child is unique, and so is their learning trajectory. Try to be patient. If you are concerned with your baby’s development, ask your pediatrician for additional support and guidance.

Stages of cognitive development in children

In 1936, psychologist Jean Piaget was the first to observe that children’s way of thinking was different than adults’. Through observations and tests, he concluded that children acquire various skills and learn complex things as they mature.

The four stages of cognitive development that Piaget described following his many years of observations are still widely accepted today. But experts also recognize that social and environmental interactions play a vital role in shaping a person.

The sensorimotor stage (birth to age 2)

Your little bundle of joy seems to know only a couple of things at first. They nurse, sleep, and dirty their diapers. Your baby’s life is a collection of instincts after birth, yet as the weeks go by, they’re learning more.

The first year developments

Sometimes between the first and fourth month, they will learn to recognize familiar faces and that a certain action makes something happen. For example, crying brings mom and fingers in mouth means they can have a new sucking toy at their disposal. Also, moving a hand or lifting a foot makes for a fascinating show.

The next four months bring more discoveries: Your baby will discover that shaking a rattling toy makes a sound that they can repeat if they shake the toy.

As they approach the end of their first year, your baby will learn about object permanence. This concept refers to the idea that an object that disappears is not gone forever, but might just be hidden under a blanket. They’ll search for an object rather than forget about it.

The second year developments

During the second year, your baby will learn to:

  • walk
  • point
  • say more words
  • play simple pretend games and also interactive ones (like tossing a ball back and forth)
  • say no

Close to their 2nd birthday, children will be keen on scribbling (setting boundaries may prevent wall and furniture scribbling).

Though they mostly parallel play, toddlers up to the age of 3 are observing their playmates, though not through direct interaction.

Things you can do to encourage your baby’s learning during this stage

  • Provide colorful toys of different textures for your baby and chat with them. As their mind absorbs words and images, they’ll begin to make associations.
  • Let your baby move freely with just a diaper on when possible. They’ll delight in both toys placed above or around them (during tummy time), as well as their own fingers and toes.
  • Play peek-a-boo by hiding objects (or yourself) under a blanket.
  • Read to your baby from the very beginning. It is both a bonding process and a learning activity for them.

The preoperational stage (ages 2 to 7)

Children start using more complex words and engaging in more elaborate play, yet logical thinking is not there yet. The best way to encourage your child’s imagination is by reading to them and by allowing them to have as much free play as possible.

Though their thinking is still self-centered at least during the toddler and preschool years, children become more aware of other people’s feelings as they leave toddlerhood behind.

Things you can do to encourage learning during this stage

  • Go for unrushed walks with your child. They will observe and ask (lots) about the world. Learning is inherent.
  • Visit the library. Using books rather than screens increases their attention span and imagination.
  • Encourage sharing, but don’t force it. Model kindness, compassion, and respect. Your child will learn to do the same.
  • Teach proper social rules: greeting people, introducing oneself, asking for permission. Encourage your child to say please and thank you. This will be the foundation for a lifetime of proper manners, and it helps with understanding the concept of boundaries, too.
  • Talk about feelings, both your child’s and other people’s!

The concrete operational stage (ages 7 to 11)

This is the time when your child develops logical thinking (making deductions). With these skills, they begin to have a better understanding of the world and the consequences of their actions.

This is a great time to teach your child about respect and self-care.

Things you can do to encourage learning during this stage

  • Learn to listen rather than provide solutions. This is when your child should learn to problem-solve.
  • Continue reading together even though most children are reading by themselves now. It fosters closeness and good conversations around the dinner table.
  • Introduce your child to chores if you haven’t already. Mastering life skills increases your child’s self-confidence, fosters healthy independence, and resilience.
  • Give positive feedback and use constructive criticism rather than lecturing or nagging. That helps your child learn respect for others and for themself, too.

The formal operational stage (11 years and beyond)

In this stage, you’ll notice the emergence of abstract thinking and see their imagination soar to new heights. Your child can talk about the future, including careers and places to explore. During this stage, children begin to make better connections while learning abstract concepts, such as those in algebra.

As their thinking skills mature, practice healthy dialogue by listening and understanding each other’s point of view.

Things you can do to help encourage learning during this stage

  • Travel whenever you can and enhance your child’s repertoire of life experiences. This helps create a good dialogue platform and provides a good bird’s-eye view of the world they are part of.
  • Encourage reading, especially autobiographies. Discuss moral issues that will help your child learn about their immediate world with its rights and wrongs.
  • Help them develop good work ethic by doing various jobs for neighbors and friends.
  • Play reasoning games using the question, “What if?” Your child will amaze you with their great imagination. Each chance you have to share thoughts and ideas will keep you connected, which is vital during this stage.

Next steps

Interact with your children at every age. Play, read, and go out in nature. This is the best way to get to know them and help them develop harmoniously. Children grow and learn at their own pace, but providing them with community interactions from the beginning fosters good thinking and social skills.