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The Importance of Building Cognitive Skills in Children

Parenting can be overwhelming for new parents. When my daughter was born, I read a lot of helpful articles on parenting and children.

Children begin to develop cognitive skills in early childhood, which ranges from birth to age five.

Children begin to develop cognitive skills in early childhood, which ranges from birth to age five.

Why Is Cognitive Development Important?

Cognitive skill means the ability to think, explore and understand. For children, cognitive skill development is the development of knowledge and problem-solving abilities and the child's capacity to understand the world around them and figure things out by themselves. These crucial skills enable children to process sensory information and learn new things.

Cognitive development starts in early childhood. (Early childhood refers to the period from birth through age five.) Although cognitive skill development depends to a certain extent on the genetic makeup of the child, it is largely dependent on their learning in the early years. A child's thinking and learning skills can be improved with practice and the right training. Therefore, today, a lot of importance is given to developing cognitive skills in early childhood.

Examples of Cognitive Skills

Some of the most important cognitive skills for a child are:

  1. Attention and response
  2. Language learning
  3. Memory
  4. Thinking
  5. Information processing
  6. Problem-solving
  7. Simple reasoning
  8. Understanding cause and effect
  9. Pattern recognition

Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

The developmental changes in children from birth to adulthood were mostly ignored throughout history. Interest in child development began in the early 20th century and tended to focus on abnormal behaviour. Sigmund Freud was the originator of the psychoanalytical approach, though he was mainly interested in personality disorders in adults. He attempted to explain an individual's personality and psychological disorders by understanding the mind at its different levels, its motivation and its conflicts.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came up with the theory of cognitive development in 1952. According to Piaget, the environment does not shape the child’s behaviour; rather, children and adults actively seek to understand their environment and adapt.

Piaget’s theory is the most comprehensive theory of cognitive development in children. The theory propagated that we can learn as much about children’s intellectual development from their incorrect answers to test questions as we can from their correct answers. He describes four distinct stages in cognitive development in children: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal.

The Four Stages

  • Sensorimotor Stage: This is the stage from birth to age 2 where the child is able to differentiate between himself/herself and the environment.
  • Preoperational Stage: At this stage (age 2–7), the child needs concrete physical situations. Objects are classified in simple ways based on their important features. The child is not able to conceptualise abstractly.
  • Concrete Operational Stage: At this stage (age 7–11), the child begins to think abstractly and conceptualise things, creating logical structures that explain the child's physical experiences.
  • Formal Operations Stage: This is the stage from age 11–15 in which cognition reaches its final form. The child's abstract thinking is similar to that of an adult, and he or she is capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning.

The Piaget milestones described by the psychologist are typical or average for children aged 2–7 living in Western countries. However, each child is unique and will grow at his or her own pace. One critique of Piaget’s theory was its vagueness about the changes. Moreover, it underestimates the role of the social environment in developing children’s abilities, and it overestimates the age differences in thinking.

Why an Early Focus on Cognitive Skills Is Crucial

Some young children may have developmental delays or challenges that can be identified and addressed if caught early. Because of this, parents, teachers and caretakers should keenly observe each child's development and address any issues as early as possible. This can prevent the child from struggling later on in life.

In a fast-developing, competitive world, cognitive skill development from an early age is very crucial for a child. Young children grow physically during their early childhood, and they also grow mentally by observing and interacting with the world around them. It is important for parents to foster cognitive development in their child as soon as the child is born, because it is the foundation for the child's success later on in his or her life.

What Parents Can Do Early On

To promote a child's cognitive ability, it is important for the parents to actively engage in quality interactions with their daughter or son on a daily basis, starting in early childhood. As children develop cognitively, their play will move from simple make-believe to more complex imaginary play, according to psychologist Piaget.

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Nowadays, there are means to assess a child’s cognitive skills; through these assessment tests, weaker skills can be identified and strengthened through cognitive training. If a parent feels that a child is struggling with learning, reading, attention or memory, the solution is to find out why and then strengthen those areas with training.

Below are some of the ways in which parents can actively participate in their child's cognitive development from the very start of his or her life:

  1. Talk to your baby. You can start doing this while you're pregnant. One important aspect of a child's cognitive development is language learning. Research has proven that children acquire language abilities long before birth. At birth, babies recognise their mother's voice and can discriminate between the language spoken by the mother and foreign languages. It is important for the mother to keep up a conversation with her child, even when he or she is still in the womb.
  2. Help your baby learn the names of objects. Once your baby has been born, continue talking to him or her, and share the names of commonly used objects. Studies have shown that talking to babies boosts their brain power and helps them to learn languages faster.
  3. Sing and read to your baby. Studies have shown that music helps children develop healthy skills as it soothes and creates a positive environment.
  4. Let your children explore and observe. Children have a natural curiosity for the things around them, and they should be allowed to explore and learn things by observing. Overly protective parents may actually hinder their child's natural growth and learning.
  5. Answer your child's questions. As your child grows up and starts asking questions, answer them accurately and patiently. Children are naturally inquisitive. Parents should whet their children's curiosity, since it will help them learn.

Other Important Ways to Improve Cognition

  1. Encourage creative play. Creative play enhances the cognitive skills of children. Allowing children to use their imaginations is helpful, and there are many benefits of pretend play in child development. "Let's Play Pretend" is a favourite game of small children where they imagine themselves in different roles and can ultimately learn a lot.
  2. Encourage your child's interest in books and puzzles. Children can increase their concentration, patience and sense of achievement when they solve puzzles. Books are a great way to kindle the imagination, and reading aloud from books helps children build their vocabulary and language skills.
  3. Provide educational toys and games. Ideally, games can provide both fun and learning. Word games, number games and memory games help kids develop their cognitive skills while they're having fun.
  4. Engage in outdoor play. Play has an important role in cognitive development as it is also a mode of learning. Studies have shown that stimulating environments like the outdoors can spur greater development of the part of the brain which is responsible for thinking, perceiving and understanding languages.
  5. Tell stories to your children. Storytelling has been recognised as an important tool today because it helps children develop their imaginations and enhances their motivation to learn. It can also help kids develop openness to new ideas, problem-solving abilities, risk-taking strategies and the ability to come up with out-of-the-box ideas as they grow into adults.
  6. Have your children tell you stories as well. Encouraging children to tell stories not only enhances their imagination but also helps them develop their language skills, reading comprehension, pronunciation, grammar and social skills.
  7. Support your child's hobbies. Hobbies can be educational tools, promoting both learning and social skills. Hobbies can be fun and relaxing and also help your child maintain their physical and mental health. Your daughter's passion for a particular hobby today might even lead her to a career in the future.

Other Factors to Consider

Health and Well-Being

  • Healthy food is required for healthy brain development. Parents should plan nutrient-rich daily meals and encourage their children to abstain from junk food.
  • Sleep helps the brain recharge and process the information acquired during the day.
  • Parents can utilise the time before bedtime to focus on the positive events of the day and encourage their child to share how their day went, whether good or bad. If something negative happened, the parents can offer reassurance. This assertion of the parents' love and affection creates a sense of well-being that can help the child to grow emotionally and to develop a positive attitude.
  • Regular exercise and physical activities like cycling and swimming—or even yoga and meditation—are known to improve cognitive skills in children (as well as being fun). Exercise keeps the body and mind healthy, relieves stress and helps kids develop healthy lifestyles early on, hopefully helping them avoid some health problems in adulthood.

Learning and Family Environment

  • Children should be allowed to spend time outdoors as often as possible, since they can learn a lot from nature while appreciating its beauty. They should be made aware of the importance of plants and trees and ecosystems so that they can become environmental stewards from a young age.
  • Concept-based learning helps kids to retain knowledge longer and apply core concepts in their daily life. It encourages children to become more active, communicate effectively and become lifelong learners. It is holistic in nature and helps in the development of the child as a whole rather than just focusing on academic learning.
  • Most important of all is an affectionate and caring atmosphere for the child to grow in. Research has proven that a warm and affectionate environment results in children growing up to be more resilient, happier and healthier, with better cognitive abilities. Parents can do fun activities with their children, like dancing, swimming, playing games, going for picnics, hiking and cycling. This time spent together will create lifelong happy memories.

Benefits of Cognitive Development

  1. Promotes long-term learning: Learning, as we all know, is a lifelong process. Cognitive learning encourages students to take a hands-on approach to learning which will help them make important decisions later in life by studying all the pros and cons.
  2. Develops problem-solving skills: Problem-solving skills are essential later in life, both for career-building and for managing a family.
  3. Improves comprehension: Cognitive learning helps students to comprehend things clearly and develop a deeper understanding of situations and circumstances.
  4. Improves confidence: With deeper comprehension skills and more knowledge, children can approach life with greater enthusiasm and confidence, helping them be successful in all their endeavors.
  5. Improves memory: A deeper understanding of the subject makes the student retain the knowledge gained for a longer time, thus improving their memory.
  6. Instills a love of learning: Concept-based education instills a lifelong love of learning in the student, pushing them to continue gaining knowledge and developing new skills. Both of these things are important for career success.
  7. Emphasises innovation: In cognitive learning, students reflect on problems, explore different ideas and come up with new solutions.

Building a Strong Foundation for Future Success

Research has shown that there is a strong link between the development a child undergoes in early childhood and the level of success he or she experiences later in life. The brain is the most incredible network of information processing, and both interpretation and thinking skills improve as children learn. Parents, teachers and caretakers should help children develop their cognitive skills at an early age so that they can grow up with confidence and with the skills to succeed.

If a child does seem to have a learning disability, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Today, there are various methods to assess and train children who have learning disabilities. Not all children are born with the same cognitive abilities, but they all have the potential to develop into able and efficient individuals. With the help of caring, nurturing parents and teachers, children can utilise their potential to a maximum extent and grow up to be well-rounded and successful individuals.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.



VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on February 02, 2020:

Hi Eric,

You are doing a very good thing. Outdoor play is very important for a child. Children learn a lot when they play outside.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on February 02, 2020:

One of the thing I do daily is to send him out to play outside by himself for a half an hour. And I do not get to watch as he slays dragons or chases bugs around. Thanks again for this great piece.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on February 02, 2020:

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the comment. Monitoring a child's cognitive needs at an early age helps the child grow up to be confident and smart and attain success, thereby making life easier not only for himself but for his parents as well.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on February 02, 2020:

I am so blessed. My wife is the task master of studies. I get to be the cognitive therapist here with plenty of time. Oh how we would sing and do soothing humming and talking before birth. My wife claimed that he kicked with the rhythm of songs, how funny.

I wish I could get every new parent to read this. Seems we may focus more on school "success" rather than cognition. Glad I caught this article.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on January 04, 2020:

Thanks Suresh, I am glad that you liked the article.

Suresh on January 04, 2020:

Nice article

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on December 22, 2019:

Thanks, Deepak for the comment, Yes I hope my tips will help new moms who struggle to maintain the work-life balance in this fast-paced, competitive world.

Deepak on December 22, 2019:

A well illustrated, interesting article especially useful for new moms

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on December 17, 2019:

Hi Tulasidhar Kaveri

Thank You for your comment. You have made a remarkable observation. I totally agree with you that parents should instill good and moral values in a child by example. It is important that the child should grow up not only in a loving, caring, nurturing atmosphere but in an environment where the members of the family lead a disciplined and moralistic life. Now this gives me an opportunity to write a new article on the topic. Thank you so much for the input.

Tulasidhar Kaveri on December 17, 2019:

A very comprehensive and useful article! An absolute must read for any new or would-be parent.

I have an observation to make, albeit one that is more to do with a child's moral values than the cognitive development, based on my own experiences with my nephew (now a 3-year old).

More often than not, children tend to mimic their parents' actions and mirror their behaviour, especially that which is exhibited when the parent/adult doesn't realise that the child is noticing. In contrast, communicating to them directly about what is right and wrong usually has the opposite effect. The only effective way a parent can instill values and principles in the child, then, would be by following them themselves.

In this context, how does a parent/adult decide whether he/she should proactively articulate a particular value to the child or leave it to the child to observe and learn? How does one tread that thin line?

Hope I've managed to explain my question clearly enough.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on December 17, 2019:

Thanks Amri, Smriti, Louise

I hope it is helpful, especially to young parents, who with their busy work schedules find it difficult to give more time to their children

Amrita Bhat on December 16, 2019:

Amazing detailed information!

This is very helpful for parents

Smriti p on December 16, 2019:

Nice article

Louise Elcross from Preston on December 16, 2019:

Well written and informative. Very good article Vidya. Thanks for sharing and I hope you do write more.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on December 13, 2019:

Thank you so much Abhishek, I appreciate your response. It inspires me to write more

Abhishek nandavar on December 13, 2019:

Amazing collection of literature .. a storehouse of knowledge. A very dedicated piece of art.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on November 22, 2019:

Hi Poornima and Sahitya Thota

Thank you so much for your comments. I hope it is especially of help to young new moms who have a busy schedule and find very little time to spend with their kids and who struggle to maintain the work-life balance.

Poornima Ramesh on November 22, 2019:

Very well written especially useful for new moms☺

Sahitya Thota on November 21, 2019:

Very well written article in a simple language, easy to understand. It focuses on the process of upbringing of a child and how to devote our time towards them which is very important in today's busy lifestyle. Definitely a must read for young couple planning for a kid and also for young parents.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on November 18, 2019:

Thanks, Smita, glad you liked it. Your appreciation means a lot to me.

Smita on November 18, 2019:

Beautifully illustrated Vidya. Selected pics were amazing.

VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on November 17, 2019:

Thanks a lot. I hope the article can help a lot of parents, teachers, and others working with children to build the cognitive skills of the children at an early age.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 17, 2019:

This is a useful and informative guide for parents and anyone working with children. It is well-structured and exceptionally well-illustrated.

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