Developing an understanding of the world around you is a lifetime process that begins at birth. Knowing about the regularity and predictability of the universe is important. This knowledge, called cognitive development, is learned through mental processes and sensory perceptions. Warm, supportive interactions with others, as well as the ability to use all five of the sensory modes—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling—are required for maximum development of the mental or cognitive processes. High-quality child development centers have always placed priority on children's intellectual learning. Today the emphasis is greater than ever, because new research is being reported that helps teachers better understand the mental or cognitive processes that are at work in the child.

The theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have probably had the most influence on our ideas about how young children learn. Although they worked at about the same time, they approached the topic from slightly different perspectives and emphasized different aspects of children's cognitive development. Piaget focused on the way an individual child acts upon objects in the environment in order to build mental models of the way the world works. Vygotsky looked more closely at the way children acquire knowledge through interaction with more experienced people, and at the role language plays in the process. The term constructivist describes both theorists, because they both view knowledge as something that individuals construct out of their own experience and reflection rather than something that is passively absorbed. Neither suggest that children accomplish this work in a vacuum. For Piaget, the physical environment is important and the adult role is to make sure that environment is rich and stimulating, then to occasionally ask questions that challenge children's thinking about the environment. For Vygotsky, the social environment is important and the adult role is to help children tackle challenges that are just a little beyond what they could do alone. Recent research on child care (Maccoby & Lewis, 2003) has linked a constructivist approach to learning to positive social development. You, as a student, are constructing your own knowledge of child development as you mesh concepts from your course readings and ideas gained from your experiences with young children.

Piaget's View

Rachel, an infant lying in her crib, looks at a bright, fluttering scarf tied to the bar. The pleasurable visual sensation impels her to keep looking. Ben, a slightly older child picks up a toy and puts it in his mouth; he sucks on it, takes it out and fingers it, and bangs it on the floor. Marnie, another child, plays peek-a-boo with a caregiver. All these are examples of what the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1952) called the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development. Cognitive development is intellectual development. As the term sensorimotor suggests, babies because babies make sense of the world by interacting with it through reflexes and perceptual-motor activities. They learn through tasting, grasping, and manipulating objects. Watching babies discover their fingers is literally to watch their minds at work.

According to Piaget, the development of object permanence is the major cognitive achievement of this period, meaning that babies learn, through many experiences with objects and people, that things do not cease to exist when babies cannot perceive them. Infants may react with relief—sometimes crying—as they see their mothers return to the infant center to pick them up. Such infants are developing a sense of object permanence, in this case realizing that their mothers exist even when they have not been able to see them. It is easy to see how this cognitive milestone is related to the development of a sense of trust.

Piaget's next stage, beginning around age two and lasting until about age 7, is called the preoperational stage. In this stage children need real objects to handle and explore. Wordy explanations or abstract pictures do not support their learning. Children focus on one aspect of a material at a time and cannot mentally reverse changes in the appearance of that material. For example, even if they watch you flatten out a clay sphere, they are likely to believe that there is now more clay because the surface area of the clay appears larger.

One of the important things that can be learned from Piaget is that children learn as they interact with forces and things in their environment. Learning cannot be imposed from the outside. The children must interact with their world. Learning follows a definite sequence that cannot be hurried by any adult.

You will notice that children's thinking during this stage is what Piaget called “centered” on one aspect of a problem, disregarding other aspects. For example, many four-year-olds can sort beads or cards according to color, but if asked to then sort the same beads or cards according to shape, they will have trouble “decentering” from color and refocusing on shape. You may note another aspect of this rigidity in thinking in a six-year-old who forgets to bring something that she had intended to bring to school and finds it impossible to accept what others suggest as a reasonable substitute. Children in the preoperational stage are centered on their perception and cannot change as easily as they will be able to in a few years.

Telling children that they are wrong—that the amount of clay has not changed—will not change their thinking. Instead, we need to give children every opportunity to discover for themselves that, unless you add or remove some clay, the amount will remain constant no matter how you transform the shape. Children need lots of time to play with clay, to pour water and sand back and forth between various containers, even to argue with each other about who has the most. This process is called the child's construction of knowledge. Guidance that is firmly based on this knowledge of cognitive development will provide plenty of time for exploration and experimentation so that children can satisfy their drive to make sense of their world without getting into trouble. Adults who understand children's unique ways of thinking will also be more patient, even appreciative of apparent mistakes and more likely to explain their expectations and rules in ways that make sense to children.

Vygotsky's View

Knowing that children must construct their own knowledge does not mean that the role of adults is unimportant. While Piaget is said to focus on the individual construction of knowledge, the theory of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasizes the social construction of knowledge. He argues that what children have to learn is shaped by the culture in which they live, and that the way they learn is through interaction with older children or adults who are more experienced in that culture. He pays particular attention to language because it is such a fundamental part of human interactions. Scaffolding is an important concept in Vygotsky's theory. It refers to the process by which the adult (or older child) supports the child in a task, offering suggestions or filling in bits of missing information, until the child can accomplish the task alone. Here is an example of scaffolding:

Toddler Katherine is standing near a toy cupboard, vocalizing and reaching toward something on the top shelf. Her caregiver, April, comes over and picks up one of the toys to hand to Katherine. “Do you want the Raggedy Ann, Katherine?” she asks. Katherine continues reaching and vocalizing, and this time April follows her gaze to a stuffed bear. “Oh,” she says, “You want the bear.” She gets it down for Katherine, who clasps it to her chest and toddles off.

By filling in what she thought Katherine might be saying, April provided the scaffolding that allowed Katherine to communicate and get what she wanted.

Another concept that is important to Vygotsky's theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which refers to anything a child cannot yet do independently, but can do with help, in other words, the cutting edge of the child's current cognitive development. In the example above, Katherine is not yet capable of communicating her wants through language, but with the help of a sensitive caregiver, she succeeds in doing what she could not do alone. Soon she will be able to say, “bear,” when that is what she wants. Tasks within the zone of proximal development are those that are challenging without being either too easy or too hard for children.

Private speech, for Vygotsky, is the means by which children direct their own learning or behavior. In a way, they take on the role of the adult, providing their own scaffolding to support themselves through a difficult task. For example, Tommy usually arrived several minutes ahead of the other three- and four-year-olds at his child development center, so his teacher gave him the job of watering the plants in the classroom. Every morning, Tommy gave himself directions as he poured water into each pot: “Watch out, it's gonna spill. Be careful. Uh-oh.”

Tommy was using private speech, or self-talk, repeating to himself the sorts of things an adult might have said to help him regulate his behavior. Vygotsky would suggest that Tommy learned what to say to himself from the adults who have talked him through earlier experiences with challenging tasks. This type of speech gradually disappears as children mature, but it emerges again when children are presented with new challenging tasks. In their interactions with children, early childhood educators provide examples of things children can say to themselves when working on tasks alone. They welcome self-talk in their classrooms as a sign that children are mentally engaged in activities that are just challenging enough (i.e., within the zone of proximal development).


Self-regulation is a concept that spans all developmental domains. Associated with development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, it begins in the physical realm with the infant's ability to settle back to sleep during the earliest weeks of life. A little later in life, young children acquire the social-emotional skill of inhibiting certain behaviors and they begin to master the cognitive challenge of purposefully focusing their attention on tasks at hand (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). According to Bodrova and Leong (2007), school readiness is more heavily influenced by self-regulation than by cognitive skills or family characteristics. They caution us not to confuse self-regulation with the ability to be regulated by others (i.e., to follow rules when someone is watching). Although that is a step in the right direction, a child also needs two other kinds of experience: regulating others (telling peers what the rules are and reporting infractions to authority); and regulating her own behavior by voluntarily following the rules. Based on their extensive study of the work of Vygotsky, Bodrova and Leong conclude that the best way for children to have lots of practice with all three types of regulation is through pretend play, where they take on roles requiring particular types of speech and make sure that their playmates stay in character. Unfortunately, this type of high-level play has become less and less common as children spend more time on computers or in front of television and have fewer occasions to play in mixed-age groups where older, more experienced children mentor the play of their younger peers.