Cognitive development: what is it? (Piaget’s theory)

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development are all the processes through which the human being acquires skills that allow him to interpret reality and interact with her in an efficient way. Therefore, cognitive or cognitive development is understood as the evolution of intellectual abilities, of which intelligence is one of the most important.

Several authors have developed theories about cognitive development. However, Jean Piaget, a leading Swiss researcher in the area of ​​human behaviour, made the most enduring contributions in this regard in the twentieth century.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

In the mid-twentieth century, Jean Piaget stated that cognitive development began from birth, and that it was a combination between environmental factors and biological maturation processes.

Piaget’s theory of development describes 4 stages or phases and assumes that cognitive processes are organized progressively so that it is not possible to acquire the skills of a stage without having gone through the previous stage.

To understand how cognitive development is achieved, it is essential to know some of the functions that have been refined with the evolutionary process and that are essential in this process:


Language development involves learning and using a system of symbols (such as writing) and the ability to understand and transmit them.


It is the set of words that have been learned and that are necessary to express thoughts and ideas.


It includes all the processes through which the brain collects and uses the information without needing to learn it again whenever it is needed.

This cognitive function also includes working memory, which makes storage of the lexicon possible.


Attention implies the operation of neural networks dedicated to the compression of one stimulus at a time, and this capacity is essential in the learning process, in which the selective reception of information is necessary.


Perception implies the recording and interpretation of sensory experiences, as well as the ability to convert that record into a representation of reality.


Intelligence involves the processing of all information that comes from the environment in an efficient way so that it is possible to access it and apply it in solving problems.

All these cognitive functions work simultaneously and are indispensable for the development of the individual, and in turn will have an impact on the formation of their behaviour.

The 4 phases of Piaget’s cognitive development

The researcher Jean Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development that begin at birth and culminate in adolescence, and that have become a guide to determine the progress or evolution of children’s intelligence.

Sensomotor stage

This phase begins at birth and ends at approximately two years of age. Some of the characteristics of this stage are:

  • Reflex activity: are the involuntary and automatic responses to a stimulus, for example, the baby’s tendency to close the fist at the contact of an object with the palm of his hand
  • Repetition of movements: During the first months of life, the baby will repeat body movements that are pleasant.
  • Troubleshooting through trial and error: The baby will also perform repetitions to solve problems, such as finding an object that lost sight.
  • Execution of intentional actions to achieve a goal, how to remove the sheet from the face, discover a hidden object, etc.
  • First attempts at oral communication: the first words arise that will then give rise to basic sentences.

Preoperational stage

It is a cognitive stage that begins at two years and culminates at 7, coinciding with the initiation into the school world. This phase is characterized by:

  • Use of symbols: begin to understand the metaphorical language of children’s stories, although there is no clear separation between the real and the fantasy.
  • Use of language and imagination: there is a greater wealth of vocabulary and the sentences are longer and more complex. They can also express themselves creatively through the use of colors, drawings, etc.
  • Self-centered thinking: Empathy or awareness has not been developed to understand other needs or points of view.
  • Logic Thought Underdeveloped: the child’s reactions and problem solving are not guided by logic, but by imitation.

Stage of concrete actions

Between the ages of 7 and 11, the stage of concrete actions is experienced. These are some of its features:

  • Use of logical thinking to understand reality: reactions and problem solving are not executed by imitation, but by a process of reflection of their own.
  • Differentiation between the real world and fantasy.
  • Ability to classify objects and establish hierarchies: children can organize objects by color or shape, they can create series of numbers, etc.

Formal Operations Stage

This stage of cognitive development begins at age 11 and ends at age 15, coinciding with the physical, biological and emotional changes of adolescence. Among its most outstanding features are:

  • The identity definition process begins: the child is selected those things with which he feels identified: hobbies, tastes, ways of dressing, thinking and relating, etc.
  • Use of hypothetical-deductive thinking: the consequences of a fact can be inferred without the need to carry it out.
  • Interest in generating new social ties: The desire to belong to this stage can stimulate adolescents to be part of new groups or to strengthen their ties.
  • Continue egocentric thinkingOr: as everything revolves around the perception of the individual’s reality, it is much more sensitive to criticism and rejection.