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Cognitive development refers to how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world. Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence, reasoning, language development, and memory. Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.

This section will give you some information about what children are typically doing at various ages and stages in their cognitive development.

Birth to 12 Months
From birth, babies begin to actively learn. They are aware of their surroundings and interested in exploration from the the very beginning. They gather, sort, and process information from around them, using the data to develop perception and thinking skills. Infants learn to use their senses to explore and understand how the world around them works.

By 4 months:
  • explores objects with fingers, hands, toes
  • recognizes bottle or breast
  • turns head toward bright colors and lights
  • smiles responsively
  • recognizes parent
By 8 months:
  • uncovers hidden toys
  • explores objects by touching, mouthing, shaking, and banging
  • looks for ball rolled out of sight
  • recognizes and looks for familiar voices and sounds
By 12 months:
  • unwraps toys in cloth, finds toys hidden under boxes
  • imitates actions from memory
  • removes lid from box
  • pushes toy along surface in play
  • puts small objects in large containers
  • shows interest in picture books
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12 to 18 Months
One-year-olds are in the act of discovering the world. They enthusiastically use their senses to explore everything they can. They find pleasure in causing things to happen and in completing basic tasks. They also enjoy sharing interesting learning experiences with adults, and may use gestures and simple sounds or speech to ask adults questions.

  • plays simple games such as peek-a-boo
  • looks for objects that are hidden or out of sight
  • likes to take things apart
  • tries a number of things to activate toy (turns, bangs, pushes button)
  • begins to use objects in imitation
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18 to 24 Months
This is an exciting time in the lives of toddlers. They have developed a sense of self; the ability to see themselves as separate from others. They are developing new language abilities, object permanence, and begin to strive for more independence. They also understand discipline and what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate, and they understand the concepts of words like "please" and "thank you."

  • plays alongside a friend (parallel play)
  • begins simple pretend play (talking on the phone, putting baby to bed)
  • completes simple puzzles of 2-3 pieces
  • points to a body part
  • finds an object that they watch you move
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24 to 36 Months (2-3 Years)
Two-year-olds enjoy using their senses to explore the world, and can solve simple problems with the ‘trial and error' method. They will practice an activity many times to master it and can complete short-term, concrete tasks. Their budding language skills and desire to learn prompt many ‘why', ‘what' and ‘how' questions. This year typically marks the beginning of pretend play, where two-year-olds experiment with familiar objects and situations to process their experiences.

  • group objects by category
  • show understanding of words like big and little, soft and hard
  • engages in imaginative play with common household objects
  • names objects and points to many objects in one picture
  • stacks rings on a peg in order of size
  • recognizes a familiar picture and knows if it is upside down
  • observes and imitates adult actions, like driving a car
  • completes more complex puzzles
  • matches object with picture
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36 to 48 Months (3-4 Years)
Three-year-olds increasingly know what they want and express their preferences. While playing, they are better able to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand. They will even keep trying to complete something that is a bit difficult. Learning still happens mainly through exploring, using all the senses. Their growing language skills allow for more complex questions and discussion, and they can think more creatively and methodically when solving problems.

  • engages in elaborate pretend play
  • experiments with cause and effect in play
  • understands basic concepts like tallest, biggest, same, more, etc
  • asks who, what, where, and why questions
  • draws a circle and square
  • understands more complex words like time words (yesterday, tomorrow) and words to describe emotions (happy, disappointed)
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