An Introduction to the Relationship Between Learning and Cognition in Young Children

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For many, the words learning and cognition may seem interchangeable. Aren’t they the same thing? In fact, they are two very different things.

Learning is defined as the process of acquiring a skill or knowledge. Cognition is defined as the processes involved in gaining skills or knowledge, and may include thinking, knowing, remembering and problem solving.

Learning is what happens after a child goes through several cognitive processes. For example, children learn how to read through several cognitive processes such as problem solving, remembering, and memorizing.

The Process of Learning

Most children learn by experimentation, trial and error, and problem solving.

Watch an infant as she tries to reach for a toy. She may reach her hand out and attempt to grasp an out of reach object. If that doesn’t work, she may attempt to roll over closer to the toy. If the object is still out of reach, she may roll back and attempt to scoot closer to the toy. She will try several different ways to reach the toy until her goal is met. When she finally reaches the toy, she may shake it or put it in her mouth. These are two more cognitive processes she uses to learn more about the toy.

This process of learning that is established as a young child continues through adulthood. When adults are learning a new skill, they also use trial and error, problem solving, and remembering. An adult’s repertoire of cognitive processes is often more diverse than a child’s, but all human beings learn in the same manner, no matter what their age.

Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was perhaps the most influential developmental psychologist ever known. His theories on learning and development are widely used today to develop early childhood education programs around the globe. He may be most famous for his theory on the four stages of cognitive development, which is a theory about the development of human intelligence or learning.

These four stages are: the sensorimotor stage; preoperational stage; concrete operational stage; and formal operation stage.

As early childhood educators, we are most concerned with the first two stages of cognitive psychology, which take children from birth to about seven years of age.

In the sensorimotor stage, infants up to age two, learn about their world through sensory and motor experiences. For example, children learn to move their bodies between birth and age two by first rolling, then creeping, crawling, standing, and finally walking.

According to Piaget, the cognitive processes of an infant in the sensorimotor stage would then include touching, mouthing, watching and listening, as well as all fine and gross motor activity.

The preoperational stage is a bit more complex, and lasts from the age of two years to about seven years.

Preoperational-stage children learn by watching others and imitating their behaviors. For example, a toddler may watch mom feed the baby, and then imitate the action with her own doll. Primitive reasoning also takes place during the preoperational stage, as children begin to make assumptions about the world around them and ask many questions.

Impact on Teaching

As early childhood educators, we should be aware that learning takes place through several cognitive processes. Children should be given every opportunity to develop their own cognitive processes which leads to learning new skills. Hampering a young child’s ability to explore their environment, is ultimately hampering their ability to learn.


“Understanding Children”; Judith A. Schickendanz; 1993

“Group Games in Early Education: Implications of Piaget’s Theory”; Constance Kamii and Rheta DeVries; 1996