Ten facts you never knew about cognitive development in children.

Young children are naturally curious about cause and effect and are naturally motivated to learn all about the “hows” and “whys” of the world.

While playing with dolls, searching through a toy box, or banging blocks together in a seemingly haphazard manner, they’re actually engaging in a quite rational process of making hypotheses, evaluating statistical data, and dismissing prior beliefs when presented with stronger evidence. They also display remarkable psychological intuition and, by observing the actions of other people, can determine underlying motivations, desires, and preferences.

Children learn about people from statistical information and they, in turn, evaluate evidence in light of their developing social knowledge, in an ongoing, reinforcing cycle.

Here are ten facts you never knew about cognitive development in children.

1. They learn even as babies.

Children possess and demonstrate all the main types of learning; including statistical learning, learning by imitation, learning by analogy and causal learning; even as babies. This includes learning the relationships between the sounds that underpin language acquisition, or the visual features that specify natural categories or concepts such as bird, tree, car.

2. Learning in young children is socially mediated.

Families, carers, peers and teachers are all important. Consequently, the quality of the learning environments created by families, schools and the wider culture is critical for children’s development. Even basic perceptual learning mechanisms require social interaction to be effective. This limits the applicability of educational approaches such as e-learning in the early years.

3. The young child’s brain has basically the same structures as the adult brain.

These structures carry out the same functions via the same mechanisms. For example, a concept in science may depend on neurons being simultaneously active in visual, spatial, memory, deductive and kinaesthetic regions, in both brain hemispheres. Ideas such as left-brain/right-brain learning, or unisensory ‘learning styles’ (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) are not supported by the brain science of learning.

4. Children think and reason largely in the same ways as adults.

But, they lack experience and are still developing the ability to think about their own thinking and learning (metacognition) and to regulate their own behavior and interactions. They need diverse experiences in the classroom to help them develop these self-reflective and self-regulatory skills.

5. Children construct causal frameworks to make sense of their experiences.

Knowledge gained through active experience, language, pretend play and teaching are all important for the development of children’s causal explanatory systems. The biases in children’s explanations, which reflect a general human tendency to seek information that appears to confirm one’s theories, should be recognized and worked with by teachers.

6. Young children learn new words at an exponential rate.

Acquiring 10+ words daily, the median vocabulary is 55 words at 16 months, 225 words at 23 months and over 6000 words by age six.The developmental range stretches from a vocabulary of 0 words to over 500 words at age two. Children who enter school with impoverished language skills require immediate support.

7. Incremental experience is crucial for learning and knowledge construction.

The brain learns from every experienced event, but because cognitive representations are distributed across networks of neurons, cumulative learning is crucial. There is stronger representation of what is common across learning experiences, and there are multiple representations of experience (e.g. motor and visual representations). This supports the value of multi-sensory approaches to teaching.

8. Differential exposure will lead to differential learning.

As an example, one of the most important determinants of reading fluency is how much text the child actually reads, including outside the classroom.

9. Genetic differences between children influence development.

However, the fact that genes influence development makes it even more important to provide optimal early learning environments for all children so that environmental differences and genetic differences are not additive in their effects.

10. Pretend play and the imagination are important for cognitive development.

In the early years of education, pretend play helps children to reflect upon and regulate their own cognitive behavior, and to reflect upon and gain a deeper understanding of the mind. Pretending is more effective when carried out with other children and when scaffolded by adults.

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