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Exploring the world

Through their exploration of the world around them, and interaction with others, babies learn:

  • Knowledge about the physical world of objects and events;
  • The underlying laws governing living and non-living things;
  • How to understand and predict people's behaviour.

(Goswami and Bryant, 2007)

If they have difficulties in sensory perception (vision, audition, touch, etc.), motor function (reaching, grasping, moving eyes), or in relation to their emotional/reward system, it has a serious impact on their cognitive development (Goswami, 2008).

for cognition

Cognition includes:

  • Attention
  • Reasoning
  • Problem solving
  • Learning
  • Language
  • Memory

(Goswami, 2008)

Milestones for cognition

Object permanence, causality, and symbolic thinking are fundamental...[to] cognitive development. Used together with gross and fine motor skills, they allow problem-solving (Wilks et al, 2010).

Children who seek causes learn and understand better than those who do not (Evangelou et al, 2009).

To find out more about milestones for cognition, have a look at the links below.

Developmental milestones (Kirby, 2012)


When over-aroused by novelty, unfamiliarity or excessive stimulation, infants regulate [their] state by disengaging and moving their attention elsewhere.

Bryson, 2010

To learn effectively, children need to be able to redirect attention quickly. The ability to engage, switch and disengage attention is needed for a range of cognitive and social-cognitive milestone skills including:

  • Focusing on specific events or objects;
  • Engaging with other people;
  • Discriminating and comparing (requires back and forth looking);
  • Incidental learning;
  • Joint attention;
  • Self-regulation.

(Bryson, 2010)

Adults can support
flexible thinking

When children focus, shifts in attention are inhibited.

At age 3-4 years, children find it difficult to switch rules mid-activity (eg switching rules for sorting playing cards from colour to shape).

However, if an adult asks them to verbally identify the cards according to the new rules before re-sorting them, even three-year-olds can achieve this.

Therefore, although 3-4 year-olds find it difficult to shift attentional focus, they can overcome this with support and use of language.

(Goswami and Bryant, 2007)

Unconscious learning
 boy reaches for a small green toy held
                  by a teacher

Babies and young children learn unconsciously, and seem to have inborn capabilities which allow them to:

  • Distinguish simple forms (eg cross from circle);
  • Recognise when two different sense experiences (eg sight alone and touch alone) relate to the same object;
  • Categorise what they see;
  • Learn features of different objects, identify features which occur together, and see relationships between features;
  • Recognise patterns and sequences (eg one event following another);
  • Recognise similarities between situations, and apply what they already know.

Similar learning events occur across all senses.

(Goswami and Bryant, 2007; Evangelou et al, 2009)

How babies learn – imitation

...babies as young as one hour old could imitate gestures like tongue protrusion and mouth opening after watching an adult produce the same gestures.

Goswami and Bryant, 2007

At nine months, babies can copy how others manipulate objects.

When people imitate another person's actions or expressions the brain's 'mirror neuron' system becomes active. This inborn system may be the reason that we can understand the actions and emotions of others.

(Goswami and Bryant, 2007)

The importance
of language
A girl smiles as a teaching sitting opposite
                  her holds up an object

Children learn to understand themselves and their worlds through narrative and exploration. They need support for both kinds of thinking (Evangelou et al, 2009).

Children create explanations to help them understand their experiences – how and why people, objects or events behave or happen as they do. Active experience, language, pretend play and teaching support this.

We need to recognise children's causal bases, help them to adjust if the bases are false, and build upon those which are sound (Goswami and Bryant, 2007).

A girl wearing head protection reaches toward
                  one of several cards on a table

Rather than feedback from adults, the most effective way of improving children's problem solving is to encourage them to:

  • Show or explain how they have solved a problem;
  • Show or explain why something was not correct (results in greater improvement).
(Evangelou et al, 2009)

Find out more

Capone, N.C. and McGregor, K.K. (2004) Gesture development: a review for clinical and research practices, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 47, 173-186.

Goswami, U. (2008) Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project. Learning difficulties: Future challenges. London: The Government Office for Science.

Find out more

Ramachandran, V.S. and Lindsay, M.O. (2006) Broken mirrors: a theory of autism, Scientific American, 295 (5), 63-69.

Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L. and Gillese, V. (2006) Mirrors in the mind, Scientific American, 295 (5), 54-61.