What is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development is the construction of cognitive processes. That includes decision-making, remembering and problem solving. The belief that children cannot think, create complex ideas and remain without cognition until they learn about language, is long proved to be wrong. Babies start to gather, sort and process information from around them at birth and use these information to develop perception and thinking skills.

Did you know?

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.(Conzurge, 2017)
Piaget’s views on cognitive development

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the leading researchers that made a model about the different stages of cognitive development. The 4 states he has defined (1936) are the following.

  1. Sensorimotor stage: birth to 2 years
  2. Preoperational stage: ages 2 to 7
  3. Concrete operational stage: ages 7 to 11
  4. Formal operational stage: ages 12 and up

To get to know these stages better, follow this YouTube link . Even if this theory had to face a few criticisms about its accuracy and applicability, it is still until today one of the leading theories. It is responsible for pushing other researchers to deepen their knowledge about cognitive development (Keenan, T., Evans, S., & Crowley, K., 2016).

The other big name in the field of research that needs to be mentioned is Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). In his Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive development (1934), Vygotsky looks at human development as “a socially mediated process in which children acquire their cultural values, beliefs, and problem-solving strategies through collaborative dialogues with more knowledgeable members of society” (McLeod, 2020). The 4 elementary mental functions he defined are attention, sensation, perception and memory. All those can be used in our social and cultural environment to develop and gain higher mental functions. Within the so-called zone of proximal development (ZPD) humans, especially children learn faster. To get to know his theory, follow this YouTube link.

Similar to Piaget’s theory has this research been proven influential and has inspired further research within the field. Critics have realized that he mainly focuses on the cultural and not the natural development of skills. This one-sided research does not allow for understanding of the natural processes that form cognition (Keenan, T., Evans, S., & Crowley, K., 2016).

Why outdoor education is beneficial

Educating students outdoors is not only fun and can help students with their sensory and social-emotional skills but is also highly beneficial for their cognitive development of course. This can happen in many different situations outside.

One of them is free play. When the children’s outdoor time includes unstructured play, their brains can recharge and reconnect to the things they have just learned. They can think freely and can foster their imagination by coming up with stories, and situations on their own. Learning about rules and strategies naturally gives them a good inside of their own development in comparison to others. Dedication time during the day to be active outside can furthermore promote increasing focus on tasks and a bigger attention span in children (International school of Macao, 2018).


What was your favourite game you played as a child where you used your imagination? What role did you play? Were other people involved?

Senses play an important role in children’s development and allows for building connections and information organizations for later. Play, no matter if guided or free, also supports children’s reasoning skills, their independent thinking and controlling their own behavior. As they run, swing, roll and walk etc. around they gain body awareness, perception of shapes, depths size and spatial awareness.

These skills help them to creatively overcome any obstacles through their way. If this skill is practiced regularly, they grow up to be inquirers and critical thinkers.

Now let us have a look at the individual senses and cognitive skills that students can thrive in during outdoor education (Encyclopaedia of Children’s Health).

Outdoor environments allow hearing, smelling, touching, seeing and tasting of all things around, which is good for cognitive development as long as it is done under supervision and safely of course (International school of Macao). Hearing different sounds in nature and differentiating them helps students expand skills that can help them develop literacy skills later on. It also helps children develop their vocabulary and to move through their environment with more awareness for their surroundings. These observations vary if a child is hard of hearing or is deaf of course. they tend to rely on other senses in that case.

Activity Idea: Play on an Obstacle Course

  • Obstacle courses are a fun way to encourage active play outdoors and indoors and it teaches balance and problem solving among other important cognitive skills. The students will love climbing and exploring, while they learn and play.

Activity Idea: Identify Noises

  • Have your students identify noises that they hear throughout the day (i.e. a bird singing, a car horn, running water or the dishwasher). They will begin to understand how sounds relate to objects in his everyday environment.

In the outdoor world are many different smells that can be identified. In a forest for example one can smell flowers, different kinds of trees and the air after a rainy day, in city environments the smells differ. Cars, trains, and food from the neighbor’s house are only a few of the smells that can be recognized. This allows children to  learn about the differences, give them names and foster their cognitive skills. Children start to connect known smells with different feelings and situations in their life which can bring up emotions or help them make decisions.


Can you think of any outdoor learning activities you could design to include the sense of smell?

The sensation of touching connects our experiences with the region for feelings/emotions the thalamus in our brain. The somatosensory cortex then translates the sensation, the touch receptors on the skin send, into a perception of touch (Blumenrath,2020). For example, something that does not feel comfortable or something really soft for the first time as a child creates connections in our brain that will stay forever. Usually the uncomfortable feeling is connected to maybe pain and keeps us from going for a second touch. Soft and fluffy objects are something our brain connects to comfort and warmth.

Giving the students an opportunity to use their hands while playing outside triggers these connections to develop and give them a wide variety of sensations to differentiate and again help them to learn how to process, reason and strengthen their memory.

Activity Idea: Get Artistic with Sidewalk Chalk

  • Sidewalk chalk is a wonderful way to incorporate arts and crafts into your little one’s day without having to worry about the mess. Your toddler can enjoy creating brightly colored works of art while they practice fine motor skills and dexterity, both of which are crucial for cognitive development at this age.

Visual images of course are just like the other sensory inputs we can catch outside while being educated or educating ourselves through exploration. Our reasoning gets better when we stand in front of a big slope for example. we might want to go down the steep hill once but if we see just how far down it goes, we might start thinking a second time and not do it. This cognitive decision keeps us from hurting ourselves and making decisions that might not be good.

Activity idea: Visit Interesting Places

Take trips to your local children’s museum, library or farmer’s market to stimulate childrens’ curiosity and provide them with “hands on” experiences.  Ask questions while you explore and listen to their responses and reactions.  These adventures can provide a learning experience for everyone.



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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