Provided by Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc.
"Making life better"




The majority (and sometimes only) coverage of cognitive development in most developmental psychology textbooks focuses on Piaget. This is not to say that Piaget is either unimportant or uninteresting (although a case could be made for the latter, one of my former students having said that reading Piaget in the original is kind of like reading a manual for how to put your stereo together).

HOWEVER, I think that there is much more to children’s cognitive development than Piaget’s stages. (We will get to those eventually, though, if you are getting nervous about it.)

Then WHAT? I am glad you asked that question.

The biggest development during early childhood is LANGUAGE.

 Here I have more agreement with Erikson and none at all with Freud. Remember Freud focused on toilet training as a critical aspect of this age and said that people who are too harshly toilet trained become anal retentive, demanding that all rules be adhered to strictly. For example, even if your mother had died, an anal retentive teacher would say that "You missed class yesterday to go to the funeral, and I am sorry but rules are rules and you cant go on the class field trip because you don't have perfect attendance."

Erikson disagreed with Freud and argued that, during early childhood, much more is accomplished than toilet training. Children learn to be much more self-reliant, to follow rules, to engage in imaginary play and TO TALK.

The theorist I most like is Vygotsky (click here to find out a little about who Vygotsky was) who wrote, among other things, a good book called "Thought and language."

A few of Vygotsky’s  ideas were:

  • Thought is virtually impossible without language. The more, and the more elaborate, vocabulary a person has, the better he or she can think.
  • Learning occurs best in the ZONE OF PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT, this is whatever lies between what a child can do by him or herself and what he or she cannot do, no matter how much help is provided. For example, a particular four-year-old might be able to name certain animals by herself, but, no matter how much assistance was provided, she could never tell you what the differences and similarities are between a reptile and an amphibian.
  • Adults (and, less often, other children) provide SCAFFOLDING to help children think. Scaffolding, you probably know, is the metal or wood structure workers stand on when painting a house or doing construction work. The scaffolding doesn't do the work for them, but it holds them up so they can do it. In the same way, adults can support children’s thinking by providing them the words for an experience they are having, by teaching them strategies for solving problems, and so on.

  What are the  practical implications of this?

Some specific actions which would be recommended based on Vytgotsky’s views are: =>

  • Talking about what the child is involved in at the present, giving him or her words to describe the experience the child is having. "We are going outside now. Before you go outside, you put your jacket on. This is your jacket. It is a green jacket."

  • Elaboration of the child's speech. When, for example, a child says, "That truck", you would respond by saying, "Yes, that is a truck. It's a green truck."

  •  Prompting the child to use language, e.g. , asking "What is that?" and further prompting to ask for more elaborate language. "You went to the lake yesterday? What did you do?" If that does not elicit a response, provide further prompts, "Did you fish? Did you catch any fish?"

  • Broadening the child's vocabulary by deliberately increasing the variety of words you use in your daily language, particularly words just above the child's current vocabulary level.  For example, you might say, "This package contains the basic colors," rather than ‘four colors’ or ‘the main ones’.


    What does other research show about Vygotsky?

    A number of studies, my favorite being the Harvard Preschool Project, have shown that children who develop well intellectually during early childhood have a couple of characteristics in common in their home environment.

    • They are exposed to more live language (that is, people talking to them) and less mechanical language (television, radio, CDs) than children who develop poorly. When people, rather than a TV is talking to the child, the person can provide the prompts, the focus on the child's current activity, that a TV program cannot. Educational television programs  try (Sesame Street and the Teletubbies are good examples), but they cannot compare with a person who is actually in the room with the child and knows what he or she is interested in at the moment. Other television programs don't even try. Having a show like "Cops" on, for example,  not only does  not facilitate the child's language, but also may draw adult attention away from the child.
    • Their parents do "an enormous amount of teaching ‘on the fly’". That is, they are talking to the child as they do the dishes, as they drive to the grocery store, as they shop for groceries, and so on. They don't sit down at the kitchen table with flash cards and say, "Two plus two is four". When they are putting apples in the grocery cart they say, "Here are two apples. Here are two more apples. That makes four apples."

    So, it seems that there are some practical recommendations from Vygotsky’s work, and that evidence supports that these recommendations may actually work.

    That is why I like Vygotsky.

    Click here to go on to the next web page about miscellaneous information on language and cognitive development (yes, including Piaget).


    Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc. -- P.O.Box 663, 314 Circle Dr., Fort Totten, ND 58335 Tel: (701) 351-2175 Fax: (800) 905 -2571
    Email us at:
    An Indian-owned business