Skip to main content
California Department of Education Logo

Cognitive Development Domain

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.



Return to Contents

"The last two decades of infancy research have seen dramatic changes in the way developmental psychologists characterize the earliest stages of cognitive development. The infant, once regarded as an organism driven mainly by simple sensorimotor schemes, is now seen as possessing sophisticated cognitive skills and even sophisticated concepts that guide knowledge acquisition” (Madole and Oakes 1999, 263).

“What we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe” (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl 1999, 1).

The term cognitive development refers to the process of growth and change in intellectual/mental abilities such as thinking, reasoning and understanding. It includes the acquisition and consolidation of knowledge. Infants draw on social-emotional, language, motor, and perceptual experiences and abilities for cognitive development. They are attuned to relationships between features of objects, actions, and the physical environment. But they are particularly attuned to people. Parents, family members, friends, teachers, and caregivers play a vital role in supporting the cognitive development of infants by providing the healthy interpersonal or social-emotional context in which cognitive development unfolds. Caring, responsive adults provide the base from which infants can fully engage in behaviors and interactions that promote learning. Such adults also serve as a prime source of imitation.

Cultural context is important to young children’s cognitive development. There is substantial variation in how intelligence is defined within different cultures (Sternberg and Grigorenko 2004). As a result, different aspects of cognitive functioning or cognitive performance may be more highly valued in some cultural contexts than in others. For example, whereas processing speed is an aspect of intelligence that is highly valued within the predominant Western conceptualizations of intelligence, “Ugandan villagers associate intelligence with adjectives such as slow, careful, and active” (Rogoff and Chavajay 1995, 865.). Aspects of intelligence that have to do with social competence appear to be seen as more important than speed in some non-Western cultural contexts (Sternberg and Grigorenko 2004). Certainly, it is crucial for early childhood professionals to recognize the role that cultural context plays in defining and setting the stage for children’s healthy cognitive functioning.

Research has identified a broad range of cognitive competencies and described the remarkable progression of cognitive development during the early childhood years. Experts in the field describe infants as active, motivated, and engaged learners who possess an impressive range of cognitive competencies (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000) and learn through exploration (Whitehurst and Lonigan 1998). Infants demonstrate natural curiosity. They have a strong drive to learn and act accordingly. In fact, they have been described as “born to learn” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000, 148).


Everyday experiences—for example, crying and then being picked up or waving a toy and then hearing it rattle—provide opportunities for infants to learn about cause and effect. “Even very young infants possess expectations about physical events” (Baillargeon 2004, 89). This knowledge helps infants better understand the properties of objects, the patterns of human behavior, and the relationship between events and the consequences. Through developing an understanding of cause and effect, infants build their abilities to solve problems, to make predictions, and to understand the impact of their behavior on others.

Foundation: Cause-and-Effect

Return to Top

Spatial Relationships

Infants learn about spatial relationships in a variety of ways; for example, exploring objects with their mouths, tracking objects and people visually, squeezing into tight spaces, fitting objects into openings, and looking at things from different perspectives (Mangione, Lally, and Signer 1992). They spend much of their time exploring the physical and spatial aspects of the environment, including the characteristics of, and interrelationships between, the people, objects, and the physical space around them (Clements 2004). The development of an understanding of spatial relationships increases infants’ knowledge of how things move and fit in space and the properties of objects (their bodies and the physical environment).

Foundation: Spatial Relationships

Return to Top

Problem Solving

Infants exhibit a high level of interest in solving problems. Even very young infants will work to solve a problem, for example, how to find their fingers in order to suck on them (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000). Older infants may solve the problem of how to reach an interesting toy that is out of reach by trying to roll toward it or by gesturing to an adult for help. Infants and toddlers solve problems by varied means, including physically acting on objects, using learning schemes they have developed, imitating solutions found by others, using objects or other people as tools, and using trial and error.

Foundation: Problem Solving

Return to Top


Imitation is broadly understood to be a powerful way to learn. It has been identified as crucial in the acquisition of cultural knowledge (Rogoff 1990) and language. Imitation by newborns has been demonstrated for adult facial expressions (Meltzoff and Moore 1983), head movements, and tongue protrusions (Meltzoff and Moore 1989). “The findings of imitation in human newborns highlighted predispositions to imitate facial and manual actions, vocalizations and emotionally laden facial expressions” (Bard and Russell 1999, 93). Infant imitation involves perception and motor processes (Meltzoff and Moore 1999). The very early capacity to imitate makes possible imitation games in which the adult mirrors the child’s behavior, such as sticking out one’s tongue or matching the pitch of a sound the infant makes, and then the infant imitates back. This type of interaction builds over time as the infant and the adult add elements and variations in their imitation games.

Infants engage in both immediate imitation and delayed imitation. Immediate imitation occurs when infants observe and immediately attempt to copy or mimic behavior. For example, immediate imitation can be seen when an infant’s parent sticks out his tongue and the infant sticks out his tongue in response. As infants develop, they are able to engage in delayed imitation, repeating the behavior of others at a later time after having observed it. An example of delayed imitation is a child reenacting part of a parent’s exercise routine, such as lifting a block several times as if it were a weight. Butterworth (1999, 63) sums up the importance of early imitation in the following manner: “Modern research has shown imitation to be a natural mechanism of learning and communication which deserves to be at centre stage in developmental psychology.”

Foundation: Imitation

Return to Top


The capacity to remember allows infants and toddlers to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar people and objects, anticipate and participate in parts of personal care routines, learn language, and come to know the rules of social interaction. The infant’s memory system is quite remarkable and functions at a higher level than was previously believed (Howe and Courage 1993). Although age is not the only determinant of memory functioning, as infants get older they are able to retain information for longer periods of time (Bauer 2004). Infants exhibit long-term recall well before they are able to articulate their past experiences verbally (Bauer 2002b).

The emergence of memory is related to the development of a neural network with various components (Bauer 2002b). Commenting on the different forms and functions of early memory development, Bauer (2002a, 131) states: “It is widely believed that memory is not a unitary trait but is comprised of different systems or processes, which serve distinct functions, and are characterized by fundamentally different rules of operation.” Bauer (2002a, 145) later adds that recent research counters earlier suggestions that preschool-aged children demonstrate little memory capacity and to speculations that younger children and infants demonstrate little or no memory capacity. Bauer (2002a, 145) concludes: “It is now clear that from early in life, the human organism stores information over the long term and that the effects of prior experience are apparent in behavior. In the first months of life, infants exhibit recognition memory for all manner of natural and artificial stimuli.”

Foundation: Memory

Return to Top

Number Sense

Number sense refers to children’s concepts of numbers and the relationships among number concepts. Research findings indicate that infants as young as five months of age are sensitive to number and are able to discriminate among small sets of up to three objects (Starkey and Cooper 1980; Starkey, Spelke, and Gelman 1990). Infants demonstrate the ability to quickly and accurately recognize the quantity in a small set of objects without counting. This ability is called subitizing.

According to one theoretical perspective, infants’ abilities to discriminate among numbers, for example, two versus three objects, does not reflect “number knowledge.” Rather, this early skill appears to be based on infants’ perceptual abilities to “see” small arrangements of number (Clements 2004; Carey 2001), or on their ability to notice a change in the general amount of objects they are seeing (Mix, Huttenlocher, and Levine 2002). The alternative view is that the infant’s early sensitivity to number is numerical in nature. In other words, infants have a capacity to distinguish among numbers and to reason about these numbers in numerically meaningful ways (Wynn 1998; Gallistel and Gelman 1992). In some sense, they know that three objects are more than one object. Whether early number sensitivity is solely perceptual in nature or also numerical in nature, developmental theorists agree that it sets the foundation for the later development of children’s understanding of number and quantity.

As children’s understanding and use of language increases, they begin to assimilate language based on number knowledge to their nonverbal knowledge of number and quantity (Baroody 2004). Between 18 and 24 months of age, children use relational words to indicate “more” or “same” as well as number words. They begin to count aloud, typically starting with “one” and continuing with a stream of number names (Fuson 1988; Gelman and Gallistel 1978), although they may omit some numbers and not use the conventional number list (e.g. “one, two, three, seven, nine, ten”). Around the same age, children also begin to count small collections of objects; however, they may point to the same item twice or say a number word without pointing to an object. And they begin to construct an understanding of cardinality (i.e., the last number word is used when counting represents the total number of objects).

Foundation: Number Sense

Return to Top


Classification refers to the infant’s developing ability to group, sort, categorize, connect, and have expectations of objects and people according to their attributes. Three-month-olds demonstrate that they expect people to act differently than objects (Legerstee 1997). They also demonstrate the ability to discriminate between smiling and frowning expressions (Barrera and Maurer 1981). Mandler (2000) distinguishes between two types of categorization made by infants: perceptual and conceptual. Perceptual categorization has to do with similarities or differences infants sense, such as similarities in visual appearance. Conceptual categorization has to do with grouping based on what objects do or how they act. According to Mareschal and French (2000, 59), “the ability to categorize underlies much of cognition.” Classification is a fundamental skill in both problem solving and symbolic play.

Foundation: Classification

Return to Top

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play is a common early childhood behavior also called “pretend play, make-believe play, fantasy play . . . or imaginative play” (Gowen 1995, 75). Representational thinking is a core component of symbolic play. At around eight months of age, infants have learned the functions of common objects (for example, holding a play telephone to “hear” Grandma’s voice). By the time children are around 18 months of age, they use one object to stand for, or represent, another. For example, an 18-month-old may pretend a banana is a telephone. At around 36 months, children engage in make-believe play in which they represent an object without having that object, or a concrete substitute, available. For example, they may make a “phone call” by holding their hand up to their ear.

As children approach 36 months of age, they increasingly engage in pretend play in which they reenact familiar events. Make-believe play allows older infants to try to better understand social roles, engage in communication with others, and revisit and make sense of past experiences. Research suggests that engaging in pretend play appears to be related to young children’s developing understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs (Youngblade and Dunn 1995). Outdoor environments, such as sandboxes (Moser 1995) or play structures, offer rich opportunities for symbolic play or pretending. Although outdoor play areas are often considered most in terms of motor behavior or physical activity, they also offer special opportunities for symbolic play (Perry 2003). For example, children playing outside may pretend to garden or may use a large wheeled toy to reenact going on a shopping trip.

Foundation: Symbolic Play

Return to Top

Attention Maintenance

Attention maintenance has been described as a form of cognitive self-regulation. It refers to the infant’s growing ability to exercise control over his attention or concentration (Bronson 2000). Attention maintenance permits infants to gather information, to sustain learning experiences, to observe, and to problem-solve. Infants demonstrate attention maintenance when they attend to people, actions, and things they find interesting even in the presence of distractions. The ability to maintain attention/concentration is an important self-regulatory skill related to learning. There is significant variability in attentiveness even among typically developing children (Ruff and Rothbart 1996).

Foundation: Attention Maintenance

Return to Top

Understanding of Personal Care Routines

Personal care activities are a routine part of the young child’s daily life. They also present significant opportunities for learning in both child care settings and at home. Infants’ growing abilities to anticipate, understand, and participate in these routines represent a significant aspect of their cognitive functioning, one related to their abilities to understand their relationships with others, their abilities to take care of themselves, and their skills in group participation. At first, young infants respond to the adult’s actions during these routines. Then they begin to participate more actively (O’Brien 1997). Understanding the steps involved in personal care routines and anticipating next steps are skills related to the cognitive foundations of attention maintenance, imitation, memory, cause-and-effect, and problem solving. The cultural perspectives of the adults who care for infants are related to their expectations for the degree of independence or self-initiation children demonstrate during personal care routines. Depending on their cultural experiences, children may vary greatly in their understanding of personal care routines.

Foundation: Understanding of Personal Care Routines

Return to Top


American Academy of Pediatrics. 2004. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Fourth edition). Edited by S. P. Shelov and R. E. Hannemann. New York: Bantam Books.

Apfel, N. H., and S. Provence. 2001. Manual for the Infant-Toddler and Family Instrument (ITFI). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Baillargeon, R. 2004. “Infants’ Physical World,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 3, 89–94.

Bard, K., and C. Russell. 1999. “Evolutionary Foundations of Imitation: Social-Cognitive and Developmental Aspects of Imitative Processes in Non-Human Primates,” in Imitation in Infancy: Cambridge Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development. Edited by J. Nadel and G. Butterworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Barrera, M. E., and Mauer, D. 1981. “The Perception of Facial Expressions by the Three-month-old.” Child Development, Vol. 52, 203–6.

Bauer, P. 2002a. “Early Memory Development,” in Handbook of Cognitive Development. Edited by U. Goswami. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Bauer, P. 2002b. “Long-Term Recall Memory: Behavioral and Neuro-Developmental Changes in the First Two Years of Life,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 11, No. 4, 137–41.

Bauer, P. 2004. “Getting Explicit Memory off the Ground: Steps Toward Construction of a Neuro-Developmental Account of Changes in the First Two Years of Life,” Developmental Review, Vol. 24, 347–73.

Bauer, P. 2007. “Recall in Infancy: A Neurodevelopmental Account,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 16, No. 3, 142–46.

Bauer, P. J., and J. M. Mandler. 1989. “One Thing Follows Another: Effects of Temporal Structure on 1- to 2-Year Olds’ Recall of Events,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 8, 241–63.

Bayley, N. 2006. Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (Third edition). San Antonio, TX: Harcourt Assessment, Inc.

Brazelton, T. B. 1992. Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. New York: Perseus Books.

Bronson, M. 2000. Self-regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture. New York: Guilford Press.

Brooks-Gunn, J., and G. Duncan. 1997. “The Effects of Poverty on Children,” The Future of Children, Vol. 7, No. 2, 55–71.

Butterworth, G. 1999. “Neonatal Imitation: Existence, Mechanisms and Motives,” Imitation in Infancy: Cambridge Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development. Edited by J. Nadel and C. Butterworth. New York: Cambridge University Press.

California Department of Education (CDE). 2005. “Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP)” (accessed February 7, 2007) Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.

Carey, S. 2001. “On the Very Possibility of Discontinuities in Conceptual Development,” in Language, Brain, and Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jacques Mehler. Edited by E. Dupoux. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clements, D. H. 2004. “Major Themes and Recommendations,” in Engaging Young Children in Mathematics: Standards for Early Childhood Educators. Edited by D. H. Clements and J. Samara. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Coplan, J. 1993. Early Language Milestone Scale: Examiner’s Manual (Second edition). Austin, TX: Pro-ed.

Engaging Young Children in Mathematics: Standards for Early Childhood Mathematics Education. 2004. Edited by D. H. Clements and J. Sarama. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fenson, L., and others. 1976. “The Developmental Progression of Manipulative Play in the First Two Years,” Child Development, Vol. 47, No. 1, 232–36.

Fogel, A. 2001. Infancy: Infant, Family, and Society (Fourth edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Return to Top

Fuson, K. C. 1988. Children’s Counting and Concepts of Number. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Gallistel, C. R., and R. Gelman. 1992. “Preverbal and Verbal Counting and Computation,” Cognition, Vol. 44, No. 1–2, 43–74.

Gelman, R., and C. R. Gallistel. 1978. The Child’s Understanding of Number. Oxford, England: Harvard University Press.

Ginsburg, H. P., and S. Opper. 1988. Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development (Third edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gopnik, A.; A. Meltzoff; and P. K. Kuhl. 1999. The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow.

Gowen, J. W. March, 1995. “Research in Review: The Early Development of Symbolic Play,” Young Children, Vol. 50, No. 3, 75–84.

Hart, B., and T. R. Risley. 1999. The Social World of Children: Learning to Talk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Howe, M., and M. Courage. 1993. “On Resolving the Enigma of Infantile Amnesia,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 113, No. 2, 305–26.

Hulit, L. M., and M. R. Howard. 2006. Born to Talk: An Introduction to Speech and Language Development (Fourth edition). New York: Pearson Education.

Kail, R. 1990. The Development of Memory in Children (Third edition). New York: W. H. Freeman.

Lally, J. R., and others. 1995. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.

Legerstee, M. 1997. “Contingency Effects of People and Objects on Subsequent Cognitive Functioning in Three-Month-Old Infants,” Social Development, Vol. 6, No. 3, 307–21.

Lerner, C., and A. L. Dombro. 2000. Learning and Growing Together: Understanding and Supporting Your Child’s Development. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.

Lerner, C., and L. A. Ciervo. 2003. Healthy Minds: Nurturing Children’s Development from 0 to 36 Months. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Madole, K., and L. Oakes. 1999. “Making Sense of Infant Categorization: Stable Processes and Changing Representations,” Developmental Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, 263–96.

Mandler, J. M. 2000. “Perceptual and Conceptual Processes in Infancy,” Journal of Cognition and Development, Vol. 1, No. 1, 3–36.

Mandler, J., and L. McDonough. 1993. “Concept Formation in Infancy,” Cognitive Development, Vol. 8, No. 3, 291–318.

Mandler, J., and L. McDonough. 1998. “On Developing a Knowledge Base in Infancy,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 6, 1274–88.

Mangione, P. L.; J. R. Lally; and S. Signer. 1992. Discoveries of Infancy: Cognitive Development and Learning. Sacramento, CA: Far West Laboratory and California Department of Education.

Mareschal, D., and R. French. 2000. “Mechanisms of Categorization in Infancy,” Infancy, Vol.1, No. 1, 59–76.

Meltzoff, A. N., and M. K. Moore. 1983. “Newborn Infants Imitate Adult Facial Gestures,” Child Development, Vol. 54, 702–9.

Meltzoff, A. N., and M. K. Moore. 1989. “Imitation in Newborn Infants: Exploring the Range of Gestures Imitated and the Underlying Mechanisms,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 25, No.6, 954–62.

Meltzoff, A. N., and M. K. Moore. 1999. “Persons and Representation: Why Infant Imitation Is Important for Theories of Human Development, “ in Imitation in Infancy: Cambridge Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development. Edited by J. Nadel and G. Butterworth. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Meisels, S. J., and others. 2003. The Ounce Scale: Standards for the Developmental Profiles (Birth–42 Months). New York: Pearson Early Learning.

Mix, K.; J. Huttenlocher; and S. Levine. 2002. Quantitative Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moser, R. F. 1995. “Caregivers’ Corner. Fantasy Play in the Sandbox,” Young Children, Vol. 51, No. 1, 83–84.

Return to Top

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Edited by J. Shonkoff and D. Phillips. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

O’Brien, M. 1997. Meeting Individual and Special Needs: Inclusive Child Care for Infants and Toddlers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Parks, S. 2004. Inside HELP: Hawaii Early Learning Profile: Administration and Reference Manual. Palo Alto, CA: VORT Corporation.

Perry, J. P. May, 2003. “Making Sense of Outdoor Pretend Play,” Young Children, Vol. 58, No.3, 26–30.

Rogoff, B. 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B., and P. Chavajay. 1995. “What’s Become of Research on the Cultural Basis of Cognitive Development?” American Psychologist, Vol. 50, No. 10, 859–77.

Rogoff, B., and others. 2003. “Firsthand Learning Through Intent Participation,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 54, 175–203.

Ruff, H., and M. Rothbart. 1996. Attention in Early Development: Themes and Variations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Segal, M. 2004. “The Roots and Fruits of Pretending,” in Children’s Play: The Roots of Reading. Edited by E. F. Zigler, D. G. Singer, and S. J. Bishop-Josef. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.

Siegel, D.J. 1999. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford Press.

Starkey, P., and R. G. Cooper. 1980. “Perception of Numbers by Human Infants,” Science, Vol.210, No. 4473, 1033–35.

Starkey, P.; E. S. Spelke; and R. Gelman. 1990. “Numerical Abstraction by Human Infants,” Cognition, Vol. 36, No. 2, 97–128.

Sternberg, R. J., and E. L. Grigorenko. 2004. “Why We Need to Explore Development in Its Cultural Context,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3, 369–86.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Whitehurst, G., and C. Lonigan. 1998. “Child Development and Emergent Literacy,” Child Development, Vol. 69, No. 3, 848–72.

Wynn, K. 1998. “Numerical Competence in Infants,” in The Development of Mathematical Skills. Edited by C. Donlad. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

Youngblade, L. M., and J. Dunn. 1995. “Individual Differences in Young Children’s Pretend Play with Mother and Sibling: Links to Relationships and Understanding of Other People’s Feelings and Beliefs,” Child Development, Vol. 66, 1472–92.

Return to Top

Return to Contents

Questions:   Early Learning and Care Division | | 916-322-6233
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, January 10, 2024
Recently Posted in Early Education
  • Early Identification Legislative Report (added 24-Apr-2024)
    Report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the Legislature, and the Department of Finance on the Proposed Tools and Process for the Early Identification of Developmental Delays and Learning Disabilities
  • UPK Mixed Delivery Workgroup Agenda January 2024 (added 11-Apr-2024)
    Agenda for the January 11, 2024, meeting of the Universal PreKindergarten Mixed Delivery Quality and Access Workgroup.
  • UPK Mixed Delivery Workgroup Agenda February 2024 (added 11-Apr-2024)
    Agenda for the February 2, 2024, meeting of the Universal PreKindergarten Mixed Delivery Quality and Access Workgroup.
  • UPK Mixed Delivery Workgroup Agenda April 2024 (added 11-Apr-2024)
    Agenda for the April 22, 2024, meeting of the Universal PreKindergarten Mixed Delivery Quality and Access Workgroup.
  • Child Care Annual Aggregate Report SFY 2019-20 (added 26-Mar-2024)
    This page displays a comprehensive breakdown of children served by various subsidized child care and development programs during SFY 2019-20, including program types, counts, and key definitions, highlighting the total impact on community support.

  • CAPSDAC Support (added 26-Mar-2024)
    Technical support for the California Preschool Data Collection (CAPSDAC).
  • Program Self-Evaluation FAQs (added 22-Mar-2024)
    California State Preschool Program (CSPP) Program Self-Evaluation Frequently Asked Questions for Fiscal Year 2023-24.