The First Five Years of Cognitive Development

The First Five Years of Cognitive Development

The first five years of child development are some of the most important in a child’s life. Although every child will progress on their own unique timeline, there are time periods where certain developmental milestones should be reached. The developments that occur during the first five years effectively set the tone for a child’s overall health and wellbeing – physically, mentally, and socially.

As parents, you want to do everything in your power to ensure that your child grows up in an environment that fosters healthy development through the years. Let’s take a look at some of the important milestones for cognitive development and learning in the first five years. This will help you understand what to expect and adjust your child’s environment accordingly.

Cognitive Development and Learning in the First Five Years

The Rauch Foundation, an organization that invests in the early success of children, found that 85% of our brains are developed by the time we reach five years old. This is precisely why the first five years of life are so critical!

Here are significant developmental milestones to look for between birth and age five:

Birth to three months. In the first few months of life, your child will start to focus on moving objects, following them through eye and head movement. They can also differentiate tastes, notice different pitches and volumes, detect colors, and make facial expressions. 

Three to six months. After three months of age, babies will start to perceive their world with a higher level of intelligence. They can recognize people, respond to facial expressions, react to sounds, and mirror facial expressions and sounds.

Six to nine months. Babies between six and nine months old can recognize the difference between animate and inanimate objects. They can also tell the difference between two dissimilar images (numbers and animals, for example). Depth perception is practiced during this stage; babies notice the relative size of something to determine how far it is.

Nine to twelve months. During this period, babies start to learn object permanence – the fact that things still exist even though they aren’t in sight. Some babies may develop separation anxiety during this stage and get distressed when their caregiver is not in sight. Babies will also start to make basic gestures and actions, manipulate objects, and enjoy looking at picture books and turning pages.

One to two years. After a child turns one, they begin to understand and respond to people who are speaking. They can play “matching games and pick out images/objects that are the same or different. Children between one and two understand the difference between themselves “me” and others “you.” They can also recognize familiar things in their surroundings and books. Generally, they learn the most through imitation and exploration. Their curiosity is at an all-time high!

Two to three years. Once a toddler reaches two years old, they start to become independent. They’re mobile and able to explore their little universe. Most of their learning is a result of their personal experiences. The milestones in this period will be different for every child, but generally, you can expect:

  • Sorting objects by category (animals, shapes, numbers, flowers, trees, etc.)
  • Stacking toys by size
  • Responding to simple directions from caregivers
  • Naming familiar objects in a picture book
  • Matching objects
  • Copying more complex adult actions
  • Playing “pretend” (“house,” talking on the phone, pretending to be a waiter or a doctor, etc.)
  • Identifying their reflection in a mirror
  • Saying their name


Three to four years. Children are able to understand more complex concepts during this stage. They become very aware of the world around them and analyze their surroundings – cognitive schemas begin to develop. Toddlers will ask “why?” often because they begin to wonder how things work. Their curiosity leads to a desire to understand. 

Four to five years. Four- to five-year-old children start to really develop their personalities. They understand more than they ever have and are learning more every moment. They execute sentences well, copy adult actions, learn to count, and exhibit other actions that show they understand language and are prepared to be in a formal learning environment. Most four- to five-year-old children can rhyme, list colors, draw rough sketches of real objects, and explain their surroundings in detail.

How Improper Environment Can Impact Healthy Development in Children

We’ve explored the general timeline that a child’s development should follow if they grow up in a healthy environment. But what happens if a child grows up in an environment that does not foster healthy development? 

Environments that fail to meet the emotional, physical, and mental needs of children will likely produce children with developmental issues that can persist through their lives and cause an array of problems. Studies show that when young children are neglected, they often have deeply seeded traumas that impact every aspect of their future. The case of Genie, a child who grew up completely neglected, is an extreme example of what can happen when parents do not provide what a child needs for healthy development. 

In less severe cases, a child who does not grow up in a healthy environment may develop behavioral issues, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, mental health issues, or addictions. Children can develop issues that persist throughout their life if their caregiver does not provide the tools that are necessary to hit developmental milestones at the appropriate age – even if the household is not abusive.

If caregivers continue to neglect their child’s developmental needs as they grow into their teenage years, their child may feel as though they don’t have a healthy home life or support system. As a result, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms or seek the approval of adults who aren’t looking out for their best interests.

Meaningful Beginnings

The health and safety of your child are always the top priority at Meaningful Beginnings. Our caregivers are trained to create an environment that supports the healthy development of your young child in all areas of life. Get in touch today to learn more and schedule a tour.

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Emily Pham

Infant Teacher

My name is Emily and I am an infant teacher. My aim with this position is to learn how children develop as unique individuals and learn how to support their holistic growth. I am currently a student at San Francisco
State University majoring in Child and Adolescent Development. With this experience, I am hoping to get a sense on whether I want to continue to work in the classroom or if I want to learn the administrative side of education. The experience of working directly with children is gratifying and I wish to create a safe space for children to explore with all of their senses as they develop their own personalities. I hope to be able to help build a strong foundation so that the children can have the confidence and ability to express themselves.