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Cognitive development in children has been a subject of study for many years. Many developmental theories have been advanced to explain how a child develops from infancy to adulthood in areas such as language development, spatial cognition, and imprinting. For a long time, there has been a widespread consensus that nature and nurture determines a child’s individuality and achievement in life. Nevertheless, Wadsworth & Barry (2003) observe that contemporary scientists have suggested that the world has been dependent on this nature nurture debate for a long time as a result of intellectual laziness and inability to move out of convenience to reconsider the long held knowledge about developmental theories on children. Thus the suggestions to consider other theories like evolution have been advanced by contemporary researchers.

This paper starts by looking at different cognitive developmental theories as advanced by various researchers including early and contemporary ones. The paper further provide and argument for the applicability of each theory and looks at the strengths and weaknesses in each theory. Further the paper exhaustively explores the theory of nature and nurture in cognitive development of children as well as providing insights into the topic of nature and nurture as a developmental concept. This will include criticisms advanced for and against this theory. Finally, the paper will present suggests directions to the future research and how to improve on the current theories of developments.

Cognitive Development: Developmental Systems Theories

According to Bornstein (2009), the first cognitive theory was developed by Jean Piaget in the start of 20th century which observed and described development of children at different ages i.e. from birth through adolescence and included the study of concepts such as scientific reasoning, language, memory and moral development of a child. This theory makes various assumptions about children including the following; that children are able to built their own knowledge, that children have the ability to learn on their own with the invention of other people, and finally, that children are inherently wired to learn without asking for a reward for their action of learning.

Similarly, Bornstein (2009) suggests that nature and nurture act together to produce cognitive development. In this regard, nature involves the maturation of brain and body and includes the ability of a child to perceive objects, learn new concepts, act on a stimulus, and finally that to be motivated to participate in all these actions. On the other hand nurture encompasses the adaptability of children to respond to demands emanating from their surrounding in a manner that allow them to meet certain objectives. It also involves the organization ability to assist children to relate particular observations to an object of clear and comprehensible knowledge.

Similarly, Okagagi & Sternberg (2009) noted that Piaget advanced the concepts of continuous and discontinuous developmental theory in children. Piaget had noted that in continuous aspect of the theory children assimilate and translate the information that is coming from the environment into a form that they can understand. In discontinuous aspect, children are able to accommodate information by adapting to new structures of knowledge in order to respond to new challenges and experiences. Moreover, Piaget observed that some children are able to balance between continuous and discontinuous by assimilating and accommodating information from the environment so as to create a stable understanding of their environment.

Piaget identifies also distinctive stages of cognitive development with properties such as change in quality in different ages and different means of thinking by children, broad application where nature of thinking at every stage matches with the topic and areas of content. Other stages include a brief transition to greater stages of thinking which may not be explicit.

Again Piaget advanced the theory of nature and nurture as playing a crucial role in the cognitive development of a child. However, his argument seems to dwell more on the nature side than the nurture. Notably, he explains the vulnerability of children during their growth process because of their lack of thought and reasoning. However, they have inborn ability to sense and interact with everything in their environment through search and response to each stimulus they are exposed to.

Contemporary related the influence of nature and nurture in the cognitive development of a child suggests that these two factors actually play a role in cognitive development of a child. According to Salmon (2010), these two factors work together within the right environment to help children to start reaching for their inbuilt potentials at an earlier date than previously anticipated. Salmon notes that studies have shown that a child’s growth environment can contribute to his/her cognitive development without the influence of genetics but not the reverse. In her illustration, she used the findings of an experiment that had been carried out on twins who were given a version of Bayley Scales of Infant Development for a period of 10 months.

The tests have widely been used to determine the early cognitive abilities in children. It requires the children to carry out such tasks as pulling of a string in order to have the bell ring or that of matching pictures. This experiment continued for a period of 10 months after which there was no much variation in performance of the children drawn from different socioeconomic backgrounds performed. However, at the age of 2 years, children from families with high socioeconomic background scored notably higher than those from low socioeconomic family backgrounds. Salmon (2010) thus concluded that although there was no similarity between the similarities in the genetics and that in the cognitive ability; environmental factors determined the cognitive development of the participants.

Another cognitive development theory is advanced by the University of Iowa scientists who propose imprint and spatial cognition. Bronson (2008) argue that imprint is a form of learning where animals have the inherent ability to develop preferences through short-lived exposure to objects and experiences they have during their early stages of life. According to him, this quick learning is attributed to genetic predisposition of the organism. He pointed to an example of ducklings being able to follow their mother’s call soon after they hatch. Critiques of this theory point out that embryonic ducks still in the egg are exposed to sounds emanating from embryonic siblings together with the sounds they make hence deprivation of these embryonic experiences will mean that ducklings will not show a response to their mother’s call upon hatching. Therefore, this theory of imprint fails to prove the existence of innate in organisms and thus fails to capture the elegance and complexity of the cognitive development process in organisms. However, other research has raised issue with studies that propose that children and animals in infancy possess inherent sense of direction as they navigate the environment around them and thus exhibit a natural dependence on geometric cues.

Developmental theories have included areas like psychology which interested early scientists like Piaget. According to him, developmental psychology meant the ability to more precisely represent the world through performing of logical operations on representations of concepts. Such theories concern with the mergence and acquisition of means on how one sees the world through developmental stages and times when children acquire new ways of representing information mentally. Bjorklund (2011) argues that this theory describe cognitive development as a slow acquisition of knowledge through experiences. It further proposes that children construct their cognitive abilities through individual actions in the environment.

Some researchers have suggested that a child's cognitive development is determined by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors.  According to Wadsworth & Barry (2003), although a child's genetic legacy is unchangeable, through nurture and nature parents can enhance their children's cognitive development by providing the necessary environmental factors. These may range from such learning materials friendly to a child stimulating and certain relevant experiences right from their infancy stage. The parents can also nurture their children as well as help the children to investigate their environment. As children develop, parents participate in this development by challenging and supporting their skills and talents. even though an encouraging environment in early stages of child’s development provides a comprehensive advantage to children, children and parent can be able to recover whatever they had lost during their early stages of development if an favorable environment is provided during the later stage in development. This is contrary to early disturbances in physical development of the child which can often not be reversed (Wadsworth &Barry, 2003).

How Nature and Nurture Influences Cognitive Development

According to Bjorklund (2011), there is evidence that linguistic and cognitive development in a normal human being is influenced by both nature and nurture. Accordingly nature’s panorama, it is the biological foundations of language and cognition which helps in supporting development of language and thought patterns. It holds that human beings are inherently born with abilities to produce and store information in the brain. Chomsky is credited with introducing the concept of language acquisition device (LAD) in 1969. Bjorklund (2011) notes that Chomsky used this concept to further his argument that humans are naturally born with a facility that supports language acquisition.

On the other hand, nurture’s point of view, asserts that it is the social foundational settings of language and cognition that influences our thought patterns to develop into maturity.  Bjorklund (2011) noted that it is the environmental orientation that helps children to develop a system of words and learn rules of language from their neighbors. In order to acknowledge the significance of the environment, scientists have developed the language acquisition support system (LASS) to justify that the development of language and cognition requires a rich environment.
Similarly, Bjorklund (2011) observes that a normal human being becomes linguistically and cognitively firm through nature’s support. He notes that cognitive and linguistic development would not be achieved if the genetic foundation of language and cognitive tools such as the brain and the speech apparatus were not supportive. Arguably, the formation of the genetic foundations of the human language and cognition are based on a system of physiology, coordination and that of pulmonary. Additionally, the brain plays a critical role in the part of coordination as it is involved in the facilitation of language and cognitive developmental abilities and almost controls everything done by a human being.

An illustration of nature and nurture is when a child is born. The fact that children can cry and sack immediately they are born shows that children are born with some cognitive instinctive abilities and a facility for learning any human communication tools. The ability of a newborn baby to know that he/she is expected to sack in and not out renders the ideas of some scientists like John Locke’s “tabula rasa” null and void. John Locke had suggested that the minds of newborn babies are empty slates to be differentiated and altered only through sensory experience. This may not be true because it is very hard to relate sensory experiences to sacking and crying (Bronson, 2008). Reportedly, these acts are solely cognitive and children are born with cognitive abilities and a capacity for communication. Deductively, sacking and crying may not be pointed to the environment which means nurture but they are naturally inborn (Bronson, 2008).

The Impact of Nurture on Development

It is commonly accepted that a child’s development if influenced by the environmental factors that that child is raised in.  According to Bjorklund (2011), the question to be asked is the extent to which environment influence the behavior and capabilities of a person. Certain foundational factors like nutrition have been found to have a vital influence on the abilities of a child in the early developmental stages. Studies have demonstrated that some characters like being fearful, caused by certain occurrences experienced by children, can be internalized and become habitual. Similarly, Bjorklund (2011) also notes that certain behaviors may never develop at all if they are not acquired in the environment. Evidently, environmental factors participate significantly in the development of children.

Putting into considering the influence of environment on a person’s ability, nourishment plays an essential role.  For example, during a study, a set of children were exposed to vitamin and mineral supplements for a period of 8 months. Intelligence tests were administered prior to and after the treatment. The result indicated that those children who were given food supplement performed well in the overall rating compared to those who did not receive the supplements. This indicated that environmental factors played a role in the logical ability of those children.  It was also noted that children who received supplement had better physical abilities than their counterpart (Salmon, 2010).

 Another illustration of environmental influence in the cognitive developmental behavior of children is presented in a study called Nature vs. Nurture that was conducted in 2001 on an 11 months infant. In the study, the child was exposed to a horrible noise whenever he tried to touch a white rat that was locked in a cage by his side. Later on when the child was given anything white and furry he would display fear (Flanagan, 2002). This is a clear illustration that nurture had taught the child to fear things that were furry and whitish. Whereas it is evident that nurture is not the only factor that should be considered when discussing behavior, it is evident that it is an important factor that determines how children will behave from infancy into adulthood. This means that by trying to ignore the environment in which parents bring up their children, they cause these children to miss a greater part that shapes and guides their actions in life.

Critique of Nature and Nurture as Cognitive Development Theory

According to the construct of this theory, it is expected that children who receive better nurture, especially from wealth families to outdo their counter parts from poor families. However, Wadsworth & Barry, (2008) note that research has not proved that children from wealthier families are either genetically or naturally superior to those from poor families.  What it simply means is that they are presented with all the opportunities they could need to achieve in life. Evidently, the theory has thus failed to scientifically prove some of its foundational concepts.

In research published in Child Development Perspectives, the University of Iowa scientists decided to do away with nature-nurture debate arguing that the theory has prevailed for centuries solely due to convenience and intellectual laziness. The team support evolutionary theory of development but again rejects the idea that genes are a single path to specific characters and behaviors. Alternatively they argue that cognitive development involves a multifaceted system in which genetic factors coupled with environmental factors continuously interact to influence the process of cognitive development.

Suggestions for Future Research in the Field of Cognitive Development

The study of cognitive development is a fascinating field that can probably not be exhausted. In light of current development in scientific research techniques tools with greater capacity to test and analysis data, it is evident that much is to be done in the field of cognitive development. Clearly, the focus has been on the ability of a child in infancy to develop in response to the environment. There has been a tendency to neglect other important aspect of development like the ability to use technology at infancy or in a tender age than would be anticipated in a society.

Therefore, the contemporary researchers must be encouraged to venture into such new areas of cognitive development. Such areas that require additional research include; the ability of a child to use technical tools without formal learning process on how to use these equipments. Still more research are supposed to focus on social cognition and the functioning ability of the brain since many people are now able to adopt to new social settings without the need to learn about those settings.

Furthermore, it is suggested that studies should be directed towards establishing the effects of abnormal cognitive development in children. This can help to generate more understanding of illnesses like autism. Currently studies are ongoing on how to expand research field examining how conditions such autism and William’s syndrome may prejudice cognitive development processes involved in social interaction. Another aspect that is continuing to draw much of the researchers’ attention is how such prejudices may lead to the symptoms associated with the condition.

Moreover, future studies should be directed at establishing whether some psychological processes which encourage social behavior like face recognition are innate or learnt. This should emanate from studies that indicate that newborn babies reportedly younger than 1 hour old can selectively distinguish and act in response to faces. Another aspect is why people with some developmental disorders like autism or Williams’s syndrome may show variations in social communication as compared to their unaffected peers.

On the other hand, the current research should also be tested and used in the analysis of the developmental growth in children with mental illness. In this way, the causes of these conditions will be established and thus helping to alleviate human suffering especially in people who are prone to these developmental redundancy. Proposals based on these theories scan be used together with advances in medicine to tackle this problem.

Finally, the researchers in the area of cognitive development should not work in isolation but should instead work with those in medicine to ensure implementation of the findings of the results. This would especially be so in such areas as causes of disabilities like autism and William’s syndrome


From the above discussion it is clear that cognitive development is a broad discipline that is yet be fully studied. However, while there are great efforts directed towards the works that are already done by early scientist, other new areas have been neglected making it difficult for the growth of knowledge in this subject matter. The impact of nature and nurture to development, as was proposed by early scientist like Jean Piaget, of children requires new insights especially in the wake of fierce criticism as propagated by young scientist. The study of cognitive still has more unexploited areas emerging with new challenges such as increasing cases of mental illnesses like autism and William’s syndrome. Therefore, much needs to be done in order to understand how environment and genes may have contributed to the rise cognitive development.

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