Learning and Teaching

In this observational experiment, I observed a three-year old child left alone in a room. He was playing with a toy ball, and at some point it rolled under the sofa.


The child tried to retrieve it with his hands but could not reach it. He tried pushing the sofa, and failing to move it, sat down and started looking around. He picked up a spoon, thrown by him to the floor after the meal, and tried to use it to reach and roll the ball towards him, but still could not manage to do it., He unsuccessfully tried to squeeze his head under the sofa for several times. At this point, his mother walked into the room, and the child uttered two worlds while pointing under the sofa: “mama, ball.” The mother seemed to ignore him, and he became more frantic in his efforts to get her attention repeating the words “mama, ball” all the time. When she continued to ignore him as she cleared the breakfast table, he started crying while pulling her towards the sofa. She retrieved the ball and put it on the cupboard and told him it was time for his bath. He became almost hysterical as he cried for the ball, and calmed down only after she gave him an orange. He sat on the floor and happily started to peel it, forgetting all about the ball.

Analysis of the Observations

These observations indicate that much of human cognitive development occurs during childhood years. At three years old, a child’s mind is like a clean slate ready to absorb new knowledge. Childhood experiences are critical in shaping the children’s minds in terms of how they understand people around them, objects, and the world at large (Papalia & Feldman, 2011). The child’s limited use of language shows that effective cognitive learning cannot take place in isolation. Children develop their language skills best when playing with others because they make utterances as they try to communicate. Throughout the time I observed the child, he pronounced just two intelligible words while much of time was spent in silence.  In this regard, the schooling system becomes part of the social environment in which children develop cognitive skills. In addition, shared experiences, social interaction and group acceptance during children’s play time are the foundational basis for social learning and intellectual development.

The importance of language in cognitive learning is expounded by Lev Vygotsky’s theory of child development, which implies a socio-cultural approach to development (Donaldson, 2009). Vygotsky focused on the role of language and culture in nurturing a child’s cognitive development. Language provides the material and medium through which children learn. Thus, the use of language is central in communicating ideas to children under the age of ten, and educators should create a learning environment; such as play time and storytelling sessions, that encourages children to use language. It is through language that children engage in interactive discourses, and therefore isolation denies children the opportunity to practice language usage (Papalia & Feldman, 2011).  Similarly, the socio-cultural perspective posits that society and culture work together to promote cognitive development of a child. Children from different cultural backgrounds have conflicting viewpoints. The role of society and educators is to promote tolerance of others regardless their backgrounds.

The child’s failed attempts to retrieve the ball reflect the necessity of organizing learning activities basing on the so-called “Zone of Proximal Development” that a child can perform with assistance from a peer or adult, “but cannot perform independently” (Papalia & Feldman, 2011). In addition, the child’s obsession with the ball suggest that children learn best when they engage in activities they are interested in. Thus, effective cognitive development takes place when children are allowed to engage in experiences that satisfy their needs such as playing during their formative years.  

On his part, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development posits that children learn systematically in relation to their mental stages. They progress through different stages of cognitive development as they learn to conceptualize and assimilate various concepts depending on their mental capacities. However, substantial learning takes place during the second stage of cognitive learning, the preoperational stage, which begins at two years an ends at seven years. The child that I observed was able to use language, but could not present the information logically. This is exemplified by child’s inability to articulate clearly that he wanted his mother to retrieve the ball for him, and as a result, had to include gestures to communicate. The child also thinks that everybody sees things from only one point of view, his own. In this case, the child believes that he should not be stopped from playing, and therefore started to cry when his mother refused to give him the ball. Nevertheless, what comes out most clearly from this observation and is reflected in Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory is the stage of geocentricism in a child’s cognitive development. At this stage, children tend to think that they are “the center of the universe and that it rotates around them” (Atherton, 2009). Consequently, the child believes that his mother should leave whatever she is doing to retrieve his ball.