Information Processing Theory in Child Cognitive Development

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What is Information Processing Theory (IPT)?

Information Processing Theory (IPT) suggests that children process information similar to computers, with sensory input, storage, retrieval, and output. It focuses on how children acquire, process, store, and retrieve information to understand their cognitive development.


When a child reads a book, IPT helps them process information by recognizing letters, understanding words, and forming mental images to comprehend the story. Similarly, when solving math problems, children use IPT to analyze the problem, recall relevant facts, and apply strategies to find the solution.

Information Processing Theory (IPT) helps us understand how children learn, think, and solve problems. Like computers, children take in information through their senses, process it in their minds, and use it to make decisions and solve problems. IPT helps us understand the steps children go through as they learn and develop new skills.

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Some key contributors to IPT and their effect on child psychology include:

  • Jean Piaget: Piaget's work laid the groundwork for IPT by emphasizing how children's thinking changes as they grow older. His stages of cognitive development, such as the sensorimotor and preoperational stages, help us understand how children process information at different ages.
  • Lev Vygotsky: Vygotsky's sociocultural theory highlighted the importance of social interactions and cultural influences on children's cognitive development. His ideas about the zone of proximal development and scaffolding help us understand how children learn from others and build on their existing knowledge.
  • Jerome Bruner: Bruner's work on cognitive psychology emphasized the role of language and culture in children's cognitive development. His ideas about scaffolding and the importance of storytelling and narrative in learning have had a significant impact on child psychology and education.

Understanding the contributions of these key figures helps us appreciate the complexity of child cognitive development and how IPT contributes to our understanding of how children learn and grow.

Core Concepts of Information Processing Theory

The core concepts of IPT include:

  • Scripts: Scripts are like mental blueprints that help children understand and predict events or routines. For example, a bedtime script may involve brushing teeth, reading a story, and going to sleep in the same order each night.
  • Metacognition: Metacognition is thinking about thinking, or knowing what you know. An example is when a child realizes they don't understand a math problem and decides to ask the teacher for help.
  • Chunking: Chunking is breaking information into smaller, manageable parts. For instance, a child might chunk a phone number into area code, prefix, and last four digits to remember it more easily.
  • Memory Models: Memory models are like filing systems in the brain where information is stored and retrieved. An example is when a child recalls the steps to tie their shoes by retrieving the information stored in their memory.

The computer metaphor compares children's cognitive processes to how computers work. Like a computer, children receive information through their senses (input), process it in their minds (processing), store it in memory (storage), and retrieve it when needed (output). This metaphor helps us understand how children learn, remember, and solve problems by processing information in their minds, similar to how a computer works with data.

By ages 2 to 5 years, most children have developed the skills to focus attention for extended periods, recognize previously encountered information, recall old information, and reconstruct it in the present. For example, a 4-year-old can remember what she did at Christmas and tell her friend about it when she returns to preschool after the holiday. Between the ages of 2 and 5, long-term memory also begins to form, which is why most people cannot remember anything in their childhood prior to age 2 or 3.


Part of long-term memory involves storing information about the sequence of events during familiar situations as "scripts.” Scripts help children understand, interpret, and predict what will happen in future scenarios. For example, children understand that a visit to the grocery store involves a specific sequence of steps: Dad walks into the store, gets a grocery cart, selects items from the shelves, waits in the check-out line, pays for the groceries, and then loads them into the car. Children ages 2 through 5 also start to recognize that there are often multiple ways to solve a problem and can brainstorm different (though sometimes primitive) solutions.

Between the ages of 5 and 7, children learn how to focus and use their cognitive abilities for specific purposes. For example, children can learn to pay attention to and memorize lists of words or facts. This skill is obviously crucial for children starting school who need to learn new information, retain it, and produce it for tests and other academic activities. Children this age have also developed a larger overall capacity to process information. This expanding information processing capacity allows young children to make connections between old and new information. For example, children can use their knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds (phonics) to start sounding out and reading words. During this age, children's knowledge base also continues to grow and become better organized.


Metacognition, "the ability to think about thinking,” is another important cognitive skill that develops during early childhood. Between ages 2 and 5 years, young children realize that they use their brains to think. However, their understanding of how a brain works is rather simplistic; a brain is simply a container (much like a toy box) where thoughts and memories are stored. 

By ages 5 to 7 years, children realize they can actively control their brains, influencing their ability to process and accomplish mental tasks. As a result, school-age children start to develop and choose specific strategies for approaching a given learning task, monitor their comprehension of information, and evaluate their progress toward completing a learning task. For example, first graders learn to use a number line (or counting on their fingers) when they realize that they forgot the answer to an addition or subtraction problem. 

Similarly, children who are learning to read can start to identify words (i.e., "sight words") that cannot be sounded out using phonics (e.g., connecting sounds with letters), and must be memorized.

Cognitive Development Milestones

Age Cognitive Milestones Examples
2 years - Beginning of symbolic play - Pretending a block is a phone
  - Recognizing familiar objects and people - Identifying a favorite toy
  - Following simple instructions - Putting toys away when asked
  - Limited understanding of cause and effect - Understanding that pushing a button makes a noise
  - Limited attention span - Paying attention to short stories or songs
  - Simple problem-solving - Figuring out how to open a container

  Limited ability to share or take turns Taking turns with a toy during playtime
3 years - Vocabulary expansion - Using simple sentences to communicate
  - Imaginative play - Pretending to be a superhero or princess
  - Understanding basic concepts of time - Knowing morning comes before night
  - Beginning of empathy - Comforting a friend who is upset
  - Increased attention span - Listening to longer stories or songs

  Simple problem-solving Figuring out how to put puzzle pieces together
4 years - Increased language skills - Using more complex sentences and vocabulary
  - More complex imaginative play - Creating elaborate stories during play
  - Understanding cause and effect - Knowing that mixing colors makes new colors
  - Improved memory and recall - Remembering events from earlier in the day
  - Beginning of metacognition - Recognizing when they don't understand something

  Increased attention and focus Staying engaged in an activity for longer
5 years - Advanced language skills - Using correct grammar and sentence structure
  - Complex imaginative play - Creating intricate storylines with toys
  - Understanding of spatial relationships - Building more complex structures with blocks
  - Improved problem-solving - Figuring out how to navigate a new playground
  - Increased memory capacity - Remembering multiple steps in a task

  Enhanced metacognitive awareness Knowing when to ask for help or clarification
6 years - Continued language development - Reading simple books independently
  - Elaborate imaginative play - Creating detailed scenarios in pretend play
  - Understanding of past, present, and future - Telling stories about past events
  - Improved problem-solving abilities - Finding multiple solutions to a problem
  - Enhanced memory and recall - Recalling details from a story or event

  Growing metacognitive abilities Recognizing when they need to review their work
7 years - Advanced language and reading skills - Reading and comprehending chapter books
  - Elaborate and complex imaginative play - Engaging in elaborate role-playing scenarios
  - Understanding of abstract concepts - Grasping the concept of multiplication
  - Advanced problem-solving abilities - Solving complex puzzles or riddles
  - Further development of metacognitive skills - Reflecting on their own learning and strategies

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