Childhood Studies Conceptual Development in Early Childhood
Maria Birbili
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0254


The study of conceptual development in early childhood seeks to understand how infants and young children learn to filter, organize, and store disparate pieces of information, experiences, and observations about people, objects, and actions into efficient categories and coherent conceptual systems. A central part of human cognition, conceptual development is an open-ended, complex, and dynamic process that continues across the life span. Although a field of study that typically is the focus of developmental and cognitive psychologists, what we know today about young children’s conceptual development comes from scholars from a range of disciplines and research that has used a multiplicity of methodological approaches and tools. This is evident in the many edited collections that exist on the topic, which also serve as a testament to the recognition that understanding how young minds work needs a continuing dialogue between different but strongly interrelated areas of young children’s cognitive development (e.g., language development and conceptual development). Conceptual development in early childhood is also an area of study rich with competing theories and ongoing debates, a fact that also has positive implications: controversies have led to more comprehensive views and theories of conceptual development in early childhood. One finding that seems to cut across more than fifty years of research on the topic shows the dramatic shifts in conceptual development in the first three years of life and the sophistication of infants’ and very young children’s conceptual abilities. Motivated to explore the world around them, children show, from a very early age, rich conceptual understandings in a variety of domains. This finding has important implications not only for the study of human cognition—understanding infants’ conceptual development provides important insights into the human mind in general—but also for the fields of education and instruction, which are interested in conceptual change and concept-based teaching. This review is organized by headings that correspond to core issues and key research areas in the field. The selected resources constitute only a sample of what has been published and is being published every year on early conceptual development. They include seminal works that have framed important debates in the field, influential publications that provide insights into how the field has developed, resources that seek to demonstrate the importance of adopting a multidisciplinary approach to understanding conceptual development, and recent texts that show the questions that researchers keep asking.

General Overviews

As expected, handbooks and encyclopedias on child development, child psychology, and cognitive development include chapters on concepts, category formation, or conceptual development in early childhood. These range from brief entries whose primary purpose is to define and describe terms to lengthy overviews of early conceptual development like those provided by Gelman 2006, Gelman and Kalish 2006, Sloutsky 2015, and Sloutsky 2018, which review both the theoretical and empirical literature on the topic and provide excellent introductions for use by advanced undergraduate and graduate students. For readers interested in seeing early conceptual development in the wider context of cognitive development, Sabbagh 2020 offers a well-written, up-to-date overview of research and theories on conceptual origins and learning, and Rakison 2010 provides an extensive review of key issues related to conceptual development in infancy. Sloutsky and Deng 2019 also provides a helpful overview of early conceptual development that is intended for advanced graduate students and new researchers.

  • Gelman, Susan A. “Early Conceptual Development.” In Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development. Edited by Kathleen McCartney and Deborah Phillips, 149–166. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470757703.ch8

    Provides a good background on the topic for both students and practitioners who want to initiate themselves in the study of early conceptual development. The author makes a case for the importance of concepts and discusses early competence, the role of experience, and the role of language in early conceptual development. She concludes with three themes that emerge from her overview on the role, the nature, and the variability of children’s concepts.

  • Gelman, Susan A., and Chuck Kalish. “Conceptual Development.” In Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 2, Cognition, Perception, and Language. 6th ed. Edited by Deanna Kuhn and Robert Siegler, 687–733. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

    A comprehensive overview of the research on and theories of early conceptual development. It examines the issue of conceptual diversity, the mechanisms of conceptual acquisition and change, the structure of concepts, and their link with theories and conceptual variation.

  • Rakison, D. H. “Perceptual Categorization and Concepts.” In Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development. 2d ed. Edited by Gavin J. Bremner and Theodore D. Wachs, 243–270. Hove, UK: Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444327564.ch7

    Defines “concepts” and “categories,” presents two contrasting perspectives on concept development in infancy, discusses methods for studying concept development in the first and second years of life, and summarizes key findings from research on early category and concept development. This is a useful resource for both undergraduate students and practitioners.

  • Sabbagh, Mark A. “Cognitive Development: Neurobiological Foundations and Contemporary Directions.” In Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood. 2d ed. Edited by Janette B. Benson, 317–326. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2020.

    This entry includes an up-to-date discussion of the origins and the mechanisms of conceptual development in infancy. Advances in children’s conceptual learning are seen from a neurobiological perspective. The author makes a convincing case for the influence of biology on cognitive development.

  • Sloutsky, Vladimir M. “Conceptual Development.” In Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science. 7th ed. Edited by Richard M. Lerner, Lynn S. Liben, and Ulrich Mueller, 469–518. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015.

    This comprehensive review begins with a useful historical overview of the study of concepts and their development. It then discusses key issues of conceptual development in infancy and after infancy and presents the most general principles of conceptual development. The chapter concludes with the suggestion that there are four issues that future research on conceptual behaviors and development should address: structure and mechanism, development, and biological foundations.

  • Sloutsky, Vladimir M. “Category Learning and Conceptual Development.” In Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. 4th ed. Edited by John T. Wixted and Simona Ghetti, 37–82. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

    Up-to-date overview of research on conceptual development from infancy onward guided by five principles. Written for an advanced academic audience, it includes a review of theoretical approaches to concept development such as the classical approach of Piaget and Vygotsky, the probabilistic view, and the knowledge-based approach. The author concludes by arguing that our understanding of conceptual development is still not complete.

  • Sloutsky, Vladimir M., and Wei (Sophia) Deng. “Categories, Concepts, and Conceptual Development.” Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 34.10 (2019): 1284–1297.

    DOI: 10.1080/23273798.2017.1391398

    In this overview of conceptual development, the authors define “concepts” and discuss two ways of acquiring them, explain the importance of category learning and the role of language for early conceptual development, and consider how the development of conceptual networks and hierarchies facilitates and supports children’s understanding of the world. This review article is a contribution to a special issue on “Abstraction and Concepts.”

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