Cognitive Development in Children: Conservation, Decentration & Centration

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  • 0:01 Cognitive Development
  • 1:25 Centration
  • 2:50 Decentration
  • 4:03 Conservation
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As children grow, so do their thinking skills, knowledge, and learning. Watch this lesson to learn about how young children develop cognitively, including the key cognitive concepts of centration, decentration, and conservation.

Cognitive Development

Emma is a happy and healthy little girl. She recently turned four, and she has grown and changed a lot since she was born. Like other babies, at first Emma was pretty helpless. She didn't really think or learn much; she just kind of laid around. She couldn't talk or walk or feed herself.

Now, though, Emma has grown into an active four-year-old. She can talk and walk and feed herself. She's potty trained. And she's able to size up a situation and think about it. For example, she knows if her mom is in a bad mood, she'd better not do something to make the situation worse.

Emma is developing, a process that everyone goes through in their lives. And like other kids her age, Emma is developing in many ways. She's growing physically, which allows her to walk and run, where before she could only crawl. She's growing socially, which allows her to understand what she's feeling and what others are feeling and react accordingly.

She's also going through cognitive development, which is the process of growth in the area of thinking. For example, as a baby, Emma didn't know what numbers were, but now she can count to 10. Let's look closer at some of the cognitive developments that occur between the ages of two and seven, including centration, decentration, and conservation.


Emma is growing and learning every day. She discovers new things about the world around her and is able to gain new knowledge constantly. Her mom is amazed sometimes at the way that Emma seems to hone in on one thing and ignore everything else.

Centration involves focusing on one aspect of a situation and ignoring the others. It is common in early childhood. For example, one famous experiment was done where kids were shown several blocks lined up at regular intervals on a table. After a few minutes, the blocks were moved closer together as the child watched. The experimenter then asked the children if there were more, fewer, or the same number of blocks on the table. Despite having seen the blocks the whole time, many of the kids believed that there were fewer blocks on the table.

The children were focused on the space, not the number, of blocks. Because the blocks were closer together, they took up less space. And because the children were focused on the space and ignored the number of blocks, they believed that there were fewer blocks because the line of blocks was shorter. They had fallen victim to centration.

Centration is not all bad, though. As Emma and children like her grow, they are trying to learn new things. Centration helps them focus and absorb information without being distracted.


If centration is concentrating on one aspect of a situation or object while disregarding the others, then what is multitasking called in psychology? As you might expect, the opposite of centration is when a person is paying attention to multiple aspects of a situation, and it is called decentration.

Emma, like other kids around age four, is starting to show signs of decentration. For example, last week when she went to the doctor, he offered her a lollipop. She could have focused in only on the color of the lollipops in order to choose the one she wanted, but instead, she took into account the flavor, color, and size of the lollipops before choosing the biggest, reddest, cherry-flavored lollipop available.

Like centration, decentration is good at times because it allows multiple pieces of information to be considered at once. But there are also drawbacks. Take multitasking, for example, which is a very advanced type of decentration. Studies have shown that multitasking does not produce a larger quantity or better quality of work than doing one thing at a time.

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