Theories of cognitive development must address both the issue of how children bring their knowledge to bear on behavior in‐the‐moment, and how knowledge changes over time. We argue that seeking answers to these questions requires an appreciation of the dynamic nature of the developing system in its full, reciprocal complexity. We illustrate this dynamic complexity with results from two lines of research on early word learning. The first demonstrates how the child's active engagement with objects and people supports referent selection via memories for what objects were previously seen in a cued location. The second set of results highlights changes in the role of novelty and attentional processes in referent selection and retention as children's knowledge of words and objects grows. Together this work suggests that understanding systems for perception, action, attention, and memory, and their complex interaction, is critical to understand word learning. We review recent literature that highlights the complex interactions between these processes in cognitive development and point to critical issues for future work.