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11 Ways to Improve Cognitive Development in Early Childhood

How much of your child’s intelligence is set in stone and how much of it can you influence?

Although genetics plays a definite role, children are hugely impacted by their environment and the stimulation they receive from their parents. Cognitive development in early childhood is certainly not set in stone!

It’s important for you to understand how your children learn, what stage of development they are in, and how you can best support them on their journey.

Here’s a brief overview of:

  • What cognitive development is
  • Examples of cognitive skills
  • The four stages of cognitive development
  • How children think
  • 11 ways to improve cognitive skills

What is Cognitive Development in Early Childhood?

Cognitive refers to a child’s intellectual skills. It includes how a child processes information, his understanding of concepts, his ability to learn expressive and receptive language and his perceptual skills.

Cognitive development is one of the four major areas of a child’s holistic development, along with:

What Age Does Cognitive Development Begin?

Babies start to develop their cognitive skills from birth. In the past, this wasn’t always known. It was presumed that babies were not yet able to process on a cognitive level until they were able to use language.

Now we know that you can improve and stimulate your baby’s intellectual skills right from birth.

Examples of Cognitive Skills

There are many types of cognitive skills and complex thinking processes that children reach at different ages. Here are some examples of cognitive development in early childhood:

  • Responding to their name
  • Recognizing and naming objects in a book
  • Verbalizing needs
  • Following instructions
  • Counting to 10
  • Knowing their gender
  • Understanding the difference between the present and the past
  • Engaging in symbolic play
  • Listening to stories
  • Telling stories
  • Asking questions
  • Reading

This is not a full list of cognitive skills – just a few examples. There are many, many milestones to be reached during the first few years.

What are the 4 Stages of Cognitive Development?

Before you can help stimulate cognitive development in preschoolers, it is useful to know what stage of thinking they are in and how their thinking should evolve and advance with time.

Jean Piaget was a French psychologist who created a theory of cognitive development. He divided children’s cognitive development into 4 stages, showing how they progressed to more advanced thought patterns as they got older.

The four stages are the sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational periods.

If your child is a toddler or preschooler she is in the pre-operational period.

Here is a quick video if you’d prefer to watch a summary of the stages, or read on for a brief explanation below.

The Sensorimotor Period (Infancy)

  • This stage lasts from birth until around the age of 2.
  • Babies interact with their environment mainly through their senses and through movement.
  • A baby hasn’t yet developed expressive and receptive language so he doesn’t think of words as being linked to images or things.
  • He doesn’t yet have a concept of time so he can only focus on the present moment, with no understanding of the past or future.
  • He is not yet able to plan.
  • With time he learns that objects are permanent, so he realizes that something may still be there even if it is not visible. He learns this through games such as peek-a-boo.
  • He learns to start imitating and engaging in dramatic or symbolic play.
  • There are actually 6 sub-phases in the sensorimotor period.

The Pre-Operational Period (Toddlerhood and Preschool Age)

  • This stage occurs between the ages of 2 to 7.
  • It is named pre-operational because it is the stage before children begin to use operational thinking.
  • It is divided into two main phases – pre-conceptual thought and intuitive thought.

Pre-Conceptual Thought (2-4 years)

  • Children understand the world as they see it – from their own frame of reference.
  • They come to conclusions that may not be logical, such as believing the sun is alive because they are alive.
  • They use language from their own frame of reference.
  • They know the world as they see and experience it.
  • They view events as happening independently as they can’t really see a relationship between cause and effect.
  • Children identify with their models. They imitate them and feel a sense of awe towards them.

Intuitive Thought (4-7 years)

  • Preschoolers and kindergarteners mainly fall into this category.
  • Compared to the previous phase where children were very egocentric, they are now less egocentric. They no longer believe the world completely revolves around them.
  • Children become more social.
  • Words become part of their thinking process.
  • They begin to coordinate their egocentric views with actual reality.
  • They can only perceive one idea at a time but are not yet able to see the full picture i.e. they can conceptualize the separate parts but not the relationship between things and the bigger picture.
  • They may be able to count, but don’t yet have a concept of numbers or what they mean.
  • They use language in the correct way but still attach their own meaning to it.

The Concrete Operational Period (School Age)

  • From the age of 7 to 11, children fall into the concrete operational period, which means they have a coherent cognitive system.
  • Children are capable of thought processes that are reversible, but they are still limited to real (concrete) things.
  • They can categorize, classify and place items into hierarchies.

The Formal Operational Period (School Age)

  • This period starts at around 11 years of age. Children are now able to think in an abstract and logical way and no longer rely on concrete thinking.
  • They are able to make deductions and think about possibilities and hypotheses.

How Young Children Think

cognitive development in early childhood

These are examples of how young children typically think. As they move through the cognitive stages their thinking matures from the descriptions below to more advanced thinking patterns.

  1. Language is the most important of the semiotic functions because it is used to represent objects or express actions and thoughts.
  2. Children begin to use two kinds of mental representations – symbols and signs (e.g. when they draw or engage in symbolic play).
  3. Children imitate a caregiver even if they are not in their presence. Another version of this is verbal recall (e.g. when they “miaow” even though they can no longer see the cat.)
  4. They are egocentric, which means they are not fully able to see things from someone else’s perspective or put themselves “in their shoes.”
  5. Children are focused on and only really concerned with their immediate surroundings. They don’t really think about objectives or situations that are remote in time and space.
  6. They struggle to make comparisons between things (e.g. bigger, smaller). They see each thing separately.
  7. They are unable to distinguish between psychological and physical occurrences. They don’t know the difference between what is internal and what is external. (e.g. seeing thinking as part of speaking).
  8. Children personify objects. They believe objects can feel or act like human beings (e.g. believing the doll is upset).
  9. Children’s reasoning is not sound. They may not see the relationship between two things or group unrelated things together (e.g. “The girl doesn’t have a name because she can’t talk”). They may not see the relationship between cause and effect (e.g “He’s sick because he didn’t go to school“).
  10. They can group and classify according to one criterion, such as shapes, but not more than one at the same time (such as shape and colour). This also relates to seriation (arranging different objects according to size). They can categorize the objects into big and small but not order them perfectly in a series of biggest to smallest.
  11. Children don’t necessarily have a number concept, even if they can count to 10. In order to have a concept of number, they must understand the ordinal properties of numbers, the cardinal properties and the conservation of numbers. They must also know numbers can be grouped into different wholes by addition and multiplication and can be broken up by subtraction and division.

How to Improve Cognitive Skills In a Child

During the preschool years, parents can help build their children‘s cognitive development through play and simple activities.

Here are 11 easy cognitive development activities for preschoolers:

1. Reading

There are few activities that will build cognitive skills in preschoolers at the rate that reading to them will.

Reading to your children daily is crucial and will be the difference between a child with a highly developed vocabulary or a child with a basic vocabulary.

While reading to your children, you will be developing:

…and much more. 

2. Talking

Language is one of the most important aspects of early childhood cognitive development. The best way to build it is to expose your child not only to hearing language but also to using it.

You are the primary source of your child’s language in the early years and so it is important that you use it in a grammatically correct and stimulating way. Your child will learn to speak by imitating you.

Talk to your child all the time, at every opportunity you get. Talk to him in the car, in the bath, while preparing supper and while playing.

The less time children lose watching TV and other screens, the more they will engage in conversation with you and others around them.

Talking is crucial to help a child’s cognitive development. Here are some fun word games to play in the car.

3. Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes are more than just a fun activity children enjoy. They are actually highly stimulating and a great cognitive activity for preschoolers and toddlers.

They teach children language patterns and they develop vocabulary. Most importantly, they build a child’s auditory perceptual skills – such as auditory memory, discrimination, etc.

Expose your children to:

Learning nursery rhymes is an important aspect of pre-reading skills and will set your child up for reading success later in school.

4. Thinking Games

Thinking is an important skill for adults and a skill that needs to be actively worked on. Many adults struggle to think outside the box, find solutions or thinking critically.

Thinking games have the specific intention of working on your child’s higher-order thinking skills and critical thinking skills.

These stimulate your child to actively practise thinking.

There are various examples of thinking skills. Here are just a few:

  • Predicting
  • Summarizing
  • Understanding cause and effect
  • Forming opinions
  • Deducing
  • Thinking creatively

5. Creative Activities

the importance of play

Children spend much of their time naturally engaging in creative activities, whether they are drawing, painting, moulding or creating something with waste materials or boxes. Even making up a game during fantasy play is a form of creative expression.

Whenever a child is using their creative mind they are building their cognitive skills.

Creativity is not really a skill you can teach, but rather a skill you can ignite.

What children need is a platform to be creative. They need materials, stimulation and opportunities. From there, the creative process is a natural one.

6. Problem-Solving Activities

Problem-solving is another area that many older children, as well as adults, struggle with. There are few careers today that do not rely heavily on a person’s ability to solve problems.

This is a skill that can be taught from an early age with very simple problem-solving activities and fun games. 

The beauty of problem-solving at a young age is that children don’t usually view problems as problems, but rather as challenges to be overcome.

7. Puzzles

Puzzles are one of my personal favourite activities for kids. They require so much concentration and effort, as well as perseverance to complete.

Children who are solving a puzzle are thinking deeply and building their intellectual capacity.

The most important thing to remember is that a puzzle should be challenging but doable. Choose one that is appropriate for your child’s age. The younger your child, the fewer pieces the puzzle should have and the bigger they should be.

You should see your child challenging himself to finish it and spending some time on it, but he shouldn’t be frustrated or not able to complete it in one sitting.

As your child gets more confident with them, he will begin to seek out bigger, more complex puzzles.

Get your own puzzles by downloading the FREE set of printables at the end of the post.

8. Movement

Movement is an excellent idea for stimulating brain growth.

Movement develops neural pathways in children and vestibular movement affects learning to read and write later on.

Movement wakes up, resets and re-energises the brain. It helps a child’s development in two ways.

Firstly, developing gross motor and fine motor skills helps children with their overall development. Secondly, you can use movement breaks during any activity to reset your child’s concentration.

Just two minutes of doing a physical activity or going for a run outside can allow a child to continue to concentrate and finish the activity they were working on.

9. Symbolic Play 

Symbolic play is when children engage in pretend or make-believe play using objects to represent other objects. For example, a child who uses a block as a cell phone.

Symbolic play is very natural to a child and is a highly creative form of play that will develop your child’s intellectual skills.

During this kind of play, children are constantly thinking of new ways to act out their world in order to make sense of it.

Symbolic play is the next step up from functional play where a child will use an appropriate object – for example, a toy phone as a real phone.

Later on, when they pick up a block to use as a phone, it means their brains have developed the ability to use the block to represent something else. This is an advanced skill.

the only thing children need to engage in symbolic play is access to materials, toys, and plenty of free time.

10. Developmentally Appropriate Toys

A child’s environment can greatly impact how much stimulation they are receiving.

They don’t need any fancy toys or equipment – just basic educational toys, such as wooden blocks, Lego, playdough, books, construction materials and natural materials.

Try to vary your child’s experiences by offering different manipulatives. For example, introduce Lego and after a few days, swap the tub and offer wooden blocks instead. This will encourage your child to think of new and different ways to play and create.

Playdough is an excellent and highly educational material that can be made at home. 

11. Free Play

Last but not least, free play is undoubtedly the most important tool to develop cognitive skills.

Play is what children do. It’s what they spend all day doing and it’s what they naturally need to do in order to learn.

Everything your children will learn before the age of 6 will be primarily through play.

In order for this to happen, children need time to be able to play. Unfortunately, in modern times, they often need to sacrifice play time in order to attend their extra activities.

Make play a priority in your home and allow your child to play as much as they are naturally inclined to.

Free play requires no adult intervention. All your child needs is the time and freedom to do it as they choose.

These are just a few ways to develop children’s cognitive skills.

De Witt, M. 2016. The Young Child in Context: A psycho-social perspective. Second edition. Van Schaik Publishers: Pretoria.

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Wednesday 5th of October 2022

Thank you this was helpful

Tanja Mcilroy

Thursday 6th of October 2022

Thanks Palesa!

sadique murayi the gt

Monday 25th of April 2022

very impresive it provides logic information about ECE


Monday 7th of March 2022

This is nicely put and easy to understand, thank you! I wish I could print out this very helpful information, not only for myself but for the parents I work with.


Tuesday 6th of April 2021

Thank you , clear and well explained . From your guide its easy to understand the roots of child development .

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

I'm glad you found this helpful, Smeetha! Thanks for reading.

Ms. Winny Pinto

Thursday 21st of January 2021

It's a wonderful guide that your sharing. so useful, thank you very much!

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 26th of January 2021

You're welcome. Thanks for leaving a comment!

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