Skip to main content

Cognitive Development: Preschool

Children usually follow predictable patterns in how they grow and learn. This lesson will help you understand typical cognitive development, or how children develop thinking skills, during the preschool years. You will learn about developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.

  • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones for children ages 3 to 5 years.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.
  • Demonstrate developmentally appropriate expectations.



During preschool, amazing changes happen with children’s thinking skills. Their memories become stronger and they often remember things in surprising detail. They can share their ideas in new and interesting ways. Their imaginations become a primary vehicle for play and learning. They begin to compare, contrast, organize, analyze, and come up with more and more complex ways to solve problems, which helps their math skills and scientific reasoning become more sophisticated. This lesson will highlight cognitive developmental milestones for preschoolers. 


Watching preschool children’s thinking skills develop as they encounter new people, places, and ideas is exciting. The chart below highlights cognitive development during the preschool years. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which children meet these milestones and that each child is unique. As you may have already learned in other courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development or to help you know when and what to look for as preschool children mature. You can use this information, what you learn from families, and your own knowledge in the interactions, experiences, and environments you create for preschoolers.

Cognitive Developmental Milestones

Age 3

  • Identifies actions in picture books (eating, sleeping, playing)
  • Strings items onto string or shoelace
  • Avoids touching hot objects after a warning
  • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
  • Dresses self in loose clothing

Age 4

  • Can recall parts of the day
  • Identifies several colors
  • Remembers parts of a story
  • Answers simple questions
  • Draws a person with three or more body parts

Age 5

  • Counts ten or more things
  • Starts to understand the concept of time
  • Can name numbers between 1-5 and some letters
  • Can write letter in name
  • Can pay attention for longer periods of time

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Developmental Milestones.

You have the ability to help children learn and grow to their potential. Along with a family’s health-care provider, caregivers must be knowledgeable about children’s developmental milestones. Developmental milestones help adults understand and recognize typical ages and stages of development for children.  You can use your knowledge of these milestones to meet the individual needs of the children in your classroom.

Cognitive development is a unique process and is specific to each child. A family may wonder about their child’s cognitive development and feel uncertain about what they are observing, as well as what to expect. Take the opportunity to first learn from a family and then consider offering additional developmental milestone information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together website,, can be a valuable resource for you, as can the Developmental Milestones and Act Early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website,  

The table below highlights possible developmental warning signs for preschool children:

Possible Warning Signs for Cognitive Development Delays in Preschool Children

Three Years

  • Cannot work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning a handle)
  • Does not play pretend or make-believe
  • Does not understand simple instructions

Four Years

  • Has trouble scribbling
  • Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
  • Does not follow three-part commands
  • Does not understand the concepts of "same" and "different"

Five Years

  • Does not respond to people, or responds only superficially
  • Cannot tell what is real and what is make-believe
  • Does not play a variety of games and activities
  • Cannot give first and last name
  • Does not draw pictures

If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator so that you can brainstorm and work together to talk with parents about your observations. These conversations may be difficult, but it can make all the difference in meeting a child’s needs. You can share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk about their child’s development.  

Ultimately, if families are concerned about their child’s development, they should talk to the child’s health-care provider about their concerns. The health-care provider can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to specialists. Families should also contact their local school district (for children over age 3). The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development. This can help the child get the services and help he or she needs. 

The video below, developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers tips for identifying and acting on suspected developmental delays.


Just as children’s bodies grow throughout the preschool years, their brains are growing too. You will see major changes in a child’s thinking skills between 3 and 5 years of age. Watch this video to learn more about milestones during the preschool years. 

Cognitive Development in Preschool

Watch the range of cognitive development milestones during the preschool years.


Understanding these milestones will help you know what kinds of learning experiences to plan for preschool children. Based on your knowledge of development, you can plan activities that are challenging but achievable for individual children. Remember, milestones are markers that let us know a child is growing in a healthy way. These markers are not thresholds or “tests” that a child must pass. You can support preschooler’s developmental milestones in the following ways: 

  • Set learning goals for individual children. 
  • Post developmental milestone charts for reference and share with families. 
  • Recognize that children need different types of support from you as they move through the developmental stages. 
  • Provide a range of interesting materials that spark preschoolers’ interests and allow for hands-on exploration. 
  • Provide a range of developmentally appropriate and culturally diverse books. 
  • Find teachable moments to encourage learning and development. 
  • Observe children on a regular basis to determine where they are developmentally so that you can support and challenge their emerging skills. 
  • Remember that children are unique and progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas. 
  • Consult with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator, and then the child’s family if you feel that there might be a concern with how a child is developing. 


Observing children can help you see where they are developmentally, which is important as you plan learning experiences for them. Read and complete the Stages of Development Observation activity. Share your observations with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


It is important to understand and reference developmental milestones frequently in your work with young children. You can review the Preschool Cognitive Development Milestones poster and use it as a reference in your work. You may also choose to share the resource with families. 


Cognitive skills:
The mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
Developmental delay:
This may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
Developmental screening:
A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by health care providers, teachers, or others who know both the child and child development well
Teachable moments:
Spontaneous times when you follow children’s interest and help them learn; you might notice a child building a tall tower and say, “You are building a tall blue tower; let’s count how many blocks you used”


Finish this statement: Developmental milestones are ...
Which of the following should not be expected of a 5-year-old child?
What should you do if you think a child is not reaching developmental milestones?
References & Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Developmental Milestones. 

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. 

Eileen Allen, K., Edwards Cowdery, G. (2014). The Exceptional Child: Inclusion in early childhood education (Eighth Edition). Wadsworth Publishing. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.).  

Zero to Three. (2021).