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Supporting Cognitive Development: Preschool Interactions

Your relationship with the children in your care is one of your strongest teaching tools. This lesson will focus on interacting with children to support play, exploration, and learning. You will learn how teachable moments and communication can help make the most of every routine.

  • Describe the importance of relationships to cognitive development.
  • Identify ways your interactions with children support play, exploration, and learning in your family child care setting.
  • Discuss how the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your program can promote a sense of belonging and community.



Interactions Support Learning

Working with preschoolers is about so much more than planning lessons. Good teaching is all about relating, interacting, and enjoying time with children. Your interactions create opportunities to help children learn.  

You can turn your interactions into teachable moments throughout the day, every day. Teachable moments are ways to build on natural events in a child’s day. As you get to know each child, you’ll learn how to recognize and respond to these events. You do this by carefully observing children, providing an interesting learning environment, and using thoughtful communication. Make the most of teachable moments by: 

  • Being a role model. Children learn by watching adults. When you wash your hands, read a book, or give a warm greeting, they notice.  
  • Joining children in play. You can help children expand their thinking and try new things in play. If children are pretending to be servers at a restaurant, you can join and order your favorite food. You can model language adults use at restaurants (“What’s the special today?” “May I have the check please?”). 
  • Using open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have multiple answers and encourage children to describe things in their own words. They can also help guide the conversation: “Why do you think the elephant is sad in the story?” “How do you want this to look when you’re done?” 
  • Modeling the skills children need for an activity: “Hmm…I wonder where this puzzle piece will fit. I’m going to look at the shape and then try putting it in a few places. Nope, it doesn’t go there. I’ll try another spot.” 
  • Noticing children’s interests and needs. Experienced teachers can recognize times when a child is on the edge of getting frustrated or angry. Perhaps the child exhales loudly, moves the materials a little too forcefully, or begins to look upset. These are moments when an adult can step in and help find a solution to the problem. Consider a few examples: 




You Saw:

Jayla is frustrated that she can’t get the box of blocks back on the shelf. You notice other blocks have fallen and are in the way.


What you might say:

Let’s ask a friend for some help. I’m noticing something is in the way. Let’s look at some options.


What you might do:

Point out the blocks that are in the way. Move a block out of the way to make it easier for Jayla to figure out the solution.


You Saw:

Three children have noticed a bird nest in the tree outside your backyard fence. They really want to get closer to the nest.


What you might say:

You look curious about something. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you notice about the nest? What do you think is happening in the nest? What tools could we use to get a closer look without upsetting the babies? I notice the mother bird chirping loudly right now. Why do you think she is doing that?


What you might do:

Provide safe binoculars. Take a photo of the nest with a zoom lens. Look at details together from a safe distance. Create a “viewing spot” that is a safe distance away from the nest. Bring in books about nests and the species of bird. Have the children draw their ideas or help them create a list of thoughts and questions.


You Saw:

D’Angelo and Kaitlyn are trying to build a ramp for cars to race down, but it keeps falling. They are starting to look frustrated.


What you might say:

This reminds me of the ramp we built outside yesterday. Do you remember what we used to keep that ramp from falling? Let’s go look at the ramp for ideas. What’s the same or different? Do you think this part is big (or small) enough?


What you might do:

Point out ideas that might help the children figure out the problem. Move a few pieces around to help make it easier. Take pictures of the ramp outside or find pictures of other ramps online to use as provocation.


Verbal Interactions: Communicate for Learning

As you get to know each child individually, you will learn a great deal about their development and their interests. Observe what makes each child smile, laugh, or seem challenged, and use your own language to describe what you notice. This will help you use language in a way that supports cognitive development. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to verbal interactions:

  • Use short simple sentences that are rich in vocabulary and descriptive language and are meaningful to the child. For example, “You discovered five insects today – two black beetles and three lady bugs all under the climber.” Using the word “discovered” instead of “found” or “saw” introduces new language; using color names reinforces color identification; using “under” is a directional word; and the numbers “five, two, and three” supports math concepts and early addition; all of these expand learning in an appropriate way.
  • Join conversations and ask questions during play and regular routines. Talk and ask questions about what they are doing with different toys or materials (rocking, mixing, rolling) or experiencing in an activity (experimenting, counting, planning). This type of interaction teaches math and science concepts and boosts vocabulary in a natural way. Time to pause and notice what children are doing. Give them time to respond with their actions or words.
  • Include a variety of words and introduce children to new objects or ideas. Snack and lunch times are daily routines where you can introduce new words. Consider serving interesting fruits or vegetables that the children may not know. During outdoor time, use the real names for tools, plants, and surfaces. A large vocabulary will help preschoolers become successful readers.
  • Remember to be patient after asking a question or making a statement. Allow time for children to process what was said. Too many questions can impede the natural learning process.

How you talk to children makes a difference in their learning. One of the most powerful things you can do is use words that encourage. Take a few moments to compare these different types of comments:

Simple Praise

  • Good job!
  • Nice work!
  • Thumbs up!
  • Some of my friends are listening.
  • That is pretty.
  • You are a good friend.

Descriptive Feedback & Encouragement

  • You are working so hard on that tower. It is almost as tall as you!
  • I see that you shared the doll with Jordan. What a kind thing to do.
  • You can do hard things.
  • I see blue, red, and green in your painting. It is so vibrant.
  • You are waiting so patiently for Jeremy to finish his turn.

Which type of comment do you think gives the child more information? The statements on the right side of the chart have more meaning, and they introduce the child to complex ideas and vocabulary. They let the child know you noticed their learning, but they also encourage the child to keep going. It is OK to occasionally say, “Good job,” but look for opportunities to describe what the child is doing and learning.

Preschool children need to be noticed, recognized, and encouraged by others. Examples of phrases that you can use to celebrate and encourage preschool children in positive ways include: 

  • I am so glad to see you. How are you today? 
  • You are working so hard on that (puzzle, structure, artwork). 
  • You read that entire book. That took a lot of concentration! 
  • I see that you are taking turns and working together. 
  • I bet you are really proud of your painting! 
  • You look so excited to try the new game! 
  • I noticed you wrote your name all by yourself. 
  • Tell me about your structure. 
  • That was really challenging, and you stuck with it. 
  • You can do hard things. Can I take a picture of you and your creation? 
  • Let me write down your words, so we remember this. 
  • Let’s take a picture of this for your mom and dad.

Just as it is important to notice and use encouraging words when children show you their learning, it is also important to use encouraging words when children struggle or are frustrated. Children learn by taking risks and trying challenging things. Sometimes they make mistakes. Caring adults make the most of these moments. Approach children with a warm tone and avoid criticism. You might say something like, “I can tell you are disappointed, but that was a good try. I think the tower just got too high and it fell down. What if we worked together to build the base a little wider?” or “It looks like that’s a tough puzzle. Have you found all the edge pieces?”

Playing to Learn: Physical Interactions

It is often said that play is children’s work. Play is the time when children explore their interests, use their imagination, and experiment with ideas. Let preschoolers take the lead in play. Child-led play may be difficult for some adults to follow since we know how materials work and what typically goes together, therefore, we get things done quickly. But it is the process, and not just the result, where learning takes place.  

Some struggles during play and learning are OK. Allowing preschoolers time to work through an issue gives them time to solve the problem and builds their self-confidence. You can model something, such zipping your own coat, and then encouraging them to give it a try. Providing just enough help to keep frustration at a minimum motivates children to learn new skills. This concept, which was introduced in Lesson Three, is referred to as “scaffolding”. As the child learns how to avoid frustration with each step, the adult can provide less and less support.  

Scaffolding is a method of support that helps a child learn a new skill. According to Vygotsky, scaffolding occurs in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD is the difference between what a child can do independently and what they can do with the support of someone who is more experienced. Scaffolding requires the following, which can be obtained through thoughtful observations and interactions (Gillespie & Greenberg, 2017):  

  • Understanding of preschool development
  • Understanding the ways children approach learning 
  • Establishing realistic learning objectives 
  • Matching strategies to each child’s interests, knowledge, and skills 

Following the lead of children during play does not mean you are not involved. Your questions and actions spur their curiosity, which leads to continued engagement and new learning opportunities. Adults can increase learning by interacting with children and supporting peer play in different ways. Examples include: 

  • Helping children expand their imaginary play by asking questions about what the child is doing or going to do. 
  • Using play to model new vocabulary words or focus on key skills from the curriculum. For example, an adult might comment on the “stethoscope” in the dramatic play doctor’s office. Or an adult who knows children are working on identifying insects might provide magnifying glasses, soil, and plastic insects in the sensory table.  
  • Providing opportunities for children to actively cooperate: For example, suggest a goal for a center, “Let’s build a tower.” 
  • Staying close by and supporting play: Some children may need more support during cooperative play. Caregivers should observe which children need guidance and intervene in helpful ways: “It looks like you want to help build. Ask, ‘Can I play?’” 
  • Assisting children by assigning roles during pretend play: “Will you be the veterinarian first? Then someone else can be the veterinarian.” 
  • Helping children decide on steps to achieve their goal: “What should we do first?” 
  • Modeling communication: “Thanks for bringing that block over here. Our tower is tall! Could you please bring another block?” 
  • Interpreting children’s actions: “It looks like India wants to play store with you. What do you think she could do to help?”

The Role of Culture in Interactions

As discussed in Lesson Three, everyone has a culture. It influences how we communicate, how we interact, how we interpret what people do and say; it even shapes our expectations. Culture plays a large role in child rearing. 

Think about all the interactions you have daily. Each person you encounter has a culture. So, each day, you are interacting with many people, including preschoolers, who have their own values, beliefs, and practices. Plus, you have your own culture. That is a lot to take into consideration, but you need to ensure that your interactions respect the culture of each child you serve to create a safe, nurturing, and inclusive environment.  

Allowing negative biases to affect your duties as a preschool teacher can negatively affect the development of the children in your care. When encouraging thinking skills, exploration, and problem solving, be careful not to demonstrate bias by having specific toys for boys and toys for girls, guidelines that boys may get dirty but girls need to stay clean, dramatic play for girls and building with blocks for boys, etc. These are examples of gender biases; other biases involve race, ethnicity, language, and special needs. Awareness of your own biases is an important step in supporting cognitive development, as our beliefs influence how we care for children.  

Be aware of how your interactions support the learning of all children. Watch for evidence of bias such as: 

  • Do you comment equally on girls’ and boys’ appearances and accomplishments?  
  • Do you praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their cognitive development?  
  • Do you comment on children’s size (e.g., “He’s going to be a football player”)?  
  • Do you encourage boys but not girls to play active games? Do you encourage girls to “be careful” while saying “boys will be boys”?  
  • Do you have conversations with all children—including those who may have speech and language difficulties or who are learning English? 

When it comes to being culturally relevant, children need to learn about their world and their communities. Community includes their families, you, their peers, and their neighborhoods. Consider implementing the following ideas: 

  • Support the home language of children and their families by learning a few words from the child’s native language to help them feel more comfortable.  
  • Maintain open communication with families on what materials you are providing to support their child’s cognitive development. 
  • Provide books that feature children of many different races, religions, or cultures. 
  • Choose to display pictures or artwork on the wall that feature a multicultural variety of children or incorporate fabric and other textiles relevant to cultures.  
  • Provide children with paints, papers, and crayons that fit multicultural themes and allow students to choose the materials they want to use. 
  • If you discuss one holiday, make sure to discuss them all. For example, instead of focusing only on Christmas, make sure to cover Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, too. Make sure to discuss the Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and Diwali when the time comes. 

When you offer culturally relevant experiences that are based on preschool children’s real-life experiences, you support their cognitive development.


Watch this video to see how providers promote learning during everyday interactions.

Supporting Cognitive Development: Interactions

Cognitive development happens during everyday moments



It is important to recognize a teachable moment when you see one. Teachable moments happen naturally, but it takes some skill to recognize and make the most of these moments. Here are some ways to interact with children that might lead to teachable moments: 

  • Observe each child and notice what sparks his or her interest: Does the child get excited when you mention a certain activity or idea? Does the child tend to pick the same activities or toys most days? Is the child more engaged during a certain story? 
  • Improve the learning environment so that it interests children: Provide more challenging toys; hang up new shapes or pictures; draw children’s attention to new objects. 
  • Find opportunities to practice learning goals in areas that interest the children: Practice sorting in a kitchen area; identify colors at the art easel; or write letters on a birthday card. 

Additional guidelines about interactions that promote learning: 

  • Stay close. Avoid speaking to a child from across the room. Move to where the child is, sit or stand at their eye level, and have a conversation. 
  • Use children’s names in conversations and pronounce their names correctly. Make sure children know that you care about who they are. 
  • Ask open-ended questions to promote thinking skills. Open-ended questions do not have a specific answer. They give preschoolers a chance to use their own ideas to form a response. Open-ended questions are thought to be especially helpful with learning because children learn their ideas are valued, they become more confident in explaining how they got their answer, and they are able to respond at their own level.  
  • Observe children’s play and interactions. Get to know how each child prefers to relax, what types of activities they tend to choose, and with whom they typically choose to interact. 
  • Listen when children ask questions or make comments, particularly about differences or stereotypes. Give children factual, respectful answers. If needed, plan an activity that allows children to explore the topic in a meaningful and respectful way.


Think about the unique ways preschool children interact and develop thinking skills. Explore the Reflecting on Interactions activity. Read the scenarios and answer the questions. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. Then read the suggested responses for additional ideas.


People of all races, cultures, ethnicities, ages, genders, and abilities should be represented equally and appropriately in your family child care environment and materials. Take some time to look through the books, toys, and materials in your program to ensure that children and families from diverse backgrounds are represented. Read and review the Children’s Literature Activity. Use this activity to review children’s books for common stereotypes and broad generalizations.


Information provided to someone about his or her action, event, or behavior after it occurs
Open-ended question:
Questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no or a specific piece of information; these encourage the child to respond by giving whatever information he or she thinks is appropriate
Material or object used to provoke thoughts, ideas, and actions that can help to expand on a thought, project, idea, or an interest
Teachable moments:
Opportunities for meaningful instruction based on natural contexts, or naturally occurring moments in exploration and conversation.


Which is an example of an open-ended question?
Your trainer or coach suggests that you use more descriptive feedback and encouragement with the children in your program. Which statement is an example of descriptive feedback and encouragement?
You and another family child care provider discuss how to practice learning goals in natural ways that promote teachable moments. Which is an example of what you might suggest?
References & Resources

Derman-Sparks, L. & Olsen Edwards, J. (2019). Understanding Anti-Bias Education: Bringing the four core goals to every facet of your curriculum. Young Children, 74(5).  

Epstein, A. (2014). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning (rev. ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Cengage Learning, Inc. 

Gillespie, L. & Greenberg, J. (2017). Rocking and Rolling: Empowering infants’ and toddlers’ learning through scaffolding. Young Children, 72(2). 

Head Start National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. (2015). Fostering Children’s Thinking Skills 

Hyson, M. (2008). Enthusiastic and Engaged Learners: Approaches to learning in the early childhood classroom. Teachers’ College Press. 

Mooney, C. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Redleaf Press.