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Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

In this lesson, you will learn the importance of providing children with a variety of age-appropriate experiences. This lesson describes how you can engage children in activities to promote cognitive development and address the individual needs of all learners.

  • Identify examples of types of learning that take place across various age and ability levels.
  • Explore your own values and assumptions about how and what children learn.
  • Create experiences and activities that you can use with the children in your care.



You most likely serve a diverse group of children in your family child care home and, in turn, address a variety of needs and interests. You know that children’s cognitive development is important, so you plan your environment and daily activities to support their learning. Your understanding of what skills are typical for children of certain ages, what is interesting and appropriate for an individual child, and what is valued by families and the community affects your daily interactions with the children in your care (Bredecamp & Copple, 2009). Developmentally appropriate practice is a term used to describe educational and caregiving methods that promote each child’s optimal learning and development through a strengths-based approach to joyful, engaged learning. You can implement developmentally appropriate practice by recognizing the multiple assets all young children bring to the group as unique individuals and as members of families and communities (NAEYC, 2019). You should use this knowledge to make daily decisions about the learning experiences you offer children.

Experiences and Activities that Promote Infants’ and Toddlers’ Cognitive Development

Infants and toddlers learn best through daily interactions with warm, caring adults and play-based experiences. Play helps children develop their approaches toward learning. Memory, spatial awareness, problem solving, attention, and persistence are a few cognitive competencies developed through play. Families and caregivers can support children in becoming better learners by engaging in play with them.

It is important to remember that young children are natural explorers. They are hungry for information about the world around them. Children are learning how to learn. Adults can nurture this curiosity by promoting exploration and problem-solving. This helps young children develop thinking skills. There is a lot you can do to help young children learn. Here is a short list of ways to support infants and toddlers in your care: 

  • Model your own thinking skills. Show interest, ask questions, and make comments about your observations as you play with children. For example, you might say, “Hmm. I really wanted to paint this part of my picture purple, but the purple paint is being used. What should I do?”
  • Find opportunities throughout the day to play “What if…?” games. Ask the children questions like, “I wonder what sound this drum will make if I bang on it?” or “What if we run out of snack? What should we do?”
  • Give children lots of chances to explore concepts. Read books and promote literacy development during individual and group activities, sing songs about the stories you read, and encourage children to imitate story characters with sounds or movements.

Consider the following ways in which young children learn important concepts through play (Guyton, 2011). You might notice that many of these examples involve learning in more than one area, or developmental domain. Developmental domains represent specific aspects of a child’s overall development (Cognitive, Motor, Language &Literacy, Social-Emotional, Physical Well-Being). It is important to keep in mind that, during play, children often learn across multiple developmental domains. You may also notice that these examples reflect everyday experiences, which offer many opportunities for learning.

  • When a young infant interacts with a mobile by reaching for an item or visually tracking a moving item, they are learning about the important concept of cause and effect while at the same time improving their eye-hand coordination. 
  • When a pre-toddler interacts with books, they are engaging in early literacy, as well as learning the names of objects or characters on book pages. 
  • When a toddler uses a puppet to tell a story or act out happenings in the story they are learning to use their imagination, abstract thinking, and language. 
A care giver engages with a toddler with toys practicing cause and effect and joint attention

Experiences and Activities that Promote Preschool-Age Children’s Cognitive Development

As children move into the ages of 3 to 5 years, their knowledge and skills continue to develop each day. Observing the children you care for helps you learn about their unique interests and strengths. You can use your knowledge of child development and your observations about the individual children in your care to plan developmentally appropriate activities to promote cognitive development.

Much of preschoolers’ learning occurs through their interaction and their experiences with materials and the environment. Preschool children’s cognitive learning falls into several categories or content areas including: math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and technology. You can support children’s learning across these content areas. Here are a few examples of ways children might learn important concepts:

  • Math: A preschool child notices what comes next in a pattern. A child notices that his friend has a different number (size) on his shoe.
  • Science: A child uses her senses to explore a new food offered at lunch. Another child shares information about her pet and what food her pet likes to eat.
  • Social studies: A child brings his baby pictures and takes on family roles in the dramatic play area. Children draw a map of the buildings they passed on a walk to the park.
  • Language and literacy: A child sings rhyming songs and claps the syllables in words. A child spends time after nap relaxing and looking at pictures in books.
  • Art: A child creates a three-dimensional sculpture of the bird house he sees in your backyard. Another child dances to music and pats a rhythm on a toy drum.
  • Technology: A child uses a computer to create a message and artwork for his mother. 

You may notice that many of the above examples involve learning in more than one area. It’s important to keep in mind that, during play, children often learn across multiple domains. For example, when a child types a message to his mother on the computer, he is learning about technology and literacy. When a child claps along to a rhyming song, she may be learning literacy, math, and music. Everyday experiences offer preschool children many opportunities for learning.  Some examples of ways you can support preschooler’s cognitive development in your family child care include:

  • Taking clipboards and markers outside to observe, draw and write about nature
  • Planting seeds, discussing what they need to grow and observing how they change as they grow
  • Exploring prisms and transparent objects on a light table
  • Rolling cars or balls down ramps of different inclines to see how far they travel
  • Mixing different colors of paints to create new colors
  • Creating a graph of children’s favorite colors, season, food, or sports as a group
  • Using measuring cups and funnels to fill containers with sand in the sensory table
  • Exploring parts of a flower with magnifying glasses
  • Setting up dramatic play so that children can pretend to cook, be doctors, make grocery lists, or take care of baby dolls
  • Sorting plastic animals by different characteristics (size, shape, color)
  • Listening and acting out stories like “The Three Little Pigs”
  • Creating patterns by using colored blocks and pattern pictures
  • Drawing maps or driving toy cars along maps or roads
  • Creating classroom rules together as a group
  • Sorting objects into groups, counting how many are in each group or identifying which group has less or more

Preschoolers are naturally curious and eager to explore.  As a family child care provider you can nurture their curiosity and promote thinking skills. Observe the children in your care, note what they are interested in and provide opportunities for exploration. You can use everyday materials and objects to help children learn about their world. Here are just a few examples of ways you can support preschool children’s learning:

  • Model your own thinking and ask children to generate ideas. “I wonder how I can attach this hook on the wall. What are some ideas you have for attaching it?”
  • Find opportunities to use language to facilitate children’s mathematical thinking. “I have four bananas, but we have six children to eat a snack. I wonder how we can make sure everyone has a part of a banana.”
  • Give children many opportunities to explore concepts. Play games during transition to outdoors by asking children to get their coats based on some characteristics: “Everyone who is wearing a blue shirt can get their coat.”
  • Encourage children to use self-control and acknowledge when they do.  Say things like, “I know you were working really hard on that structure. It is hard to stop, but your mom is here. How about we put a sign on your structure and save it for tomorrow?” 

A care giver uses cards with images and letters to practice spelling and literacy


Experiences and Activities that Promote School-Age Children’s Cognitive Development

Caring for school-age children in your family child care setting means offering experiences and activities that they enjoy. Again, observing the children and watching what their interests are can help with planning meaningful activities for school-age children. At this age, children may be learning to read, write, do math problems, search the internet for research reports, and conduct simple science experiments. Talking with children about what they are learning in school may help you collect interesting books, materials, games, and software that appeal to children. Here are a few examples of ways school-age children might learn important concepts:

Reading & Writing

Reading and writing opportunities help school-age children and youth to develop the skills and knowledge to effectively communicate information, ideas, and opinions to a variety of audiences.  Learning to write, like reading, is a lifelong process. Research has shown that when students receive writing instruction, their reading fluency and comprehension improve. You can support school-age children’s reading and writing skills by offering the following opportunities in your family child care home:

  • Partner reading: School-age children are learning to communicate with others through reading and writing. Supporting reading and writing in your family child care home may include asking school-age children to read aloud to a friend or to one of the younger children. Partner reading not only helps readers build their ability to read smoothly (i.e., fluency), but it encourages children to work together (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborne, 2001). 
  • Reader’s theater: Acting out a story gives children the opportunity to work together to bring a book to life. Children at play naturally create characters, scenes, and stories. Dramatic play experiences encourage emotional growth, motivation, and engagement (Prescott, 2020). Reader’s theater is a form of dramatic play that effectively builds reading fluency by encouraging listening and speaking skills and boosting comprehension.
  • Book discussions or literature circle: Literature circles help children and youth think and talk about the books they have read with other peers. Children can build a sense of community, deepen their understanding of books, and learn speaking and listening skills through these conversations.
  • Creative writing activities: Younger children benefit from daily writing experiences, so embedding writing in the daily curriculum, such as having students write about their day, is helpful. Older children might benefit from writing-focused activities such as writing poems, writing letters to pen pals, writing autobiographies, writing songs, writing and acting out plays, and writing book reports on a topic of interest. Provide paper of different colors, sizes, and textures. Read poems and have children write their own poems, stories, and books, and illustrate them with photos (drawn and digital). 
  • Author’s chair: Children take turns reading books they have written to their friends. You can designate a special chair and make this a weekly activity.


You can help school-age children become confident and successful mathematicians by planning math activities in your family child care setting. Here are just a few examples:

  • Make math visual and hands-on. Many school-age children have difficulties picturing numbers and calculations in their minds. Active, hands-on learning opportunities provide students ways to visualize math concepts. For young children, addition and subtraction problems can be simplified by counting actual objects. Children can practice geometry by using toothpicks and marshmallows, for example, to create different types of shapes and angles. Older children can practice mathematical concepts by designing towers using building blocks or Legos and measuring them with tape measures, yardsticks, or rulers. 
  • Create engaging opportunities for learning. If an activity relates to children’s lives, interest, or hobbies, then their level of participation and effort will increase. Sports, board games, card games, and videos can incorporate aspects of math. One example is for children to take a poll, asking the other children and their family members their favorite animal or food item. Then, children can create a graph to show the results of their poll. 
  • Using math talk. Caregivers can support children’s development of math concepts by asking questions and pointing out mathematical relationships. The following are just a few examples to help you think about how to include math talk in daily activities and routines:
    • “I'm noticing a pattern here, what patterns do you see?“
    • “How did you figure that out?”
    • “How did you solve this problem?”
    • “What would happen if ...?”
    • “Tell me more about this.”

Science and Exploration

Children are natural explorers who use all of their senses to investigate their surroundings. The enthusiasm and energy that children bring to new experiences provides a wealth of opportunities for learning. Opportunities for exploration and problem solving are tied with the physical world, the life sciences, earth and the environment. A fallen bird’s nest, the illumination of lightning bugs, the presence of pollution and litter are just a few examples of topics that can be used for deeper exploration. Growing plants, collecting rocks, finding insects, or creating a book about different birds seen in the neighborhood are all ways to engage children in science. Activities such as a walk to the park or a trip to the public library can help children make and document new discoveries.

A care giver conducts a science project with children using water specimen tubes outdoors

Social Studies

You can make social studies come alive by creating opportunities for experiential learning. Experiential learning simply means to learn by doing. Experiential learning is a successful teaching strategy that enables children to learn and retain information through experiences tied to their learning. When engaged in experiential learning, children draw on all their senses. They read and listen to information to develop background knowledge. Children can see items or visuals related to a particular topic. They can take on roles to experience the topic they are learning about (Diem, 2004). 

Many social studies topics can be taught through experiential learning. For example, children studying a particular culture can perform tasks that individuals from that culture may typically perform (e.g., trading goods and services; designing transportation for a country; creating a mock election). The children can work together and with you to design engaging and meaningful learning around social studies.

Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

All children need a strong developmentally appropriate curriculum, supportive environment, and nurturing relationships. As a family child care provider, you will need to plan experiences and activities that address the varying developmental needs of the children you serve. Some children you care for will thrive even without much support from you while other children will need your help more frequently.  It is critical that you work with each child’s family to learn more about their child’s learning and development and what supports have been most successful. Some children have specific learning needs and require individualized strategies to help them be successful in your child care home. Include an item asking about this on any paperwork you create as a “Getting to Know Your Child” form in your parent handbook. You will want to know about any special activities or equipment, specialists or programs that provide individualized strategies or services, and how your environment and daily activities can support the child’s optimal development.

Infants and toddlers (birth to three years) with disabilities may have an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) that was written with the child’s parents and specialized therapists. Ask parents to share ideas and specific strategies about how you can best meet their child’s learning needs. Parents are the experts about their child. The more you know and understand each individual child’s developmental needs the better care you can support them. 

Children (three years and older) may have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) written with the child’s parents, teachers, and therapists. Ask the parents to share any information from their child’s IEP that will assist you in caring for the child. IEP’s may have specific strategies for learning new vocabulary, eliciting language, responding to questions, and following directions. When you can accommodate individual learning needs, you support the individual child as well as the other children in your care. Specialized learning strategies often are helpful not only for the child with special needs but for all the children in your family child care home.

Children who speak another language and are learning English are often called English language learners (ELLs) or dual language learners (DLLs). It might be hard for some children who are learning English to easily participate in all the activities in child care. The children learning English may be at different stages of acquiring their home language and English. Some children may hear quite a bit of English in their home, while others may hear none. This means some children may need more help than others. You can help children who are learning English by (a) including activities that are culturally meaningful to them, (b) giving them special supports, and (c) making children feel included in all activities. Helping all children is characterized by flexibility and a variety of changes. By making adaptations to the materials and/or the environment, or by adjusting your expectations of an activity, all children can feel successful and included.

Changes to Curricula

The curriculum should support the development and well-being of all children in a group to foster learning. While children may have diverse learning needs, the skills, and concepts they are learning through the curriculum may be similar.

Think about whether your experiences and activities include the right kind of goals and instruction for children. If not, you can make some changes to how information is presented. For example, some children who have difficulty with reading comprehension may need to have an abridged version of a book while other children can read the book in its entirety. Children with weak vocabulary skills might benefit from vocabulary instruction before reading a new book. School-age children can use a concept map where they write the vocabulary word, write the definition, identify an example and non-example, and draw a picture of the vocabulary word.

An example of a wordmap with the word its definition several examples and a non-example

Changes to the Environment

You may have to make some changes to your family child care environment to meet the needs of all children. A school-age child may prefer reading while sitting on an exercise ball. Some children may prefer a self-monitoring chart (a list that children use to help know they are staying on task). Some children enjoy quiet classical music playing to help them stay focused on a game. In family child care, the mixed ages of children are an advantage when looking at the overall environment. Some school-age children with disabilities may enjoy playing in areas of your home child care that are designed for the younger children (e.g., an 8-year-old takes the role of the cashier in a pretend grocery store area). You may have to rethink the environment so that an older child can participate in more age-appropriate ways (e.g., make signs for the pretend store or count the play money so each preschooler has an equal amount). It is important to keep the environment age-appropriate and challenging for all the children in your care. You can do this by talking with parents about a child’s specific special needs and interests. Then, intentionally use the child’s interests to engage the child in planned activities.

Changes During Activities

Children with disabilities might find some activities very challenging. For example, a school-age child who is learning how to add numbers may have difficulty quickly adding up the points when playing a board game with other children. You can make the activity easier by providing this child with a basic calculator. You can decrease the use of a calculator as the child becomes faster at adding numbers on paper. The help and concrete support that you offer the child will change over time as they become more skilled. Making modifications to activities and offering individualized support allows all children to participate successfully in activities. As a family child care provider, it is your job to support all children. You should know the strengths and needs of all children in your care to ensure that each child gets what they need when they need it.

Partnering with Families

Always support children’s cultures, learning styles, and temperaments as you promote interesting and meaningful learning during daily routines and activities. Maintain open communication with children’s families about your philosophy about how children learn, the importance of the learning environment and planned daily activities. Encourage families to share their own thoughts and beliefs to ensure continuity of care. Additionally, by sharing your weekly schedule of activities and ways children are learning through the experiences with each family, you are demonstrating your commitment to their child’s development. 


The following video clips show caregivers supporting children’s cognitive development through various activities and interactions in their family child care setting.

Cognitive Development: Experiences & Activities

Watch as providers support children’s cognitive development in their family child care setting.


You promote learning through your interactions and careful planning of activities every day. You can support children’s cognitive development by:

  • Providing a variety of enriching, developmentally appropriate activities that are challenging to each age level, but still allow them to feel successful.
  • Presenting opportunities for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children to engage in active, project-based learning
  • Offering interesting, age-appropriate play and exploration choices each day
  • Providing books and videos that are fiction and nonfiction, culturally sensitive, and supportive of the interests of the children in your care
  • Creating games and experiences that a variety of ages of children can participate in at their level of development
  • Developing activity or curriculum plans that incorporate learning opportunities across all content areas (math, literacy, science, social studies, technology, art, music)
  • Providing books, materials, toys, music, and foods that reflect the cultures of the children in your care
  • Allowing for voluntary participation in activities knowing that not all children enjoy the same things
  • Using daily observations and taking notes about the learning and development of each child you care for so you can best meet their individual needs


Each of us has different opinions, philosophies, and ideas about what and how children learn. Read and review the What Should Children Learn activity. Use these scenarios to reflect on your own point of view. Then think about how you would use your knowledge of cognitive development to respond to the adults in the scenarios. Write your responses and share them with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses. For this activity, it is helpful to consider multiple points of view when reflecting on the parents’ opinions and beliefs compared to your own. 

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Providers working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Science/Sensory Activity Plan and the CDA Mathematics Activity Plan handout to develop a science/sensory and a mathematics learning experience from your curriculum (or new activities you plan on implementing).  


Planning developmentally appropriate activities, experiences, and materials for your family child care home is important to supporting children’s play and exploration. Use the handout Materials and Activities You Use to Support Cognitive Development to think about how you support children’s cognitive development across a variety of ages.

Also, the Extension Database of Hands-On Activities for Child Care is an excellent resource, which includes experiences you can provide to a wide age-range of children:



Cognitive Development:
the process of acquiring intelligence and increasingly advanced thought and problem-solving ability from infancy to adulthood
Continuity of Care:
Creating opportunities for relationships to develop and deepen overtime
the attitudes, feelings, values, and behavior that characterize and inform society as a whole or any social group within it
Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP):
a written plan for special services for young children with developmental delays and their families; an IFSP only applies to children from birth to 3 years of age
Individual Education Program (IEP):
a written document for a student eligible for special education that is developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with state and federal laws; the IEP guides a student's learning while in special education and is written for students ages 3 to 22
A child’s personal style; the manner in which they interact, behave, and react


Review the following scenarios and select which statement does not encourage a child’s cognitive development:
True or false? Children’s cognitive development occurs in the context of relationships with caring, responsive adults (e.g., parents, caregivers, and teachers).
Finish this statement: Developmentally appropriate practice…
References & Resources

Child Care Aware of North Dakota. (2017).

Child Trends. (2019). Parental Expectations Increase Kids’ Stress. 

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

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., McArthur, C., McCutchen D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Educational Sciences. 

Gurganus, S. P. (2007). Math Instruction for Students with Learning Problems (1st ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.

Guyton, G. (2011). Using Toys to Support Infant-Toddler Learning and Development. Young Children. 

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. (2007). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale (rev. ed.). Teachers College Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2019). NAEYC position statement on developmentally appropriate practice 2020.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2014). Standards and Focal Points.

Olness, R. (2005). Using Literature to Enhance Writing Instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Platas, L.M. (2017). Three for One: Supporting social, emotional, and mathematical development. Young Children, 72(1), 33-37.

Prescott, J. (n.d.) The Power of Reader’s Theater: An easy way to make dramatic changes in kids’ fluency, writing, listening, and social skills.