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    • Define cognitive development.
    • Describe what cognitive development looks like during childhood.
    • Identify steps you can take to support cognitive development.




    As an adult, you have already developed many of the thinking skills that help you navigate the world around you. Think about the skills and strategies that have helped you succeed at daily tasks like:

    • Reading and following a new recipe
    • Finding a different way home when traffic is heavy
    • Estimating the amount of material you’ll need for a home improvement project
    • Finishing a book and discussing it with friends
    • Filling out a job application
    • Fixing a leaking faucet or pipe
    • Budgeting for groceries and other essentials

    What thinking skills helped with these kinds of tasks? Reading, writing, measuring, calculating, problem-solving, hypothesis testing, comprehending, and recalling facts all are essential for many of the tasks you accomplish every day. You started developing those skills as a child, and they continue to develop as you encounter new situations as an adult.

    The children you care for are just beginning their own journeys, and their brains are developing in amazing ways. The work you do every day lays the foundation for these children to develop the thinking skills they need to be successful in school and life. Your commitment to relationship-based care actually helps support children’s growth and development. This course will help you understand how your work contributes to the development of children’s thinking skills.

    What is Cognitive Development?

    Cognitive development is all about learning. When a child imitates an adult, that’s cognitive development; when a child builds a tower out of blocks, that’s cognitive development; and when a child pretends to be a doggy or a daddy, also that’s cognitive development. Cognitive development happens all the time and is influenced both by our genes and our experiences. According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2002), “Cognitive development refers to the mind and how it works. It involves how children think, how they see their world, and how they use what they learn.” While the brain can be influenced at any age, it is the most pliable in the early years.

    Scientists no longer debate which is most important, genetics or experience; the same is true for which developmental domain is most important. All of the domains of development are important, and they are inextricably linked. Carol Dweck of Stanford University says, “We can’t carve people up—there isn’t the cognitive person, the emotional person, the motivational person, the social person. All of these co-occur in the brain” (Galinsky, 2010).

    The Importance of the Early Years

    Brains are built over time, and each experience affects growth and development. Who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives, and the experiences they have while in your care. Outside of their families, you may be the person they spend the most time with during these critical years of development.

    Cognitive development is strengthened when children are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. It is your job to make sure:

    • They are healthy by keeping a clean environment and promoting healthy habits
    • They are emotionally secure by responding to their cues and addressing their needs immediately and in a nurturing manner
    • They are socially connected by fostering relationships among them and others in the community during play and caregiving routines

    Early experiences are powerful; children who accumulate negative experiences in their early years carry the effects of those early negative experiences with them throughout their lives. In other words, early experiences last a lifetime. Remember that while you help wash hands, pick up toys, sing songs, plant seeds to create a garden, and perform all of the other tasks you do on a daily basis, you also influence a developing brain. For example, to expand on the topic of planting a garden, you could get some ideas about how to integrate community food system activities into your program by visiting the Farm to Preschool information from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at


    The brain does amazing work during childhood. Watch this video to learn more about how experiences influence the developing brain.

    Cognitive Development: An Introduction

    Experiences that shape cognitive development


    Children are active learners. They learn by pretending, exploring, and testing themselves. Cognitive development is built on other areas of development, such as visual skills, thinking skills, and memory. The experiences you offer across all areas of children's development contribute greatly to their development and learning. Take time to review the strategies listed below which highlight ways to support cognitive development for the children in your care:

    Infants and toddlers

    • Touch, cuddle, and sing to babies and toddlers.
    • Read to individual infants and toddlers. Let them explore the pages, illustrations, and textures. Talk about colors, sizes, shapes, and other features of the book.
    • Provide toys that make simple, pleasant noises, such as rattles and shakers. Help infants discover the connection between their movements and the noises. Talk with toddlers about the different sounds objects make—compare the sounds of different drums, bells, or shakers.
    • Place shatterproof mirrors at infants’ and toddlers’ eye levels. Describe their movements as they explore their own images.
    • Engage the senses. Talk about the taste and smell of bottles or food. Offer easy-to-clean chew toys with a variety of textures that are safe for infants to put in their mouths. Consider mats or soft spaces with different fabrics.
    • Respond to each child. Hold and rock infants and toddlers to communicate reassurance and comfort
    • Play simple movement games like, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Pat-a-Cake”, and “How big is baby? So big!”
    • Extend the sounds and words used by infants and toddlers; for example, if a toddler says, “Me home,” you might say, “You want to go home. After snack time, Daddy will be here to pick you up and go home.”


    • Provide a variety of acceptable choices. Letting preschoolers decide what to play with, read, and eat, and who to play with can help them build the cognitive and self-regulation skills they need.
    • Sing rhyming songs and read books throughout the day. Take time to play with language during free play and transitions and throughout the day. Children think it is fun to make up silly rhymes, but they are also learning!
    • Respond honestly to children’s questions. Preschoolers are famous for asking, “Why?” When you don’t know the answer, suggest that you and the child research it.
    • Look for simple math problems throughout the day. “Hmm, we’ve got four children at this table and two bananas. What could we do to make sure everyone gets some banana?” Lead the children to think about math concepts like dividing objects in half. Practice counting while setting the table.
    • Read alphabet books and talk about letters and the sounds they make.
    • Talk about sizes, shapes, and colors. Compare objects using words like “big,” “bigger,” “biggest” and “light” and “heavy.” Point out shapes you see around you: octagon stop signs, rectangle doors, circle light fixtures, and square floor tiles. Play “I Spy” in your care environment or outside to find objects of different sizes, shapes, and colors.


    • Provide a variety of materials that capture children’s interest and provide a challenge. Jigsaw puzzles, model airplanes, musical instruments, woodworking, and crafts can all provide chances for school-agers to exercise their cognitive skills.
    • Make sure plenty of books and writing materials are available. Provide interesting, age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction. Also provide reference materials that children can use to research topics that interest them. Provide a comfortable, quiet space for reading and writing.
    • Use age-appropriate technology with adult supervision. School-age children can play games on the computer, learn to write code, and use the internet to research interests.
    • Give school-agers a sense of ownership. Involve them in making decisions about changes to the indoor-outdoor environment (e.g., what plants to grow, whether to build an outdoor fort). Provide authentic responsibilities like caring for plants and cleaning up play spaces.

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course, the Cognitive Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Cognitive Development Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    How do you define cognitive development? What experiences have helped you develop as a learner? Read and review the information in Exploring Cognitive Development. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.



    What are your thoughts and beliefs about children’s cognitive development? Each of us have different opinions and ideas about what and how children learn best. Sometimes our opinions and beliefs are based on facts but sometimes they are not. To best serve all children, it’s important to separate myth from fact. Read and review the Myths About Learning guide. Think about whether each of the statements is myth or fact. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.




    True or false? A child’s cognitive development is primarily influenced by genes.


    Which of the following is an example of cognitive development?


    Which does not help strengthen children’s cognitive development?

    References & Resources

    Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about one’s thinking. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

    Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

    Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind In The Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. New York, NY: William Morrow.

    The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: