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    • Describe the importance of relationships to cognitive development.
    • Identify ways your interactions support play, exploration, and learning in your classroom.




    The Importance of Secure Attachments

    After World War II, psychiatrist John Bowlby was asked to study difficulties experienced by children who were left homeless and orphaned. As a result, he developed attachment theory, which says that infants need to develop a positive relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. This bond between the infant and an attachment figure (usually a caregiver) supports the infant’s need for security. Infants can form attachments to more than one caregiver. For example, they can form positive bonds with both their parent(s) or caregivers and with you.

    Infants become attached to people who are responsive to them. Infants develop patterns based on those responses, and those patterns lead to expectations that are used throughout their lives. As an example, let’s think about two infants with very different experiences. Dara is being cared for by a variety of family members while her mother goes through an extended illness. She spends a week or two at each family member’s house as their schedules allow. Some caregivers are able to bring her to the family child care home, and some are not. Each of the family members caring for Dara have different ideas about what is best for her. Sometimes Dara is moved from car seat to floor to infant seat to crib with little interaction from adults. Sometimes she cries for long periods and is given a bottle to feed herself. Many evenings she sits in a portable crib with cartoons on TV. Although Dara has a caring family who are working together to care for her during a crisis, she is having experiences that could negatively affect her development. How do you think Dara comes to think about the world and her place in it? What does she come to expect from adults and from her environment? How does she learn to interact with others?

    Now think about Damion. Damion spends his time in a variety of settings, but his settings are very different from Dara’s. Damien has safe spaces to play and explore: his home, his family child care provider’s program, and his maternal grandparent’s home. Adults in those settings talk to Damion throughout the day and respond quickly when he cries. Although he does not yet use words, they respond to his sounds by asking questions, making comments, or guessing his needs. He plays simple back-and-forth games while he and his caregivers giggle. What do you think Damien is learning about the world and about adults? Which child do you think will be more comfortable exploring the world around them? Although Dara and Damian might both develop secure attachment relationships with important adults in their lives, Damian’s experiences are offering him a consistent secure base. Infants need adults to be there for them physically, emotionally and socially. As they become attached, they use their attachment figures as a secure base to leave and come back to. When a young child inches over to another child and then quickly moves back to a caregiver, that’s an example of secure attachment. Over time, they will stay away for longer periods, but they will still check in visually to make sure a caregiver is there. These relationships give infants the sense of safety they need for positive development.

    Relationships Across the Age Groups

    What children need from you, one of their attachment figures, will change over time. Security is the focus for infants, so they need you to be there for them. Exploration is the focus for pre-toddlers, so they need you to create a safe and interesting environment for them to discover. Toddlers are forming their identities, so they need you to set positive limits and help them work through their frustrations and disagreements.

    A typical day might go something like this: Anna who is 6 months old has been out of sorts lately as her mother has been working unusually long hours and has been unable to care for her. As her family child care provider, you know to stay nearby where she can see your face and hear your voice, and you respond to her cues immediately. You also have a pre-toddler in your home, and she is busy. She particularly likes to dump things, so you have several different sized tubs with items of different textures accessible to her. She loves when you acknowledge her play. Meanwhile, Micah, who is almost 2½, needs your support as he tries to get what he wants; he needs you to give him the words to use instead of grabbing others’ toys. Because you have gotten to know each child individually, you are able to adapt your interactions with them, which in turn supports their development and learning. Each of the children needs you, each just needs you in a different way.

    Interactions Support Learning

    Infants and toddlers are scientists at work. They are active learners who touch, move, explore, talk, solve problems, figure things out, question, interact, and make messes. These little scientists need you to support and enhance their play, exploration, and learning both verbally and physically. Your interactions with children help to support their cognitive development as you facilitate play, exploration and learning.

    Verbal Interaction

    As you get to know each child individually, you will learn a great deal about their development and their interests. Stay curious about what makes each child smile, laugh, or seem nervous, 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 them. For example, “You stacked two green blocks on top of the red block.” Using the word “stacked” instead of “put” or “placed” introduces new language; using color names reinforces color identification; using “on top” is a directional word; and the number “two” supports math concepts; all of these expand learning in an appropriate way.
    • Converse and ask questions during play, learning, and caregiving routines. Infants and toddlers need help to understand the world around them. Talk and ask questions about what they are doing with a toy (pushing, pulling, twisting) or experiencing in an activity (dumping, sorting, identifying). This type of interaction teaches math and science concepts and boosts vocabulary in a natural way. Bathe infants and toddlers in language, but don’t overwhelm them with language. Take time to pause and notice what they are doing. Give them time to respond with their actions or words.
    • Include a variety of words instead of using the same words all the time. A large vocabulary will help infants and toddlers become successful readers one day.
    • Avoid the tendency to tell infants and toddlers what to do, what will happen, or what they are thinking. You may know what will happen when they pour sand through a sieve, but letting them figure it out allows learning to happen and encourages further learning. Telling them what will happen takes away that moment of discovery. A better option would be to ask what happened to the sand after it was poured into the sieve. Consider a few other examples:




    You Saw:

    Jeremy’s block tower is almost as tall as he is. As he reaches to add one more block, he looks at you and smiles.


    What you might say:

    • What do you think will happen?
    • Wow! Look how tall it is. I wonder how high it can go.
    • You can ask a friend for help if you’d like.


    What you might do:

    • Count the blocks as they are stacked.
    • Help balance a block to make it easier to build or offer a smaller block for the top.


    You Saw:

    A 6-month-old is exploring a bin of colorful fabrics.


    What you might say:

    • You look so fascinated by the fabrics!
    • How does it feel on your skin? Oh, is it soft?
    • What do you see in there? Let’s take a look together.
    • I notice this one has stripes.


    What you might do:

    • Wave the fabrics to show a new or interesting way to explore.
    • Offer fabrics the child hasn’t touched yet and describe the texture or pattern.


    You Saw:

    Felix and Olivia are trying to fill buckets with water in the sensory table, but they are using cups that are designed with holes in the bottom. All the water drips out before they can pour it into the bucket.


    What you might say:

    • This reminds me of the cups we have in the sand box that let the sand drain through the bottom.
    • What would happen if you covered the bottom with your hand?
    • What’s different about this scoop?
    • What happens when I fill this cup with water?
    • I wonder where we could find other tools to fill the bucket.


    What you might do:

    • Provide a measuring cup or scoop.
    • Move the bucket closer to the children.
    • Be patient after asking a question or making a statement. Allow infants and toddlers time to process what was said. Too many questions can impede the natural learning process.
    • Respond to infants’ and toddlers’ cues. Infants and toddlers provide cues on what they need and want. Responsive adults act on these cues to meet their emotional needs, let children know they are important, and let them know adults are there to support them. Keep in mind that respectfully responding to cues also means you respect when infants and toddlers do not want to engage. An infant or toddler who is glancing at you, leaning toward you, dancing in excitement, or otherwise showing interest is probably eager to interact with you. An infant or toddler who is working intently (e.g., filling and emptying a container, trying to get a lid on a box, etc.), turning her or his back to you, or looking away may be less interested in interacting at the moment. You can gently describe what the child is doing, but interrupting the child and forcing your own ideas may disrupt their learning.

    Physical Interactions

    Playing with infants and toddlers, letting them take the lead, and being involved in their routines will strengthen their cognitive development and your relationship with them. Allow them the supervised freedom to choose what, where, and with whom they want to play. This builds their independence and social skills and supports creativity.

    Infants and toddlers desire human interaction. They want and need you to interact with them. The amount and type of interaction they desire during play and learning will differ. Always be available.

    Watch for cues that infants and toddlers want or need you. Be careful not to focus on just one infant or toddler and perhaps miss cues from other children in your care.

    Let infants and toddlers take the lead in play. Child-led play may be difficult for some adults to follow. We know how materials work and what typically goes together; we solve problems and get things done quickly. But it is the process, and not just the end result, where learning takes place.

    Some struggles during play and learning are OK. Adults typically like to make things easier for infants and toddlers: we don’t want them to get frustrated or watch them struggle, especially when we can solve the problem. Allowing infants and toddlers to struggle gives them time to solve the problem, builds self-confidence, and supports task persistence. Be sure to step in, though, if a child’s struggle escalates to the point it becomes a negative situation.

    You enrich play and learning through interactions. Following the lead of infants and toddlers during play does not mean you are a passive participant. Your questions and actions spur their curiosity, which leads to sustained engagement and new learning opportunities.

    The Role of Culture in Interactions

    Understanding the meaning of the word “culture” in the context of this lesson is important. The word has different meanings. For this lesson, we rely on Dodge, Colker and Heroman (2002) who wrote that “culture involves the customary beliefs, values and practices people learn from their families and communities.”

    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 with each child and family. Every child and family has a culture. So each day, you are interacting with many people, including infants and toddlers, who have their own values, beliefs, and practices. And, you have your own culture. This is a lot to take into consideration, but you need to ensure that your interactions respect the culture of each and every infant and toddler.

    Allowing negative biases to affect your work as a caregiver can negatively affect the development of the infants and toddlers you are entrusted to care for. When promoting thinking skills, exploration and problem solving, be careful not to demonstrate bias by designating toys for boys and toys for girls, encouraging boys to get dirty but girls to stay clean, or guiding girls to dramatic play, and boys to build with blocks. These are examples of gender biases; other biases involve race, ethnicity, language, and special needs. Awareness of your own bias is the first step in supporting cognitive development by preventing them from negatively affecting the development of infants and toddlers.

    When it comes to being culturally relevant, keep the following in mind:

    • Infants and toddlers need to learn about their world and their community. Their community includes their families, you and other important people in their lives, and their immediate surroundings.
    • Infants are especially sensitive during their caregiving routines. For example, they are affected if it takes longer for you to respond to their cries than it takes their parent or if there is a lot of difference between the way their diapers are changed at home and how they are changed by you.
    • Infants and toddlers learn about their world through the language provided during interactions with them. You can support home language by learning a few words from the child’s native language to help them feel more comfortable. Young infants are going to be more interested in your voice and touch, while toddlers are also going to be interested in books and music. Try incorporating books, music, or materials from children’s family lives.
    • Maintain open communication with families on what materials and activities you provide to support their child’s cognitive development.

    Infants’ and toddlers’ families are their first teachers, and their family’s culture is integral to their development. When you offer culturally relevant experiences on a daily basis that are based on their real-life experiences, you are supporting their cognitive development.


    In the following video, observe the verbal and physical interactions of the teachers. Pay special attention to the type of interaction, the children’s cues, and how the teacher’s interactions led to sustained engagement and expanded the children’s learning.

    Supporting Cognitive Development: Interactions

    Interactions are meaningful moments for learning


    As a family child care provider, you promote cognitive development when you:

    • Stay in the moment and pay attention to what you are saying and doing so you can extend learning opportunities.
    • Use verbal and physical interactions to make the most of every moment to support development and learning.
    • Develop the ability to read cues to adjust interactions to appropriately meet the individual needs of infants and toddlers.
    • Reflect on your verbal and physical interactions to inform what you might want to repeat or change.
    • Get to know each family by asking questions and listening for cultural cues, and plan experiences based on their preferences.
    • Display and use items from families, such as mounting family photographs within an infant’s and toddler’s sight and reach.
    • Include music for infants and toddlers to play, dance, and sing to that is familiar to them, including music that may be in their home language or played in their home setting. This may include country, jazz, and classical. Sing and dance along with the infant or toddler.
    • Allow for voluntary participation in activities, honoring the fact that not all infants and toddlers like the same things.
    • Use daily observations to better understand the learning of the infants and toddlers you care for in order to meet their individual needs.



    Think about the unique ways infants and toddlers are interacting and developing thinking skills. Review the Reflecting on Interactions activity. Read the scenarios and answer the questions. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.



    We all learn from positive interactions and like to get encouragement. Infants and toddlers need to be noticed, recognized, and encouraged, too. Read and review the Celebrating Infants and Toddlers information. It contains some sample phrases you can use to celebrate and encourage learning in an infant or toddler.


    Attachment figureA familiar person whom children develop a close bond with
    Attachment TheoryDeveloped by John Bowlby, this theory argues that early relationships with important caregivers (such has parents) influence an individual’s development




    What is not an example of supportive interactions?


    True or false? As the caregiver, you should take the lead in play.


    Finish this statement: In verbal interactions with infants and toddlers, it is important to…

    References & Resources

    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. J., & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.

    Early Head Start National Resource Center. (2011). First Connections: Attachment and Its Lasting Importance. Retrieved from

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

    Health and Safety in Family Child Care Homes—Participant Guide. (2010). Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

    Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Language Development and Communication. (1992). Sacramento: California Department of Education and WestEd.