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    • 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.




    During the preschool years, amazing changes happen in 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. Math and scientific thinking become more sophisticated. 

    The table below describes cognitive development milestones in preschool.

    Cognitive Developmental Milestones

    Age 3

    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Does puzzles with three or four pieces
    • Understands what “two” means
    • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
    • Turns book pages one at a time

    Age 4

    • Understands the idea of counting
    • Starts to understand time
    • Remembers parts of a story
    • Understands the idea of “same” and “different”
    • Draws a person with two to four body parts

    Age 5

    • Counts ten or more things
    • Can draw a person with at least six body parts
    • Can print some letters or numbers
    • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
    • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from:

    All of these thinking skills usually develop in a predictable sequence. As highlighted in Lesson Two about infant and toddler cognitive milestones, remember that every child is unique. 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. Milestones are not rigid rules for when or how a child should develop. Rather, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children based on cognitive, gross-motor (movement), fine-motor (finger and hand skills), hearing, speech, vision, and social-emotional development.

    If a family is concerned about the track of their child’s cognitive development and feels uncertain about what they are observing and what to expect, you have an opportunity to learn about their child’s development from the child’s family. You may also consider offering additional information, including information about possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together 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

    • Can't work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
    • Doesn't play pretend or make-believe
    • Doesn't understand simple instructions

    Four Years

    • Has trouble scribbling
    • Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
    • Doesn't follow three-part commands
    • Doesn't understand "same" and "different"

    Five Years

    • Doesn't respond to people, or responds only superficially
    • Can't tell what's real and what's make-believe
    • Doesn't play a variety of games and activities
    • Can't give first and last name
    • Doesn't draw pictures

    If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. Then share your observations with the child’s family. This may be difficult, but it can make 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. As discussed in Lesson Two on infant and toddler developmental milestones, if families are concerned about a child’s development, they should talk to the child’s health-care provider about their concerns. Their health-care provider can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to specialists. Families should also contact their local school district (for children age 3 years or older). The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development. This can help the child and family receive any services and help they may need.


    Just as children’s bodies grow throughout the preschool years, their brains are growing too. You will see major changes between 3 and 5 years old in a child’s thinking skills. 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 in your classroom. 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. As noted in Lesson Two, think about milestones when you:

    • Set learning goals for individual children in your family child care setting.
    • Post developmental milestone charts for reference and share with families.
    • Recognize that children need different things 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
    • 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 remember developmental milestones. You can review the Milestones Poster and use it as a reference in your work and share them with families.


    Cognitive skillsThe mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
    Developmental delayThis may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
    Developmental milestonesA set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
    Developmental screeningA 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 momentsSpontaneous 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. (2012). Interactive Milestones Chart. Retrieved  from:

    Dodge, D. T., Rudick, S., & Colker, L. J. (2009). The Creative Curriculum for Family Child Care (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.