Secondary tabs

    • Identify examples of types of learning that take place across various age and ability levels.
    • Explore your own assumptions about how and what children learn at various stages of cognitive development.
    • 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. You find yourself addressing a variety of ages and interests among the children. You know that children’s cognitive development is a major area of development. As a family child care provider, you plan your environment and daily activities to address children’s 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 the child’s parents and community affects your daily interactions with the children in your care (Bredecamp & Copple, 2009).

    Children’s cognitive development occurs in the context of relationships with caring, responsive adults (e.g., parents, caregivers, and teachers). As children form secure attachments with adults who care for them, they are able to enhance their curiosity about their world.

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

    Infants and toddlers learn best through daily experiences and interactions with warm, caring adults. This is called relationship-based care. In relationship-based care, the child care provider learns how to communicate with infant and toddlers, how to “read the child’s cues,” and how to build a warm, trusting relationship with the child’s parents in order to promote optimal development. Everyday experiences in your family child care home offer opportunities to promote infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive development. These are only a few examples:

    • When a young infant interacts with a mobile by reaching for an item or visually tracking a moving item, he or she is learning about the important concept of cause and effect while at the same time improving eye-hand coordination.
    • When a pre-toddler interacts with books, she or he is engaging in early literacy, while at the same time learning the names of objects or characters shown on the book’s pages.
    • When a toddler uses a puppet to “tell” or act out a story he or she is learning to use imagination, abstract thinking, and language.

    Allowing infants and toddlers to safely explore the environment in your family child care home is necessary for the development of their cognitive skills. You can nurture their natural curiosity about the world in a safe way. Here are a few ways to nurture children’s curiosity, problem-solving skills, and understanding of their world:

    • Model your own thinking skills. Think out loud. For example, you might say, “Hmm, I really wanted to paint this part of my picture purple, but Josie is using the purple paint. I think I’ll use yellow instead.”
    • Describe what the infant or toddler is doing. This is called being a “broadcaster” because it resembles what sports broadcasters do during a game. Do not expect the child to answer or repeat your words back to you. By simply describing what an infant or toddler is doing, you provide new vocabulary words that support cognitive and language skills. “You put the big block on the bottom of your tower and the small blocks on top of it.”
    • 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 drop this toy in the pail of water? I wonder what will happen to it.”
    • Read books to children individually or in small groups to promote language. Ask toddlers simple questions (e.g., What? Who? Where?) to elicit language. Sing simple songs that children know (ask children’s families to tell you their child’s favorite songs or nursery rhymes) and add dance and other movement activities.
    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 the learning children acquire in this age range falls into the categories of math, science, social studies, language, literacy, art, and technology. These are called content areas and you can intentionally guide children as they learn new information. These are a few examples of how preschool-age children might learn concepts—the process of acquiring intelligence and increasingly advanced thought and problem-solving ability from infancy to adulthood.

    • 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. 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. Just as they explored during their infant and toddler years, preschoolers are naturally curious explorers. They seem to “soak up” new information and then apply it. They are learning how to learn. As a family child care provider, you can nurture their curiosity.

    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 eating 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 for working hard and persisting on a task, “I know you were working really hard on that picture. I can see you included many details.”
    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 for 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

    • 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: Children rehearse from scripts created from books and perform a play for the other children. Children can be characters in the play or act as a narrator (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborne, 2001).
    • Book discussions or literature circle: Children discuss books they have read with their friends. The discussions help school-age children develop opinions about what they have read (Peralta-Nash & Dutch, 2000).
    • Creative writing activities: 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 to their friends books they have written. 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: Some children have difficulty picturing numbers and calculations in their mind. You can help children visualize math problems by incorporating hands-on activities (Spear-Swerling, 2006). For young children, addition and subtraction problems can be simplified by counting actual objects. Children can practice geometry by using toothpicks and marshmallows to create different shapes and angles. Older children can practice math concepts by designing towers using Legos or other blocks 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:
      • “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

    Social studies can include experiential learning. Experiential learning means to learn by doing. When children learn through direct experiences, they retain new information better. Through experiential learning, children draw upon all of 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).

    An example of experiential learning is children studying a particular culture performing 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 in the area of social studies.

    Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

    Some children you care for seem to thrive even without much support from you. Other children seem to need your help more frequently. It is critical that you work with each child’s family to learn about the child’s learning and development. You are building a relationship with each individual child and their family. Children thrive when their care is warm, responsive, and nurturing. 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, who provides the individualized strategies, and how your environment and daily activities can support the child’s optimal development.

    Infants and toddlers (birth to three years) with special needs may have a diagnosis and 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 provide.

    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 will require 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.

    What does it look like to help all children learn? It is characterized by flexibility and a variety of changes.

    Changes to Curricula

    Think about whether your experiences and activities include the right kind of goals and instruction for a child. 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.

    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 environment to meet the needs of some 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 special needs 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’s 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 special learning needs 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.

    Reflecting on Culture

    Culture influences how all of us view the world and the people around us. As a family child care provider, you bring your own culture to your work with children and families. Culture influences the way we think and act. It affects every part of our life. Look at the role culture plays in your interactions with others. Think about the ways your personal history and values affect your caregiving. What are your developmental expectations for the children you care for? Do they match their parents’ developmental expectations? Your culture and upbringing (and how you care for your own children) affect your work. The children you care for have unique backgrounds and experiences. Some may be similar to your own while others may be quite different. Knowing children’s backgrounds and preferences is the heart of developmentally appropriate practice. You can send each child and family the message “You belong here.” You can promote a sense of belonging and community.

    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. Sharing your weekly schedule of activities with each family demonstrates 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.


    In the experiences you plan to enhance children’s cognitive development you can:

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



    What should children learn during the 3 to 5-year-old period? 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.



    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 for experiences you can provide to a wide age-range of children:


    Cognitive developmentthe process of acquiring intelligence and increasingly advanced thought and problem-solving ability from infancy to adulthood
    Culturethe 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
    TemperamentA 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

    Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from

    Child Care Aware of North Dakota. (2017). Retrieved from:

    Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (Eds.). (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.

    Guyton, G. (2011). Using Toys to Support Infant-Toddler Learning and Development. Young Children, 66(5), 50-56. Retrieved from

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

    National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. (2012). Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    National Center for Quality After School Programs. Retrieved from

    Neuman, S. B., Copple, C., & Bredecamp, S. (2000). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentallyappropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Olness, R. (2005). Using Literature to Enhance Writing Instruction: A guide for K-5 teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

    Peralta-Nash, C. & Dutch, J. A. (April, 2000). Literature Circles: Creating an environment for choice. Primary Voices K-6, 8(4), 29-37.

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

    Reading Rockets. (2017). Retrieved from

    Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. (2008). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

    Spear-Swerling, L. (2006). The use of manipulatives in mathematics instruction. Retrieved from

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