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Supporting Cognitive Development: Interactions

Your relationship with the infants and toddlers in your care is one of your strongest teaching tools. This lesson will focus on interacting with children to support play, exploration, and learning. You will discover how teachable moments and communication can make the most of every routine.

  • Describe the importance of relationships to cognitive development.
  • Identify ways your interactions support play, exploration, and learning in your classroom.
  • Discuss how the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your program can promote a sense of belonging and community.



The Importance of Secure Attachments

After World War II, the psychiatrist John Bowlby was asked to study difficulties being experienced by children who were left homeless and orphaned. As a result of this work, he introduced the concept of attachment and developed attachment theory. Attachment theory states that infants need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for positive social and emotional development to occur. This bond between the infant and the attachment figure (usually a caregiver) supports the infant’s need for safety and security as they play and explore the world around them. This is the reason that assigning infants and toddlers a primary caregiver when they are in early childhood programs is so important.

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, think about two infants with 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 her child development center, and some are not. Each of the family members who are 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 the television. Although Dara has a caring family who are working together to care for her during a crisis, she is having experiences that could impact 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, let us think about Damion. Damion spends his time in a variety of different settings, but his settings are different from Dara’s. Damion has a variety of safe spaces to play and explore: his home, his child-development center, his babysitters’ homes when his parents have extended missions or work hours, 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 Damion 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 Damion might both develop secure attachment relationships with important adults in their lives, Damion’s experiences are offering him a consistent, secure base. A secure base is an attachment figure who provides a sense of trust, safety and security for a child to explore their environment yet return to when they feel unsure. Infants need adults to be there for them physically, emotionally, and socially. When a young child inches over to another child and then quickly moves back to a caregiver, that is an example of secure attachment behavior. Over time, they will stay away for longer periods, but will still check in visually to make sure a caregiver is still 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, meeting their needs in a consistent, nurturing way. 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, help them identify their feelings and work through their frustrations and disagreements.

If you were teaching in a multi-age classroom, your 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 she has in the past. As her primary caregiver, you know to stay nearby where she can see your face and hear your voice, responding to her cues immediately. You have several pre-toddlers in your class, and they are busy. They particularly like to dump things, so you have several different sized tubs with items of different textures accessible to them. They love when you acknowledge their play. Meanwhile, Micah, who is almost 2½, needs your support as he tries to get his friends to do what he wants; he needs you to give him the words to use to initiate play 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, however, each of them needs you in a different way.

Interactions Support Learning

Infants and toddlers are scientists at work. Through play, infants and toddlers actively try out new skills, explore their imagination and creativity, and learn about relationships with other people. 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 facilitate their play and learning both verbally and physically. In a sense, you are co-exploring with the children in your care.

Verbal Interaction

As you get to know each child individually, you will learn about their development and their interests. Observe what makes each child smile, laugh, or seem nervous, and verbally 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 include descriptive language that is meaningful to the child. 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.
  • Communicate 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. It is important to immerse infants and toddlers in language, but be careful not to overload their minds with constant talking. Take time to pause and notice what they are doing. Even if they are not yet verbal, give them time to respond with their sounds, gestures, or actions. This teaches them conversational skills.
  • 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.
  • 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 the 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 in interactions. 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 (filling an emptying a container, trying to get a lid on a box, etc.), turning their back to you, or looking away may be less interested in interacting. You can gently describe what the child is doing but interrupting the child and sharing your own ideas may interrupt their learning. This is a great time to document your observations of the child’s individual interests to build on their learning later. 
  • Avoid telling 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 investigation. Telling children 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 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 would 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:

Zoe, a 6-month-old in your classroom, 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 so soft?
  • What do you see in there?
  • Let us 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 has not touched yet and describe the texture or pattern.
  • Count the fabric pieces as the child removes them from the bin.


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. Let us look at the bottoms of the cups
  • What would happen if you covered the bottom with your hand?
  • What is 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.
  • Demonstrate the action for the children to observe. Ask them what they notice.

Physical Interactions

Infants and toddlers want and need you to interact with them. They desire human interaction. The amount and types of interaction they desire during play and learning will differ among children and the types of experiences they are involved in.

Watch for cues that infants and toddlers want or need you. Be careful not to focus on just one child or group of children to the extent that you may be missing cues from other infants and toddlers.

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. 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 result, where learning takes place.

Some struggles during play and learning are OK. Adults typically like to make things easier for infants and toddlers because we do not 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 and builds their self-confidence. You can begin something, such as stacking one block on another, and then encourage them to give it a try. Providing just enough help to keep frustration at a minimum motivates children to learn new skills. This concept is referred to as “scaffolding,” a term coined by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. As the child learns how to avoid frustration with each step, the adult can provide less and less support. 

Scaffolding is a method of support that helps a child learn a new skill. According to Vygotsky, scaffolding occurs in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD is the difference between what a child can do independently and what they can do with the support of someone who is more experienced. Scaffolding requires the following, which can be obtained through thoughtful observations and interactions (Gillespie & Greenberg, 2017):

  • Understanding of infant and toddler development
  • Understanding the ways children approach learning
  • Establishing realistic learning objectives
  • Matching strategies to each child’s interests, knowledge, and skills. 

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 continued 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 everyone. Everyone has a culture, and it influences how we communicate, how we interact, and how we interpret what people do and say. It even shapes our expectations. Culture plays a large role in how we raise children. 

Think about all the interactions you have daily with families, children, co-teachers, program staff, and your director. Each of those people has a culture. So, each day, you are interacting with many people, including infants and toddlers, who have their own values, beliefs, and practices. Plus, you have your own culture. That is a lot to take into consideration, but you need to ensure that your interactions respect the culture of each infant and toddler in order to create a safe, nurturing, and inclusive environment. 

Allowing negative biases to affect your duties as a teacher can negatively affect the development of the infants and toddlers you care for. When encouraging thinking skills, exploration, and problem-solving, teachers demonstrate bias when they have toys for boys and toys for girls, guidelines that boys may get dirty but girls need to stay clean, dramatic play for girls and building with blocks for boys. These are examples of gender biases; other biases involve race, ethnicity, language, and special needs. Awareness of your own biases is an important step in supporting cognitive development, as our beliefs influence how we care for children. 

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 their other caregivers, 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 a parent does, or if there is a lot of difference between the way their diapers are changed at home and how they are changed by you. Ask families’ about how they engage in specific routines at home and, if possible, attempt to incorporate similar practices in the classroom.
  • Support the 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.
  • Maintain open communication with families on what materials you are providing to support their child’s cognitive development.
  • Consider the verbal and nonverbal messages you are communicating. Model respectful language and behaviors. 

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


In the following video clips, 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 lead to sustained engagement and expand their learning.

Supporting Cognitive Development: Interactions

Interactions are meaningful moments for learning


As an infant and toddler teacher, do the following to promote cognitive development:

  • Stay in the moment and pay attention to what you are saying and doing so you can extend the child's learning.
  • Use verbal and physical interactions to make the most of every moment to support development and learning.
  • Adjust interactions to appropriately meet the individual needs of infants and toddlers.
  • Reflect on your interactions to decide what you might want to repeat or change.
  • Get to know each family by asking questions and learning about their culture. Plan experiences based on their preferences.
  • Display and use items from families, such as hanging family photographs within infants' and toddlers' 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. Sing and dance along with the infant or toddler.
  • Allow infants and toddlers to choose to participate 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 to meet their individual needs.


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


We all learn through positive interactions with others. Infants and toddlers need to be noticed, recognized, and encouraged. Children build on their learning experiences from the feedback, both physical and verbal, that they receive from their caregivers. Remember to consider not only what you say but how you say it when communicating with infants and toddlers in your care. They are watching and listening! Download the Celebrating Infants and Toddlers handout. It contains some sample phrases you can use to encourage thinking skills in an infant or toddler. 

When considering your interactions with infants and toddlers, it is important to understand and reflect on how culture and personal biases will affect your duties as a caregiver. Download the What is Anti-Bias Education? handout to help guide you in supporting children to have a sense of belonging so they can explore themselves, their families, and their communities in happy and healthy ways.


Attachment figure:
A familiar person whom children develop a close bond with
Attachment theory:
This explains how much the parents’ relationship with the child influences development
zone of proximal development:
The difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner


Which of the following 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, Third Edition. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Early Head Start National Resource Center (2011). First connections: Attachment and its lasting importance.  

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

Gillespie, L. & Greenberg, J. (2017). Rocking and Rolling: Empowering infants’ and toddlers’ learning through scaffolding. Young Children, 72(2).

Harms, T., Cryer, D., Clifford, R. M., & Yazejian N. (2017). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2018). Caring Connections Podcast 7: Let's talk about… music.

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

MacLaughlin, S. (2017). Reflection: The first step for addressing bias in infant and toddler programs. Young Children, November 2017, 90-93.

Mangione, P. L., & Greenwald, D. (Eds.). (2011). Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A guide to language development and communication (2nd ed.). Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.

Mooney, C. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. 

Zero to Three. (2016). Tips on Playing with Babies and Toddlers.