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Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

It is important to provide infants and toddlers with a variety of age-appropriate experiences and activities. This lesson describes how you can engage young children in play that promotes their cognitive development and addresses the needs of all learners.

  • Describe developmentally appropriate practice and what it looks like with infants and toddlers. 
  • Identify adaptations to the curriculum, environment, and activities that will support all learners.
  • Apply your knowledge of culture, temperament, and learning styles when planning learning experiences.



Your infant toddler classroom likely serves a diverse group of children, so you must be prepared to meet a variety of needs. You must understand what skills are typical for children of certain ages, what is appropriate for an individual child, and what is valued by families and communities to effectively serve the infants and toddlers in your care. Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is an approach to teaching grounded both in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education (NAEYC, 2009). Developmentally appropriate practices are educational and caregiving methods that promote each child’s optimal learning and development through a strengths-based approach to joyful, engaged learning. Caregivers implement developmentally appropriate practice by recognizing the multiple assets all young children bring to the early learning program as unique individuals and as members of families and communities (NAEYC, 2019). Developmentally appropriate practice provides caregivers with structured guidance on how to support the growth and development of children along with making learning meaningful and purposeful to their abilities.

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

Infants and toddlers learn best through daily interactions and play-based experiences. Play helps children develop their approaches toward learning. Memory, spatial awareness, problem solving, attention, and persistence are a few cognitive competencies developed through play. Families and caregivers can support children in becoming better learners later in life by playing with them. If children do not develop solid approaches to learning in the early years, they may be less successful in school settings later in life.

It is important to remember that young children are natural explorers. They are hungry for information about the world around them. Children are learning how to learn. Adults can nurture this curiosity by promoting exploration and problem solving. This helps young children develop thinking skills. There is a lot you can do to help young children learn. Here is a short list of ways to support infants and toddlers in your care: 

  • Model your own thinking skills. Show interest, ask questions, and make comments about your observations as you play with children. For example, you might say, “Hmm, I really wanted to paint this part of my picture purple, but the purple paint is being used. What should I do?”
  • 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 run out of snack? What should we do?”
  • Give children a lot of chances to explore concepts. Read books and promote literacy development during individual and group activities, sing songs about the stories you read, and encourage children to imitate story characters with sounds or movements.

Consider the following ways in which young children learn important concepts through play (Guyton, 2011). You might notice that many of these examples involve learning in more than one area, or developmental domain. Developmental domains represent specific aspects of a child’s overall development (cognitive, motor, language and literacy, social-emotional, physical well-being). It is important to keep in mind that during play, children often learn across multiple developmental domains. You may also notice that these examples reflect everyday experiences, which offer many opportunities for learning.

  • When a young infant interacts with a mobile by reaching for an item or visually tracking a moving item, they are learning about the important concept of cause and effect while at the same time improving their eye-hand coordination. 
  • A pre-toddler interacting a with book is engaging in early literacy as well as learning the names of objects or characters on book pages. 
  • A toddler using a puppet to tell a story or act out happenings in the story is learning to use their imagination, abstract thinking, and language. 

Importance of Culture, Temperament and Learning Styles

Infants and toddlers bring their own set of unique characteristics to their relationship with you. One of the ways you can deepen those relationships is by respecting their family’s culture and their individual temperament and learning style. By knowing infants and toddlers well, you can intentionally create learning experiences that support cognitive development. Learning experiences that are culturally responsive and unbiased consider infants’ and toddlers’ temperaments and are tailored to their individual learning styles. These experiences will not only support their cognitive development but all the other developmental domains as well. You learned about the role that culture plays on your interactions with the infants and toddlers in Lesson Three, now we will take a look at how culture, temperament, and learning styles may affect the activities and experiences you will plan.

Reflecting on Culture

Culture influences how all of us view the world and the people around us. Every time we enter the classroom, we bring our own culture in with us. This culture influences the way we think and act. Understanding our own individual culture can increase our confidence and ability to work with others around us. Culture affects every part of our life. Look at the role culture plays in your interactions with others. Think about the ways your history and values affect your teaching. Do you expect family members to attend meetings and help with the class? Do you expect children to be toilet trained at a certain age? When do you think children should feed and dress themselves? These questions can be influenced by our culture and upbringing.

Children enter our programs with unique backgrounds and experiences. Knowing children's backgrounds and preferences is the heart of developmentally appropriate practice. You can use this information to send the message, "You belong here." By acknowledging the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your own classroom, you can make embracing culture more relevant for the infants and toddlers in your care. By doing that you also help promote a sense of belonging and community.

Understanding the meaning of the word "culture" in the context of this lesson is important. The word has different meanings to different people. For this lesson, "culture involves the customary beliefs, values and practices people learn from their families and communities" (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2006). 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. It impacts the daily interactions that you have with families, children, co-workers, and your director. It also plays a significant role in the activities and experiences that you provide to children. It is important that you think about your own culture and the culture of the children and families in your program. This knowledge will help you to ensure that the experiences that you plan respect the culture of each and every infant and toddler in your care. 

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. Some ways that you can offer culturally relevant experiences and activities include:

  • Offer books with pictures of children and families from various races, ethnicities, and cultures.
  • Sing lullabies in different languages to infants as you rock them to sleep.
  • Display pictures and offer materials that equitably and accurately depict the children and families in your program
  • Explore materials and offer experiences that allow infants and toddlers to learn about different cultures. For example, explore different ways of holding or feeding infants and offer these materials in the pretend play area of the classroom to explore with baby dolls or post pictures of houses and buildings from around the world as a provocation for building in the block space.
  • Use culturally appropriate caregiving practices while interacting with children during activities and routines.
  • Support a child’s home language by learning a few words from the child's native language and communicating with children and families in their native language as much as possible.

Thinking about Temperament

Temperament describes how a child approaches and reacts to the world. Learning about temperament can help you understand and explain a child’s behavior, which in turn can lead to more responsive, individualized care for infants and toddlers. While temperament does not clearly define or predict infant and toddler behavior, research has identified several temperament traits for which children will show certain behaviors. These traits include: activity level, flexibility in daily routines, response to new situations, sensitivity to surroundings, adaptability to change, and distractibility or persistence in an activity.

These traits can be grouped into three temperament styles. These styles are:

  • Easy or flexible: These children tend to be happy, regular in sleeping and eating habits, adaptable, calm, and not easily upset.
  • Active or feisty: These children may be fussy, irregular in feeding and eating habits, fearful of new people and new situations, easily upset by noise and stimulation, and intense in their reactions.
  • Slow to warm up or cautious: These children may be less active or tend to be fussy, and may initially react negatively or withdraw in new situations; however, over time they may become more positive when they have repeated exposure to a new individual or situation.

Knowing a child's personal style or temperament helps you in your interactions and in the learning experiences that you provide. For example, when it comes to learning, a slow to warm up or cautious child may learn by initially observing or watching others do something, an active or feisty child may learn better by actively engaging in an activity, and an easy or flexible child may be able to resist distractions and stay focused on an activity. It is also important to recognize that different cultures place different values on temperament styles. Understanding what each family identifies as positive behaviors will allow you to highlight and support those traits. When planning for experiences and activities, it is important that you modify your own way of doing things or the way you structure some of your activities, to address the temperament styles of the children in your care.

Considering Learning Styles

As with temperament, infants and toddlers have individual learning styles, and these styles influence how they learn. In general, infants and toddlers are:

  • Active learners—they learn by doing, which includes crawling, rolling, running, standing, watching, sitting, climbing, and mouthing
  • Best suited for open-ended play that encourages self-discovery
  • Sensory learners using touching, smelling, seeing, hearing, and tasting to explore their environment
  • Influenced by their temperament

Recognizing individual learning styles and planning experiences that account for them supports cognitive development. 

Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

As you learned in Lesson Four, it is important to develop meaningful learning experiences for all children. This includes children with special learning needs. All children need a strong, developmentally appropriate curriculum, a supportive environment, and nurturing relationships with adults. For some children though, this is not enough for them to succeed. Some children need special accommodations. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you will have to plan accommodations within experiences and activities to address the varying developmental needs of the group, and the needs of diverse learners and families.  

Infants and toddlers with Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs) have a specific plan to help them meet personal goals. Caregivers should read the IFSP to learn about the child’s goals, services, and adaptations. Just as each infant and toddler is different, each IFSP is different. In general, these children may need changes or adaptations to the curricula, the classroom, and the daily activities. 

Children who speak another language and are learning English are often called English Language Learners or Dual Language Learners. Children learning English in your classroom will probably be at very different levels. Some might hear quite a bit of English their homes, while others may hear none. This means that some children might need more help than others. You can help children who are learning English by (a) including multicultural activities, (b) giving them special supports, (c) reaching out to their families, and (d) making these children feel included in all experiences and activities. Helping all children learn is characterized by flexibility and a variety of changes. By making adaptations to the materials or the environment, or by adjusting your expectations of an activity, infants and toddlers can work together.

Changes to curricula

Curriculum should support the development and well-being of all children in a group to foster learning. While infants and toddlers may be in different developmental stages, the same curricular activities and materials can be used to help them learn and develop the skills, and concepts that are appropriate for their age and developmental level. Consider an activity as simple as building with blocks. For young infants, move them near the activity. They can be exposed to the language being used, socially engage by observing the actions of their peers, and grasp or mouth a block to explore its features. For a toddler, you can extend their learning by helping them to stack the blocks and anticipate what will happen as the structure grows. They can discover the best way to organize the blocks, identify colors and shapes, and count the blocks as they are stacked. Both children are working on the same activity, but in ways that are meaningful to their individual development.

Changes to the environment

You might have to change the classroom environment to meet the needs of all children. If you have a child who uses a wheelchair, you may have to adjust the height of tables in your classroom to make sure the child is included in experiences and activities. A child might need changes in where he or she sits, such as a chair if the child has trouble sitting on the carpet. Other classroom changes might include Velcro adaptations to help toys stay in place, or knobs on puzzles to ease access of pieces. Additional adaptations include using picture cues (such as photographs) or schedules as reminders, shapes taped to the floor to help children figure out where they need to be, sensory objects, or changes in the lighting or sound in the room.  These changes support children with special needs, and in mixed age settings they help infants to be able to engage with materials and activities that are used by their older or mobile peers. This helps to promote a sense of community and builds peer relationships.

We know that infant and toddlers can grow and develop in the same space. However, regardless of accommodations that may need to be made based on the special learning needs of children in the classroom, changes to the space should be considered continuously. As the children in your care grow and develop, their environment should change to reflect their interests and skills. Small changes to the books, puzzles, and dramatic play materials can make a big impact.

Changes during activities

As discussed in Lesson Three, caregivers can facilitate development and learning through scaffolding. Understanding the process of scaffolding can help caregivers be more intentional in their interactions. Adults should join infants and toddlers in play and build on their need for support. Scaffolding requires several considerations: understanding children’s overall development; understanding the ways individual children approach learning; establishing realistic learning objectives; and matching strategies to each child’s current interests, knowledge, and skills (Gillespie & Greenberg, 2017). Children with special needs might find it hard to work on and finish activities that other children might do easily. If a child has trouble painting, an adult could put their hand over the child’s hand to make it easier. During the day, the same child might need more help and time with some activities and less help and time with others. The help that you give a child probably will change over time as they get better at doing an activity. Think about fading help so that the child learns to do the activity on their own. 

One of the best things that educators can do is actively include all children in all activities. Children with special needs or those learning English may have a hard time joining classroom activities because they may not be sure what to do. Try some of these ideas to help include all children:

  • Observe play and make sure that children are not excluded from activities.
  • Before an activity, think about what might be hard for certain children, such as stacking blocks, and be prepared to help complete the activity.
  • Use classroom rules to teach children about including everyone.
  • Show infants and toddlers how they can include others in their play.
  • Give children positive feedback when they try to include others.
  • Consider making changes such as repeating words, using American Sign Language signs, or including visuals such as photographs or pictures.
  • Include Dual-Language Learners by naming objects or items in their native language as well as in English.


The following videos show examples of how teachers engage infants and toddlers in experiences and activities that promote their cognitive development.

Incorporating Family into Cognitive Supported Experiences

Watch how family photo books are used to support cognitive development.

Ball Play

Watch how a teacher builds on her knowledge of child development and best practice to support cognitive development.


When it comes to honoring individual learning styles and temperament, and supporting culturally relevant experiences, do the following:

  • Get to know each family by asking questions and listening for cultural cues, temperament, and learning style. Plan experiences based on their preferences.
  • Display and use items from families so that infants and toddler can learn about their culture and community.
  • Provide books, pictures, dolls, and dramatic play food and clothing that support children’s interests.
  • Respect the nonuse of food items for art and sensory play.
  • Identify the temperaments of the children you serve and match your interactions and the experiences you plan to their style.
  • 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 styles of the infants and toddlers you care for to meet their individual needs.

Media is increasingly becoming another means through which children learn, sometimes replacing the traditional concept of play. When families seek guidance on screen use, you can use the following suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Children younger than 18 months are encouraged to avoid screen media other than video chatting with loved ones.
  • No solo media use under age 2. Creative, unplugged playtime is best. When screens are used, parents are advised to engage with media along with their child to help communicate what they are seeing. For example, “Look, Barney is happy now. He is singing a song with friends” or “In English, we say ‘happy,’ in Spanish, we say ‘contento.’”
  • Encourage families to turn screens and devices off when not in use. Background television and device use can decrease the quality of children’s play and the amount of interaction occurring between family members. 
  • Support families in establishing bedtime routines that do not involve media and technology use. Viewing electronic devices close to bedtime can affect the quality and amount of sleep, as well as the ease of falling asleep for children. 
  • With the support of your trainer, coach, or administrator, consider if there are appropriate ways to use technology with toddlers. This twelve-point checklist from the Fred Rogers Center can help you assess the best uses of interactive media in your program. See the Checklist for Identifying Exemplary Uses of Technology and Interactive Media for Early Learning at


How do you get to know and use information about the cultures, temperaments, and learning styles of infants and toddlers in your care? Why is it important to do that?  Reflect on these questions by completing the Culture, Temperament and Learning Styles Reflective Exercise. Then, share your responses with your administrator, trainer, or coach. 

Children are active learners, and how you get to know infants and toddlers is through your observations of their play. To plan experiences and activities that promote cognitive development and support infants and toddlers in ways that are meaningful to their individual learning styles, it is  important to understand the various skills within cognitive development and appropriate expectations for these skills. Complete the Cognitive Competencies and Expectations Reflective Exercise. Then, share your responses with your administrator, trainer, or coach.

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Staff working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Mathematics Activity Plan handout to develop a mathematics learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).


Use the Resource List to help you learn about supporting young children's cognitive development. The list contains information about experiences and activities that support infant and toddler learning and development as well as articles on how to intentionally connect play and learning. The Understanding Temperament document is a resource from the Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) that discusses temperament in infants and toddlers.


The attitudes, feelings, values, and behavior that characterize and inform society as a whole or any social group within it
Specific aspects of a child’s overall development including cognitive, motor, language and literacy, social-emotional, and physical well-being
A child’s personal style, the manner in which they interact, behave, and react


A two-year-old observes what their peers are doing before engaging in an activity. This may be because…
True or false? Developmentally appropriate practice should be considered when making daily decisions about the learning experiences you offer children.  
Which of the following things can you do to ensure that all children learn in your classroom?
References & Resources

AAP Council on Communication and Media. (2016). Media use in school-age children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(5).

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Children and media tips from the American Academy Pediatrics.

Beyens, I. & Nathanson, A. I. (2018). Electronic Media Use and Sleep Among Preschoolers: Evidence for time-shifted and less consolidated sleep. Health Communication, 1-8. 

Birth Through Kindergarten Entry—Learning and Development Standards. (n.d.). 

Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. (n.d.). Infant Toddler Temperament Tool (IT3). Georgetown University: Center for Child and Human Development.

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

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (2010). Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers.

Guyton, G. (2011). Using Toys to Support Infant-Toddler Learning and Development. Young Children. 

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

 National Association for the Education of Young Children (2019). NAEYC position statement on developmentally appropriate practice 2020.

Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., Lund, A. F. and Anderson, D. R. (2008). The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Development, 79(4).

Setliff, A. E. and Courage, M. L. (2011). Background Television and Infants’ Allocation of Their Attention During Toy Play. Infancy, 16(6)