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    • Define cognitive development.
    • Describe what cognitive development looks like during the infant and toddler years.
    • Identify steps you can take to support cognitive development.




    As an adult, you have already developed many of the thinking skills that help you navigate the world around you. Think about the skills and strategies that have helped you succeed at daily tasks like:

    • Reading and following the recipe for a new meal
    • Finding a different way home when traffic is heavy
    • Estimating the amount of material you'll need for a home improvement project
    • Finishing a book and discussing it with friends
    • Filling out a job application
    • Fixing a leaking faucet or pipe
    • Budgeting for groceries and other essentials

    What thinking skills helped with these kinds of tasks? Reading, writing, measuring, calculating, problem-solving, hypothesis testing, comprehending, and recalling facts all are essential for many of the tasks you accomplish every day. You started developing those skills as a child, and they continue to develop as you encounter new situations as an adult.

    The infants and toddlers you care for are just beginning their own journeys, but their brains are developing in amazing ways. The work you do everyday lays the foundation for these infants and toddlers to develop the thinking skills they need to be successful in school and life. This course will help you understand how your work contributes to the development of thinking skills in the infants and toddlers you serve.

    What is Cognitive Development?

    Cognitive development is all about learning. When a child imitates an adult, that's cognitive development; when a child makes a "ruff" sound when they see a dog, that's cognitive development; and when a child smiles upon hearing a familiar voice, that's cognitive development. Cognitive development happens all the time and is influenced by both our genes and our experiences. According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2002), "Cognitive development refers to the mind and how it works. It involves how children think, how they see their world, and how they use what they learn." While the brain can be influenced at any age, it is the most pliable in the early years.

    Scientists no longer debate which is most important, genetics or experience; the same is true for which developmental domain is most important. All of the domains of development are important, and they are inextricably linked. Carol Dweck of Stanford University says, "We can't carve people up-there isn't the cognitive person, the emotional person, the motivational person, the social person. All of these co-occur in the brain" (Galinsky, 2010).

    The Importance of the Early Years

    Brains are built over time, and each experience affects growth and development. Who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives; the experiences they have while they are in your care. Outside of their families, you might be the person they spend the most time with during these critical years of development.

    Cognitive development is strengthened when children are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. As a teacher of infants and toddlers, it is your job to make sure:

    • They are healthy by keeping a clean environment and promoting healthy habits
    • They are emotionally secure by responding to their cues and addressing their needs immediately in a nurturing manner
    • They are socially connected by fostering relationships between them and others during play and care-giving routines

    Early experiences are powerful; children who accumulate negative experiences in their early years carry the effects with them throughout their lives. In other words, early experiences last a lifetime. Remember that while you are changing diapers, picking up toys, singing songs, cleaning up spilt milk, and performing all of the other tasks you do on a daily basis; you are also influencing a developing brain.


    The brain does amazing work during the first three years of life. Watch this video to learn more about how experiences influence the developing brain.

    You Make a Difference

    Watch this video to learn more about how experiences influence the developing brain during the first 3 years of life.


    Infants and toddlers learn by watching, moving, tasting, smelling, touching, and doing. Cognitive development is built on other areas of development, such as visual skills, thinking skills, and memory. The experiences offered across areas of development contribute greatly to development and learning. Infants and toddlers learn from your words and what and how you do things, such as holding and smiling at them. Take time to review the strategies listed below which highlight ways to support cognitive development for the infants and toddlers in your care:

    • Touch, cuddle, and sing to babies and toddlers.
    • Read to infants and toddlers. Let them explore the pages, illustrations, and textures. Talk about colors, sizes, shapes, and other features of the book.
    • Provide toys that make simple, pleasant noises such as rattles and shakers. Help infants discover the connection between their movements and the noises. Talk with toddlers about the different sounds objects make-compare the sounds of different drums, bells, or shakers.
    • Place shatterproof mirrors and infants' and toddlers' eye level. Describe their movements as they explore their own images.
    • Engage the senses! Talk about the taste and smell of bottles or food. Offer easy-to-clean chew toys with a variety of textures. Consider mats or soft spaces with different fabrics.
    • Hold and rock infants and toddlers to communicate reassurance and comfort
    • Play simple movement games like, "Row Your Boat", "Pat-a-Cake", and "How Big is Baby? Soooo Big."
    • Extend the sounds and words used by infants and toddlers; for example, if a toddler says, "Me home," you might say, "You want to go home. After snack time, Daddy will be here to pick you up and go home."

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course, the Cognitive Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Infant & Toddler Cognitive Development Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    How do you define cognitive development? What experiences have helped you develop as a learner? Download and print the Exploring Cognitive Development handout. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.



    There are many resources to help you understand the importance of early brain development. Take some time to explore the resources below developed by Zero to Three. 

    Resources on the Developing Brain


    Developmental domainsSpecific aspects of growth and change in human development. The major domains of development include social-emotional, physical, language and cognitive




    True or False? Cognitive development is influenced primarily by genes.


    How can you support infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive development?


    Finish this statement: When a toddler sees a cat and makes a “meow” sound, this is…

    References & Resources

    Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about One's Thinking. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Accessed from

    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.

    Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

    Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind In The Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

    Gonzalez-Mena, J. & Widmeyer, D. (2011). Infants, Toddlers, and Caregivers: A Curriculum of Respectful, Responsive, Relationship-based Care and Education. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.

    The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: