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Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

Planning and implementing high-quality experiences and activities is essential for promoting positive growth for children and youth. This lesson will focus on ways you can help staff members design and offer meaningful experiences and activities.

  • Describe the significance of experiences and activities for cognitive development.
  • Discuss the importance of planning experiences and activities that address the needs of all learners.
  • Identify ways you can help staff plan and carry out meaningful experiences and activities for children and youth.


The Importance of Experiences and Activities

Children and youth learn best when they are provided with meaningful learning experiences that build upon and connect to their previous experiences, backgrounds, and everyday lives. Meaningful experiences and activities within supportive environments stimulate and challenge children’s thinking skills. When children and youth are interested in what they are learning and enjoy what they are doing, neurochemicals in the brain keep their interest engaged and learning takes place. Emotions matter a great deal because that’s how these experiences get remembered. Effective staff members use child and youth observation information to intentionally plan experiences and activities to support the learning of all children in their care. Effective staff members use a wide array of approaches, strategies, and tools to meet the needs of diverse learners to support their individual cognitive development goals. As a manager, you can help staff members understand the critical difference they are making in the lives of children, youth, and their families.

Management Practices that Support Meaningful Experiences and Activities:

As a manager, you are accountable for supporting the cognitive development of children and youth. You are also accountable for the professional performance of the adults who care for those children and youth. To do this important work, you should ensure staff members:

  • Have a large set of skills and strategies they can use to effectively promote each child's learning and development.
  • Know how and when to scaffold children's learning. Scaffolding provides just enough assistance that each child needs to perform at a skill level just beyond what the child can do on their own. They also know how to gradually reduce the support as the child begins to gain the skill.
  • Problem-solve and brainstorm solutions for individual children who seem to struggle with experiences and activities.
  • Provide more extended, enriched and intensive learning experiences to children who need additional support.
  • Make the environment and activities accessible and responsive to all children, including children who are multi-language learners, have disabilities, have experienced trauma, and children from a variety of diverse backgrounds.

Experiences and Activities that Support Cognitive Development

"Learning is contingent upon the opportunities that adults provide to express existing skills and scaffold more complex ones." (Hamre & Pianta, 2010). Making sure staff provide meaningful experiences and activities that support learning is your responsibility. Therefore, it is important that as you spend time observing classroom experiences and activities you pay attention to whether staff are using effective instructional strategies as they interact with infants, toddlers, children, and youth in their care. Children's cognitive development is supported when:

  • Adults use a variety of experiences, activities, and materials to keep children and youth interested and involved.
  • Adults encourage and support children as they engage in new experiences and activities.
  • Adults encourage analysis and critical thinking skills during discussions and activities.
  • Adults provide opportunities for children and youth to be creative and generate their own ideas.
  • Adults relate current concepts to previous learning and relevance to the lives of children and youth.
  • Adults scaffold learning for children and youth who are having a hard time with new concepts, answering questions or completing activities.
  • Adults ask children and youth to explain their thinking and actions.
  • Adults seize opportunities to expand children's understanding.
  • Adults offer encouragement to increase involvement and persistence.
  • Adults ask open-ended questions and listen to the responses of children and youth.

It's important to note that it takes practice on the part of caregivers to consistently and effectively use the strategies listed above. As staff become more confident, they become more competent.

The Importance of Being Intentional

Every day, you and your staff engage in experiences and activities that support children’s development. Therefore, it is imperative that you are intentional about the decisions you make. Being intentional means that you and your staff know why you do what you do and don’t leave learning to chance.

You can support intentionality among staff by supporting Training & Curriculum Specialists and staff as they meet to discuss goals they have for children and youth in their care. When staff have time and support for such conversations, this leads to strengthened efforts to promote high quality experiences and activities, which in turns leads to positive outcomes for all children and youth.

Optimal development in children and youth takes place in an environment where collaboration with others, discussion, analysis, and application of learning is encouraged and facilitated. You should support staff as they plan and reflect on experiences and activities that aim to support child and youth development.

Management Practices That Support Staff's Use of Effective Experiences and Activities

Take time to model the following behaviors that support efforts to promote cognitive development:

  • Value different teaching styles and recognize staff who are willing to try new ideas.
  • Provide opportunities for staff to share with each other their reflections, observations, and experiences that promote cognitive development.
  • Join activities, play with children, or read to babies when you have a chance. Structure your schedule so you have opportunities for quality time with children and staff.
  • Show staff that you enjoy your job and spending time with them! Have rich and interesting conversations with staff members throughout the week. Ask staff members to share some of the things they are doing in their classrooms and provide feedback.
  • Work with the Training & Curriculum Specialists to provide supportive and constructive feedback to staff members after they have been observed to encourage their effective use of experiences and activities.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer coaching and modeling, where staff play roles of both observer and care provider working together to strengthen experiences and activities.
  • Stay current on evidence-based practices for children and youth.

Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

Watch how you support experiences and activities.


Staff members offer a range of learning experiences and activities to infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children and, along with Training & Curriculum Specialists, you play a critical role in sharing feedback on what you see. Use the Sharing Feedback activity to think about how you might support staff members and T&CS in your program in similar situations. Talk with T&CS in your program about how you would respond to these scenarios. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


It is important to help staff members reflect on the learning experiences they provide. Use the Questions to Ask activity to help you talk to staff members and Training & Curriculum Specialists as they plan for experiences and activities.


A strategy that challenges students to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery in a supportive context


True or false? Preschool staff do not need to know about scaffolding children’s learning; scaffolding is only appropriate for school-age children.
Which of the following behaviors do not support staff in planning effective experiences and activities?
As a manager it is your responsibility to…
References & Resources

Buysse & Wesley (2006). Evidence-Based Practice in the Early Childhood Field. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

Child Care and Early Education Research Connections (n.d.).

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, Third Edition. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2010). Meece, J. L., & Eccles, J. S. (2010). Classroom Environments and Developmental Processes: Conceptualization and Measurement. In J. L. Meece and J.S. Eccles (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Schools, Schooling, and Human Development (pp. 25-41). Florence, KY: Routledge.