Skip to main content

Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

It is important to provide children with a variety of age-appropriate experiences. This lesson describes how you can engage children in experiences and activities that promote cognitive development and address the individual needs of all learners.

  • Describe cognitive learning domain and content areas for preschool.
  • Identify your own values and assumptions about how and what children should learn in preschool.
  • Create experiences and activities for your classroom and identify what the children will learn.



Your preschool classroom likely serves children between the ages of 3 and 5, so you must be prepared to meet a variety of needs. Knowledge of child development is an important tool for understanding what children learn. 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 preschoolers in your classroom. You should use this knowledge to make daily decisions about the learning experiences you offer children.

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. Teachers 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).

Experiences and Activities that Promote Preschool Children's Cognitive Development

Children learn so much in preschool. Much of their learning occurs through their interactions and their experiences with materials and the environment. Developmental domains represent specific aspects of a child’s overall development including cognitive, physical, social, emotional and language development. Preschool children’s cognitive learning falls into six categories or content areas.  (Dodge et al., 2002): math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and technology. Teachers can support children’s learning across these content areas. Here are a few examples of ways children might learn important concepts:

  • Math: A preschool child notices what comes next in a pattern. A child notices that their friend has a different number (size) on their shoe.
  • Science: A child uses their senses to explore a new food offered for lunch. Another child discusses what the class pet needs to stay healthy and describes the pet’s habitat.
  • Social Studies: A child brings in baby pictures and takes on family roles in the dramatic play area. Children draw a map of their school or the local playground.
  • Language and Literacy: A child sings rhyming songs and claps the syllables in words. A child spends time relaxing and looking at books.
  • Art: A child creates a three-dimensional sculpture of the bird house outside the window. Another child dances to music and pats a rhythm on a drum.
  • Technology: A child uses a computer to create a message and artwork. Another child sits with a teacher and looks up information on the internet about a class investigation.

You might notice that many of these examples involve learning in more than one developmental domain and across multiple content areas. It is important to keep in mind that, during play, children often learn across multiple domains. For example, when a child types a message on the computer, they are learning about technology, literacy, and many other content areas. When a child claps along to a rhyming song, they may be learning literacy, math, and music. Everyday experiences offer many opportunities for learning. Some examples of everyday experiences and activities that support preschooler's cognitive development include:

  • Taking clipboards and markers outside to observe, draw and write about nature
  • Planting seeds, discussing what they need to grow and observing how they change as they grow
  • Exploring prisms and transparent objects on a light table
  • Rolling cars or balls down ramps of different inclines to see how far they travel
  • Mixing different colors of paints to create new colors
  • Creating a graph of children’s favorite colors, season, food, or sports as a group
  • Using measuring cups and funnels to fill containers with sand in the sensory table
  • Exploring parts of a flower with magnifying glasses
  • Setting up dramatic play so that children can pretend to cook, be doctors, make grocery lists, or take care of baby dolls
  • Sorting plastic animals by different characteristics (size, shape, color)
  • Listening and acting out stories like “The Three Little Pigs”
  • Creating patterns by using colored blocks and pattern pictures
  • Drawing maps or driving toy cars along maps or roads
  • Creating classroom rules together as a group
  • Sorting objects into groups, counting how many are in each group or identifying which group has less or more

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 list of some of the ways you can support the preschoolers in your classroom: 

  • 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 lots of chances to explore concepts. Play games during transitions by asking children to line up based on some characteristics: “Everyone who is wearing blue jeans can line up”, “If your name starts with the letter M, go get your coat for outside time” or “If you are wearing sandals, please wash your hands.”
  • Encourage children to use self-control and acknowledge when they do. Say things like, “I know you were working really hard on that structure. It is hard to stop, but your mom is here. How about we put a sign on your structure and save it for tomorrow?” 

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 a preschool teacher, you will have to plan accommodations within experiences and activities that not only address the varying developmental needs of the group, but the needs of diverse learners and families.  

Children with individualized education programs (IEPs) have a specific plan to help them meet personal goals. Educators should read the IEP to learn about the child’s goals, services, and adaptations. Just as each child is different, each IEP is different. In general, these children will 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. It might be hard for some of these children to do all classroom activities easily. Children learning English in your classroom will probably be at very different levels. Some might hear quite a bit of English in their homes, while others may hear none. This means that some children might need more support than others. You can help children who are learning English by (a) including multicultural activities, (b) giving them special supports, and (c) making these children feel included in all activities. Helping all children is characterized by flexibility and a willingness to make a variety of changes to the curriculum, environment, activities, and interactions. By making adaptations to the materials or the environment or by adjusting your expectations of an activity, preschoolers can work together and all children can be supported appropriately.

Changes to curricula

Curricula should support the development and well-being of all children in a group to foster learning. While children may have diverse learning needs, the skills and concepts they are learning through the curriculum are similar, however they may be supported in different ways. For example, some children might need to hear and see a certain letter in many ways because learning letters is challenging for them. Children with weak vocabulary skills might benefit from hearing vocabulary words before you read them a story. Even through these minor adaptations to the way you teach, all preschoolers are learning language and literacy skills.

Changes to the environment

You might have to change the classroom to meet the needs of all children. A child might need changes in where he or she sits, such as using a chair at circle time if the child has trouble sitting on the carpet. Other classroom changes might include using picture cues (such as photographs) or schedules as reminders, shapes taped to the floor to help children when they line up, sensory objects in the classroom, or changes in the lighting or sound in the room.

Changes to the environment should be considered continuously to ensure that the diverse learning needs of all children are supported. As preschoolers learn and develop new skills and interests, their environment should change as well. Small changes to materials and the environment such as including new books, writing utensils, puzzles, and dramatic play materials can make a big impact.

Changes during activities

As you learned in Lesson Three, adults can facilitate development and learning through scaffolding. Understanding this process can help teachers be more intentional in their interactions. Teachers should join preschoolers in play and build on their need for support through these interactions. 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. 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 a child, such as using scissors, and be prepared to help that child complete the activity. 
  • Use classroom rules to teach children about including everyone.
  • Show children how they can include others in their play.
  • Praise children when they try to include others.
  • Consider repeating words, using American Sign Language, or including visuals such as photographs or pictures to accompany words.
  • Include dual-language learners by naming objects or items in their native language as well as in English. 

Using the idea of Universal Design for Learning, introduced in Lesson Four, Sandall and Schwartz (2008) identify eight types of curriculum supports for children with special needs and English Language Learners. The chart in the Apply section of this lesson will help you identify additional ways  to support all children in your class.

The issue of fairness becomes less of a worry when you think of your role to support all children. If you give each child what they need when they need it then everyone is supported. Ensure every child gets extra help and support at one time or another. As a teacher, you should know the strengths and needs of all children and know how to help each child.

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 children of your classroom. By doing that you also help promote a sense of belonging and community.  

Many children will enter your classroom with a first language other than English. It is important to recognize, respect, and reinforce home language use and create a supportive environment for children and families from all cultures (NAEYC, 2016). Here are a couple of ways to make a child comfortable in the classroom: 

  • Hire staff members who are bilingual
  • Incorporate the children’s home language into the environment of the classroom.
  • Include bilingual books into the classroom
  • Add labels to materials and spaces that reflect the language spoken by the children and families in the classroom
  • Learn to say 10-20 key words in the child’s home language
  • Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as you may have to change your classroom environment to meet the needs of all children. There are many ways you can communicate with children, including speech, pictures, music, and multimedia. Children can express what they know in multiple ways, too. This might be through music, dance, drawing, technology and so on. 

Watch this video to see examples of how culture and diversity are embraced in preschool.

Embracing Culture

Watch this video to see examples of how culture and diversity are embraced in Preschool


What does learning look like in each of the cognitive content areas and across developmental domains? What does good teaching look like? There are many answers to these questions. Look at the following video to learn more and to see examples.

What Children Learn in Preschool

This video describes the focus of most learning and teaching in preschool.


You promote learning through your interactions every day. As you plan experiences and activities, it is important to:

  • Recognize the importance of learning across all content areas and developmental domains.
  • Provide opportunities for children to explore math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and technology.
  • Remember children learn through play and exploration.
  • Develop activity plans or curriculum plans that incorporate learning opportunities across all content areas.
  • Know that children vary in their learning across these content areas. Provide a variety of learning opportunities to meet each child’s needs.

Media is increasingly becoming another means through which children learn, sometimes replacing the traditional concept of play. To access a twelve-point checklist to help you consider best uses of interactive media in your program, see the Checklist for Identifying Exemplary Uses of Technology and Interactive Media for Early Learning from the Fred Rogers Center at This resource is also available below as a Learn Attachment. When families seek guidance on media and technology use, you can share the following recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • 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 for their children 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. 
  • Choose developmentally appropriate programming and games. Sesame Street, PBS Kids, and Common Sense Media are excellent resources if families need guidance on what “high-quality” looks like. 


What should children learn in preschool? Each of us has different opinions, philosophies, and ideas about what and how children learn. Use the What Should Children Learn in Preschool activity 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 administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.

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).


It is important to be ready to talk about why you do what you do. The What Am I Learning? resource can help prepare you. After you print the document, cut the “What am I Learning in …” sections into four cards, and post them in your interest areas or learning centers.

As you learned throughout this course, it is important to meaningfully address the needs of all children in your classroom. Using the principals of universal design for learning (UDL), Sandall and Schwartz (2008) identify eight types of curriculum supports for children with special needs and English Language Learners. Use the Curriculum Supports for All Children chart to learn about them.


Changes to instruction provided to a child based on his or her needs
Developmentally appropriate practice:
An approach to teaching grounded in research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education (NAEYC, 2009)
Method of support offered to children where the adult offers the appropriate amount of help to eliminate frustration but still challenges the child to learn


Finish this statement: Developmentally appropriate practice…
Which of the following is a developmentally appropriate example of how a preschool child might learn important concepts about literacy and language?
Which of the following can you do to help all preschool children learn?
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016).

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.). 

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

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

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

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

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

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 Young Children Birth to Age 8. 

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2016). Welcoming Dual Language Learners. Teaching Young Children,9 (5).