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    • Define cognitive development.
    • Describe what cognitive development looks like during preschool.
    • Identify ways you can support cognitive development.




    As an adult, you have already developed many of the thinking skills that help you understand 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 will 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 have helped you with these kinds of tasks? Reading, writing, measuring, calculating, problem-solving, hypothesis testing, comprehending, and recalling facts are all 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 preschoolers you care for are beginning to form their own ideas about the world around them as their brains develop in amazing ways. The work you do every day lays the foundation for these children 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 preschoolers you serve.

    What is Cognitive Development?

    Cognitive development is all about learning and reasoning, including the development of memory, symbolic thought, and problem-solving skills. When a child imitates an adult, builds a tower out of blocks, or pretends to be a doggy or a daddy, that is cognitive development. Take a moment to consider other examples of cognitive development that you have observed with preschool-age children. 

    According to Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2010), “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.” We know that 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, so it is important to understand the foundation of cognitive development. 

    Brains are built over time, and early experiences affect later growth and development. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget provides a theory of cognitive development which explains how a child develops an understanding of their world. Piaget describes cognitive development as a process that occurs due to interactions with the environment. According to Piaget’s theory, there are four stages of cognitive development, which are listed below. All children progress through these stages in the same order, however, the ages in which children progress through these stages will vary.

    1. Sensorimotor (birth to age 2)
    2. Preoperational (from age 2 to age 7)
    3. Concrete (from age 7 to age 11)
    4. Formal Operational (from age 11 through adulthood)

    The preschool-age children in your program will likely be working through the Preoperational Stage. During this time, children think about things symbolically. This is what allows them to use a word or object as something other than itself. Additionally, during this time, children’s thinking is still egocentric, so they have difficulty seeing the viewpoint of others. Preschool-age children are still working toward understanding that other people may see, hear and feel differently than they do. As children progress through this stage, they begin to see other’s perspectives and their play is more likely to involve the participation of other children.  Examples of this stage include:

    • Pretending a block is a cellphone and calling the doctor
    • Using a blanket as a superhero cape and flying around the room
    • Arranging chairs in a line, sitting in the front chair and yelling “all aboard”

    The Importance of the Early Years

    While the brain can be influenced at any age, it is most impressionable in the early years. The experiences a child has early in life are crucial for brain development as they help to shape the architecture of their brains. New brain connections are being developed every second. These are called synapses. The more often a child has an experience (positive or negative) the stronger those synapses will become. Adults can support healthy brain development by including the following in their work with preschoolers:

    • Engage in tailored, back and forth interactions (both verbal and nonverbal).
    • Share your thoughts, feelings, and needs aloud.
    • Support active, child-led learning.
    • Model attention and persistence.
    • Provide responsive caregiving that builds self-regulatory skills.
    • Create flexible, individualized routines.

    Cognitive development is strengthened when children are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. It is your job to make sure:

    • They are healthy by keeping a clean environment and promoting healthy habits.
    • They are emotionally secure by addressing their individual needs and responding in a positive, nurturing manner.
    • They are socially connected by fostering relationships between them and others during play and caregiving routines.
    • They are supported as they construct their own ideas of the world around them and investigate their ideas through open-ended, safe experiences. 

    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 helping wash hands, picking up toys, singing songs, cleaning up spilled 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 preschool years. Watch this video to learn more about how experiences influence the developing brain.

    Cognitive Development: You Make a Difference

    Experiences shape learning


    Preschoolers are active learners. They learn by pretending, exploring, and testing out their own thoughts and ideas. The experiences offered across areas of development contribute greatly to growth and learning. Take time to review the strategies listed below, which highlight ways to support cognitive development for the preschoolers in your care:

    • Provide a variety of acceptable choices. Giving preschoolers increasing independence to make decisions about what to play with, read, eat, and who to play with can help them build the cognitive and self-regulation skills they need.
    • Sing rhyming songs and read books throughout the day. Take time to play with language during free play, transitions, and throughout the day. Children think it is fun to make up silly rhymes, but they are also learning.
    • Respond honestly to children’s questions. Preschoolers are famous for asking, “Why?” When you do not know the answer, suggest that you and the child research the question to find the answer it. 
    • Look for simple math problems throughout the day. “Hmmm, we’ve got four children at this table and two bananas. What could we do to make sure everyone gets some banana?” Lead the children to think about math concepts like dividing objects in half. Practice counting during routines and play.
    • Read alphabet books and talk about letters and the sounds they make.
    • Talk about sizes, shapes, and colors. Compare objects using words like “big,” “bigger,” “biggest” and “light” and “heavy.” Point out shapes you see around you: octagon stop signs, rectangle doors, circle light fixtures, and square floor tiles. Play “I spy” in your building to find objects of different sizes, shapes, and colors.

    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 Preschool 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? Use the Exploring Cognitive Development activity to reflect on cognitive development. Take a few minutes to read and respond to the questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.



    What are your thoughts and beliefs about children’s cognitive development? Each of us has different opinions and ideas about what and how children learn best. Sometimes our opinions and beliefs are based on facts but sometimes they are not. To best serve all children, it is important to recognize myth from fact. Use the Myths about Learning guide and label each of the statements as myth or fact. Then, write a brief response explaining your answer. Share them with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.

    To best serve all children, it is important to know the foundational stages of cognitive development through which all children progress. Use the Stages of Cognitive Development guide to review Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. Print the guide to use as a tool in your classroom. 


    DEVELOPMENTAL DOMAINSSpecific aspects of growth and change in human development, including social-emotional, physical, language and cognitive
    EGOCENTRICThinking only of oneself, without regard for the feelings or desires of others
    SYMBOLIC THOUGHTThe ability to represent different objects or experiences using the things at hand




    True or false? A child’s cognitive development is primarily influenced by genes.


    Which of the following is not an example of cognitive development?


    You can strengthen a child’s cognitive development by…


    Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that preschool-age children are going through which stage?

    References & Resources

    Chick, N. (n.d.). Metacognition: Thinking about one’s thinking. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

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

    Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, (3rd ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs.  William Morrow Paperbacks an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

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

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

    The Center for The Developing Child. (2021). Harvard University