Secondary tabs

    • Define cognitive development.
    • Describe what cognitive development looks like during preschool.
    • 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 preschoolers 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 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. When a child imitates an adult, that's cognitive development; when a child builds a tower out of blocks, that's cognitive development; and when a child pretends to be a doggy or a daddy, 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. 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 caregiving 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 helping wash hands, 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 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 themselves. Cognitive development is built on other areas of development, such as visual skills, thinking skills, and memory, and the experiences offered across areas of development contribute greatly to development 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. Letting preschoolers decide 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's 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 don't know the answer, suggest that you and the child research the answer to the question.
    • 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 while setting tables.
    • 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? 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.



    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’s important that you recognize myth from fact. Download, print, and review the Myths about Learning Guide. Think about whether each of the statements is myth or fact. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.




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


    Which of the following is an example of cognitive development?


    You can strengthen a child’s cognitive development by…

    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.

    The Center for The Developing Child, Harvard University: