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    • Identify typical cognitive developmental milestones in preschool.
    • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.




    During preschool, amazing changes happen in children's "thinking skills." Their memories are becoming stronger-they often remember surprising details. They can share their ideas in new and interesting ways. Their imaginations are becoming a primary vehicle for play and learning. They begin to compare, contrast, organize, analyze, and come up with more and more complex ways to solve problems. Math and scientific thinking become more sophisticated.

    Read the table below that describes cognitive developmental milestones in preschool.

    Cognitive Developmental Milestones

    Age 3

    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Does puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
    • Understands what “two”means
    • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
    • Turns book pages one at a time

    Age 4

    • Understands the idea of counting
    • Starts to understand time
    • Remembers parts of a story
    • Understands the idea of “same” and “different”
    • Draws a person with 2 to 4 body parts

    Age 5

    • Counts 10 or more things
    • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
    • Can print some letters or numbers
    • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
    • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones. An electronic resource available from:

    All of these thinking skills usually develop in a predictable sequence. Remember, though, that every child is unique. You have the ability to help children learn and grow to their potential. Along with a family's pediatrician, preschool teachers must be knowledgeable about children's developmental milestones. Developmental milestones help adults to understand and recognize typical ages and stages of development for children. Milestones are not rigid rules for when or how a child should develop. Rather, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children based on cognitive, gross motor (movement), fine motor (finger and hand skills), hearing, speech, vision, and social-emotional development. You can use your knowledge of these milestones to meet children's needs in your classroom.
    Cognitive development is a unique process and is specific to each child. A family may wonder about their child's cognitive development and feel uncertain about what they are observing, as well as what to expect. You have an opportunity to learn first from a family and consider offering additional developmental information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together can be a valuable resource for you (, as well as the developmental milestones and act early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, The chart below also highlights possible warning signs for preschool children:

    Possible Warning Signs for Preschool Children

    Three Years

    • Can't work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
    • Doesn't play pretend or make-believe
    • Doesn't understand simple instructions

    Four Years

    • Has trouble scribbling
    • Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
    • Doesn't follow 3-part commands
    • Doesn't understand "same" and "different"

    Five Years

    • Doesn't respond to people, or responds only superficially
    • Can't tell what's real and what's make-believe
    • Doesn't play a variety of games and activities
    • Can't give first and last name
    • Doesn't draw pictures

    If you are concerned about a child's development, talk with your trainer, coach, or supervisor so that you can brainstorm and work together to talk with parents about your observations. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child's needs. With the guidance of your supervisor, trainer, or coach along with program management, you can share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk. If your program provides developmental screening tools, these can help you start a conversation about your concerns.

    Ultimately, if families are concerned about a child's development, they should talk to the child's pediatrician about their concerns. The pediatrician can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to specialists. Families should also contact their local school district (for children over age 3). The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child's development. This can help the child get the services and help he or she needs.

    This video, developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers tips for identifying and acting on suspected developmental delays.


    Just as children's bodies grow throughout the preschool years, their brains are growing too. You will see major changes between three and five years old in a child's thinking skills. Watch this video to learn about milestones during the preschool years.

    Cognitive Development in Preschool

    Watch the range of cognitive development during the preschool years.


    Understanding these milestones will help you know what kinds of learning experiences to plan in your classroom. Based on your knowledge of development, you can plan activities that are challenging but achievable for individual children. Remember, milestones are markers that let us know a child is growing in a healthy way. These markers are not thresholds or "tests" that a child must pass. Think about milestones when you:

    • Set learning goals for your class.
    • Read all you can about the stages of development especially for the ages of the children you serve.
    • Post developmental milestone charts for reference.
    • Recognize that children need different things from you as they move through the developmental stages.
    • Provide a range of interesting materials that spark preschoolers' interests and allow for hands-on exploration.
    • Provide a range of developmentally appropriate and culturally diverse books.
    • Find teachable moments to encourage learning and development.
    • Observe children on a regular basis to determine where they are developmentally.
    • Remember that children are unique and progress at different rates and that one area of development may take longer than other areas.

    Consult with your supervisor, trainer, or coach if you feel that there might be a concern with how a child is developing.



    Observing children throughout the day can help you see where they are developmentally which is important as you plan learning experiences for them. Download, print and complete the Stages of Development Observation Activity. Share your observations with your supervisor, trainer, or coach.



    It is important to understand and remember developmental milestones. You can download the Milestones Poster and use it as a reference in your work.


    Cognitive skillsThe mental skills or behaviors that help children access information, solve problems, reason, and draw conclusions
    Developmental delayThis may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
    Developmental milestonesA set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
    Developmental screeningA tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers, or others who know both the child and child development well
    Teachable momentsSpontaneous times when you follow children’s interest and help them learn; you might notice a child building a tall tower and say, “You are building a tall blue tower. Let’s count how many blocks you used”




    Finish this statement: Developmental milestones are ...


    Which of the following should not be expected of a 5-year-old child?


    What should you do if you think a child is not reaching developmental milestones?

    References & Resources

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Interactive Tools to Track Child Development. Available at