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    • Describe preschool environments that support children’s cognitive development.
    • Discuss features of classroom environments that promote young children’s cognitive development.
    • Prepare a list of materials to spark cognitive development for preschoolers in your classroom.




    Just like adults, preschool-age children are affected by their environments. It is our job to ensure classrooms and other learning spaces for children make them feel welcome, secure, and ready to learn. Your classroom environment should be organized yet flexible and responsive to children's changing needs. This will help maximize children's engagement and learning.

    As you learned in Lesson 1, cognitive development is all about learning. When children imitate your actions, that is cognitive development; when they pretend to be a store keeper or a mommy, that's cognitive development; when they read books during quiet time, that's cognitive development; when they draw or practice writing their name, that is cognitive development; when they sing songs, that's cognitive development; when they use magnifying glasses to explore ice, that's cognitive development; and when they use their words to talk to a peer about their emotions, that's cognitive development.

    Environments and Materials that Promote Young Children's Cognitive Development

    Children are natural explorers, but there is still a lot you can do to help them learn and grow. For example, you need to know what children explore. You also have to meaningfully design your environment and find materials to spark exploration. Finally, you can plan experiences that promote learning. This lesson will highlight the significance of purposefully creating environments and choosing materials that facilitate children's learning and growth. The final lesson in this course will discuss experiences and activities that promote cognitive development. Remember that children develop holistically and learn about the world around them in a variety of ways. Exploration and discovery are vital to young children's cognitive development. Your program should provide children with plenty of opportunities to engage in activities that promote exploration and learning in multiple areas: Math, Science, Social Studies, Language and Literacy, Art, and Technology.

    How you facilitate and nurture this kind of learning is extremely important. In other words, the way you structure and organize your environments and materials for children can make a huge difference in their development. Your classroom environment should be organized in a way that it enables children to engage in meaningful learning. Think about your classroom interest areas. For example, when a child in your classroom enters a purposefully designed interest area, they know what materials they can find there, the type of play (loud, quiet, social, or solitary) that might happen there, the expectations for how to behave, and ways in which they can explore, learn, and have fun there.

    As highlighted in Lesson 1, learning is both individual and social and it takes place within social and cultural contexts. Therefore you need to make sure your learning environment provides opportunities for children to engage in individual work, as well as meaningful interactions with peers and adults in your room throughout the day. Again, consider center work in your classroom. How are your interest areas set up? Are there interesting materials for children to manipulate, explore, and learn from? When thinking about interactions with peers, how are you setting up the environment for these interactions to take place? For example, do you consider providing fewer items (e.g., blocks, playdough, letter cut-outs, age-appropriate scissors) to encourage children to work with their peers, share, and learn from each other? When disagreements arise among children, do you encourage them to use their words and try to solve a situation on their own while making yourself available in case they cannot figure it out?

    Features of Classroom Environments that Promote Young Children's Cognitive Development

    The National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (2015) identifies features of the physical and social classroom environment that maximize young children's engagement and learning. These features refer to how the classroom space should be organized to facilitate children's meaningful participation in classroom experiences and include: well-designed physical spaces, relevant contexts, and intentional groupings.

    Well-designed physical spaces: Think about how you organize the different interest areas in your classroom. Are there spaces for large group work as well as areas for small group or individual work? Are areas for quite work located in a different location from areas that involve loud work? Is furniture used to create boundaries and help direct or facilitate children's safe movement in the room? Can you see all areas in the room to be able to monitor what children are doing at all times?

    Relevant Contexts: These refer to the learning materials, toys, or objects that you provide for children to play with, learn from, and explore. All of these materials should be meaningfully selected to support children's development and learning. As you make choices about these materials you should ask yourself questions such as, Do these materials support the learning goals you have for children? Are they culturally relevant? Are they interesting and fun? Do they promote interactions and exchanges among children?

    Intentional Groupings: How you make decisions about grouping children in your classroom can impact their engagement and learning. How do you make decisions about grouping children? Do you consider the types of activities or children's ages, interests, or backgrounds? What are some other factors that you take into consideration?

    In the References and Resources section of this lesson you can find citations with links for the website of the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL). As you explore these resources, think about how you can incorporate some of these ideas to improve outcomes for all children in your classroom and program.

    Promoting Exploration and Discovery in Preschool

    Exploration and discovery happen all the time when children pursue interesting ideas. Teachers can help children become explorers. What does this look like? Read about the following environments and materials that spark exploration.

    Discovery centers: Discovery centers let children explore materials on their own. The best discovery centers are located near natural light. They include plenty of natural materials. Tools are available for children to explore materials. Children might use magnifying glasses, eye droppers, tweezers, screwdrivers, and balance scales. Children may also tinker with safe "take apart" objects (toasters, clocks, etc.). A class pet might live in the discovery center. Writing tools like paper, pencils, and clipboards are available for children to record their observations.

    Investigations: Young children thrive when they have the opportunity to explore their interests in-depth. Also called projects or studies, investigations give children the opportunity to use research to answer interesting questions. For example, following children's interests in homes, you can promote classroom investigations about different types of homes and engage children in activities such as reading books about homes, taking a walk in the neighborhood to look at different types of homes, sharing information about their own homes, or building their own homes using materials at school.

    Experiments: Experiments can be a powerful way for children to explore their environments and objects. In experiments, children ask questions, make predictions, and test their hypotheses. An example of a common experiment is asking children whether objects will sink or float. Following children's interests, you can engage them in different kinds of experiments in your classroom environment.

    Environments and Materials that Address the Needs of All Learners

    There are many things you can do in your learning environment to help all children meet important learning goals. The first and most important step is to gather information about the children in your care. You will need to know what children are able to do well and what seems to be hard. Gathering information will help you know the skills and strategies that are likely to help children.

    Universal Design for Learning (UDL; CAST, 2011) is one strategy you can use. UDL helps all people learn and be successful in their environments. There are examples of universal design all around us: audio books, curb cutouts for strollers and wheelchairs, keyless entry on cars, electric can openers. Many of these tools were developed for people with disabilities, but they make life easier for all of us. Using the concept of UDL, some examples of what teachers can do in their classrooms to support children with special learning needs are: using a picture schedule, adapting seating arrangements, or sharing vocabulary words with children before reading them a story. For additional examples demonstrating the use of UDL, please refer to Lesson 5 in this course, Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities.

    The Figure below shows three strategies for using UDL and offers examples of each.


    How adults display information and provide directions

    • Use objects, pictures, text
    • Vary font size, volume, colors
    • Offer tactile, musical, or physical variation


    How children respond and show what they know

    • Choice of text, speech, drawing, music, sculpture, dance
    • Help with goal setting
    • Provide Checklists and planning tools
    • Use social media


    How children become interested and motivated to learn

    • Use child preferences
    • Offer choices
    • Vary levels of novelty, risk, and sensory stimulation
    • Encourage peer learning
    • Provide individual feedback

    Reflecting on Your Own Practices

    It's important to recognize the messages you send in your classroom. Sometimes biases sneak into our environments, materials, or interactions . Awareness of your own bias is the first step in supporting development. Think about which of the following biases might be in your own classroom:

    • Biased language. Language can send stereotypical gender messages. Adults might call children "baby girl," "big boy," or "cutie" rather than their given names. Staff might encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys." To fight this bias, youcould encourage peaceful solutions for all children (avoid directions like not hitting girls or not hitting kids with glasses). Be sure to comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments.
    • Stereotypical play opportunities. Children are often encouraged to play in certain ways (e.g., girls with dolls and boys with trucks). Make sure boys and girls get equal access and encouragement for playing "house," woodworking, music, science, active play, and messy play.
    • Biased materials. Sometimes posters and materials for the classroom present stereotypical images (e.g., Native Americans in "war paint," an all-male construction crew). Make sure the images in your classroom show men and women equally in a variety of professions. Make sure drawings or photos of people with disabilities are respectful images. Include books that show different ethnic backgrounds, social classes, and family structures.

    There are many ways you can enhance the curriculum to improve children's understanding and acceptance of culture. The following are some examples (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010):

    • Classroom props or materials: Include props from a variety of cultures. Toy food, menus, books, dramatic play clothes, furniture, and musical instruments can all reflect experiences from around the world. Art materials should include a range of materials for representing skin tones and various artistic styles, fabrics of various patterns, and books about art around the world.
    • Bulletin boards and displays: This space can be used to reflect and respect family traditions. Ask families to bring in pictures or other items for the board. Children can spend time researching their own or another culture and documenting what they have learned.
    • Class books or biographies: Books about children in the class document the real experiences of children and families. Encourage children to create pictures, drawings, and text about their lives, ideas, and families.
    • Family stories: Provide families with materials and instructions for creating a Family Book. Families and children can work together to talk about and record their family history and daily life. This can be a great way to introduce children and families to one another.
    • Storytelling: Encourage grandparents or community elders to share stories of their childhoods with the class or group. These can be audio-recorded or transcribed to create keepsake books for the class.
    • Messages from home: Using a tape-recorder, encourage family members to record a brief message in their home language. This can be played for a child when he or she is upset or homesick.
    • Music: Include music tapes or CDs and songs from different cultures during music time or circle time.
    • Field trips: Visit community cultural landmarks. Go see a dance troupe, play, or musical performance that will broaden children's cultural perspectives.
    • Collaborative work: Encourage children to work together in groups. This may minimize the pressure on a child who is learning English. It also exposes children to a variety of ideas and encourages creativity.
    • Snacks and meals: Invite families to share a traditional meal or snack with the children.


    Explorations in Preschool

    Watch this video to see examples of how children explore in preschool.


    There are many ways teachers can promote exploration and problem solving. Children need a balance of child-guided and adult-guided experiences. The Learning Environments course has more information on scheduling your day and designing meaningful environments.

    First, and perhaps most important, teachers and staff in a classroom can adopt a general attitude of exploration (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002). When adults consider themselves fellow explorers in the discovery process, children benefit. Adults can model the creativity, thoughtfulness, and curiosity necessary for exploration. By showing their own interests in materials and experiences, adults can teach children about the value of exploration .

    Explorations, discoveries, and investigations can be related to a wide variety of areas or concepts. Children can investigate science concepts, letters, sounds or numbers, music, the ways in which our bodies move, or the ways in which we can use art to express ourselves, our feelings, or ideas. You can set the stage so that children express their curiosities, have fun, and learn.

    Modeling Curiosity

    Watch how this teacher uses a small group activity to show her own curiosity.

    Perhaps the easiest thing adults can do to promote exploration is to hone their ability to ask meaningful questions. The best questions to spark scientific discovery are open-ended questions. Questions like, "Why do you think that happened?" and "What do you think will happen next?" start conversations and spark exploration.



    People of all races, cultures, ethnicities, ages, genders and abilities should be represented equally and appropriately in your program’s materials. Take some time to look through the books, toys, and materials in your classroom to ensure that children and families from diverse backgrounds are represented. Download the Culture and Children’s Literature Activity. Use this activity to review children’s books for common stereotypes and broad generalizations. Share your results with an administrator, trainer, or coach. 



    Use the resources in this section to learn more about fun ways you can create environments and use materials that spark children’s cognitive growth. The first handout provides ideas about materials that promote discovery and exploration. Download and read the list of Materials that Spark Exploration. Consider adding these materials to your discovery center or classroom to encourage exploration. The second handout is a list of resources to help you be more culturally responsive in your classroom. Download the Resource List and explore the ideas offered by the websites and organizations. As you read this information think about what you can do to support the cognitive growth and development of children in your classroom and program.


    BiasBias is a preference or prejudice. It is a one-sided way of thinking
    Discovery centerAn area of the room dedicated to exploring physical, life, and earth sciences. Scientific discovery happens everywhere, but providing a discovery center can spark children’s interest
    ExperimentsExperiments are tests that lead to discoveries. They let children discover whether a theory is correct or explore the results of their actions
    Family structureFamily structure is a way of describing the people who live together as a family. There are many different family structures. For example, two women or two men may raise children together; grandparents may raise children; foster families may raise children; a single parent may raise children
    InvestigationsInvestigations are long-term projects that allow children to research and learn about topics that interest them




    Which of the following environments and materials spark exploration in the preschool classroom?


    True or False? Experiences for preschool children should always be child-guided.


    Which of the following questions is NOT likely to spark curiosity and exploration?

    References & Resources

    Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain's "Air Traffic Control" System: How early experiences shape the development of executive function. Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from

    Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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

    Walker, K. (2010). Science in Early Childhood Classrooms: Content and Process. Early Childhood Research and Practice. Retrieved from

    Zan, B., & Geiken, R. (2010). Ramps and Pathways: Developmentally Appropriate, Intellectually Rigorous, and Fun Physical Science. Teaching Young Children, 4(2), 10-12.

    National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (2015). Designing Environments. Retrieved from

    National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (2015). Materials to Support Learning. Retrieved from