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Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities

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

  • Describe types of learning that takes place with school-age children.
  • Identify your own assumptions about how and what school-age children should learn.
  • Create experiences and activities that you can use with school-age children in your program.



In your program, you likely work with school-age children and youth ranging from ages 5 to 12. Developmentally appropriate practice reflects the idea that as a school-age staff member 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. Developmentally appropriate practice provides staff members with structured guidance on how to support the growth and development of children while making learning meaningful and purposeful to their abilities. Teachers implement developmentally appropriate practice by recognizing the multiple assets all children bring to the program as unique individuals and as members of families and communities (NAEYC, 2020). It is necessary to make learning purposeful, meaningful, and based on a school-age child’s abilities, development, and interests. You should understand what skills are typical for children of different ages, what is appropriate for an individual child, and what families and communities value (NAEYC, 2020). This knowledge will help inform the daily decisions you make about the learning experiences you offer children. 

In the following section you will learn about the skills and knowledge that school-age children typically acquire throughout elementary and middle school. You should use this knowledge to make daily decisions about the experiences and activities you include in your curriculum.

Experiences and Activities that Promote School-Age Children's Cognitive Development

School-age children learn best when involved in daily experiences and interactions with adults and peers. Here are a few examples of ways children might learn important concepts and how you can support children's learning across these content areas:

Reading & Writing

One goal of teaching writing to school-age children and youth is to help them develop the skills and knowledge to effectively communicate information, ideas, and opinions to a variety of audiences. Learning to write, like reading, is a lifelong process. Research has shown that when students receive writing instruction, their reading fluency and comprehension improve.

How do reading and writing complement each other? Let's look at a few examples (Olness, 2005).

  • When children write, they are encouraged to spell words as they sound them out. As they do this, they learn about phonemic awareness--an important component of learning to read.
  • When school-age children learn about spelling, they are also learning a lot about phonics. They come to understand the relationship between the sounds of letters and how those sounds should be translated into written language.
  • When school-age children are read to by an adult or read print books on their own, they start to understand the structure of stories. They can use these stories as models for their own writing. It also works the other way around. When school-age children practice writing stories, all the different parts of a story come alive to students.

How can you support the reading comprehension and writing skills of children and youth attending your program? Here are a variety of literacy activities that can easily be implemented in your specific program setting.

  • Reading aloud: Children benefit greatly when books are read aloud to them. They learn about the structure of stories (beginning, middle, and end; conflicts and resolutions, etc.), discover a variety of emotions, develop their knowledge of print and phonological awareness, and learn new vocabulary. Older children might benefit from reading aloud with a partner, which builds social skills and helps students build fluency.  
  • Reader’s theater: Acting out a story gives children the opportunity to work together to bring a book to life. Children at play naturally create characters, scenes, and stories. Dramatic play experiences encourage emotional growth, motivation, and engagement (Prescott, 2015). Reader’s theater is a form of dramatic play that effectively builds reading fluency by encouraging listening and speaking skills and boosting comprehension. In reader’s theater, children and youth rehearse from scripts that have been created from books and perform a play for peers. Children can either play characters from the book or take the lead as narrator who shares important background knowledge.  
  • Book discussions or literature circles: Literature circles help children and youth think and talk about the books they have read with other peers. Children can build a sense of community, deepen their understanding of books, and learn speaking and listening skills through these conversations. Book discussions help children develop opinions about what they have read (Peralta-Nash & Dutch, 2000). Leading a book circle in your program might be hard in the beginning, especially if you have never led a discussion group before. The resource, “Why Literature Circles are an Important Part of Student Learning & How to Implement Them,” provides some guidance on how to start a literature circle discussion:
  • Engaging in creative writing activities: Research shows that before- and after-school programs can do a lot to foster children’s writing skills. You can implement a range of activities that help children practice the writing skills they learn in school and develop a love of writing. Younger children benefit from daily writing experiences, so embedding writing into the daily curriculum, such as having students write about their day, is helpful. Older children might benefit from writing-focused activities: writing poems, writing letters to pen pals, writing autobiographies, writing songs, writing and acting out plays, or writing book reports on a topic of interest. 
  • Use of graphic organizers:  One way to help students organize their thoughts about what they are reading or writing, is with graphic organizers. Graphic organizers can be used to help children think through activities. The following website provides a detailed explanation of graphic organizers, sample templates, and graphic organizer apps:


There are many ways to create fun and engaging math-related learning experiences. You can help children become confident and successful mathematicians by planning these activities in your program.

  • Make math visual and hands-on. Many school-age children have difficulties picturing numbers and calculations in their mind. For these children, math is an abstract concept. Active learning opportunities provide students ways to visualize math concepts. For young children, addition and subtraction problems can be simplified by counting actual objects. For example, children can practice geometry by using toothpicks and marshmallows to create different types of shapes and angles. Older children can practice mathematical concepts by designing towers using building blocks or Legos.
  • Create engaging opportunities for learning. If an activity relates to children's lives, interests, or hobbies, then their level of participation and effort will increase. There are countless ways to incorporate math skills in any activity. Sports, board games, video games, arts, and sciences all incorporate aspects of math. One example you can include in your program is having children take a poll or asking their peers and family members what their favorite animal is or favorite food. Then, children can create their own graphs to show the results of their poll.
  • Incorporate technology. Many children and adolescents are motivated by technology. Technology-based mathematics activities can include educational computer games and learning programs, using cameras to take pictures of geometric shapes in real-world settings, using calculation devices to assist with problem-solving, calculating time challenges using a stopwatch, or applying online programs to measure distances and landforms. Since mathematics is present in most daily activities, your school-age program can easily combine technology and math to create motivated learners.

Science and Exploration

Young children are natural explorers who use their senses to investigate their surroundings. Their curiosity leads them to uncover new information and challenges daily. The enthusiasm and energy that children bring to new experiences provides a wealth of opportunities for learning. Teaching children thinking skills can be a challenge in education. Giving children practice with independent thinking builds their problem-solving abilities.

Opportunities for exploration and problem-solving are right at your fingertips. A fallen bird's nest, the illumination of lightning bugs, the presence of pollution and litter, or preparing and eating ethnic foods are just a few examples of science and social studies topics that can be used for deeper exploration. All it takes is a walk around the block or a trip to a local park to help children make new discoveries.

Social Studies

Your school-age program can make social studies come alive by creating opportunities for experiential learning. Experiential learning simply means to learn by doing. Experiential learning is a highly successful teaching strategy that enables children to learn and retain information through experiences tied to their learning. When engaged in experiential learning, children draw on all of their senses. They read and listen to information to develop background knowledge. They see artifacts or visuals related to the topic. They take on roles to experience the subject they study (Diem, 2004).

Any social studies topic can be taught through experiential learning. For example, children studying Ancient Egypt can work in teams to build monuments or create ships to sail the Nile. Children can practice being archaeologists by digging to discover hidden treasures in the sand table or outside. Older children can learn about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and practice writing notes in the ancient language. Creativity is important for designing engaging and meaningful learning opportunities for school-age children.

Children can also learn about the experiences, contributions, and cultural practices of diverse people and places by reading stories. Carefully selected books and read-aloud opportunities contribute to children's growing understanding of history, equality, and diversity. The Explore activity in Lesson Four of this course provides a guide for evaluating the kinds of books provided in your program. With older school-agers or youth in your program, you could examine together the subtle and not-so-subtle biases that are often embedded within books or other forms of media (video games or movies) and reflect on the assumptions people may form about different groups of people based on the way they are presented. Incorporate social-emotional learning concepts, such as kindness to others and awareness of differences, to support overall cognitive and academic skill development. 

Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

Look around your classroom while school-age children and youth are engaging in interactions and working. You will probably notice a range of skills and abilities. Some school-age children seem to thrive even without much support from you. Other school-age children seem to need your help very frequently. There may even be children who you are not quite sure how to help. These children may struggle to reach learning goals.

It is important to develop meaningful learning experiences for all school-age 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 school-age staff member, you can 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 program to help them meet personal goals. You should read the IEP to learn about the child's goals, services, accommodations, and modifications. Just as each child is different, each IEP is different. In general, these children will need accommodations, different ways to access the activities, or 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 (ELL) or dual language learners (DLL). It might be hard for some of these children to do all classroom activities easily. Children learning English in your program will probably be at different levels. Some might hear quite a bit of English in their home, while others may hear none. This means that some children might need more help than others. You can help children who are learning English by (a) including multicultural activities, (b) giving them individualized supports, and (c) making these children feel included in all activities. Helping all children is characterized by flexibility and a commitment to making a variety of changes to the curriculum, environment, and activities to meet the diverse learning needs of children and youth in your program. By making adaptations to the materials or the environment, or by adjusting your expectations of an activity, all school-age children can be supported and work together successfully.

Changes to Curricula

Curriculum should support the development and well-being of all children in a group to foster learning. While children in your program may be working on similar skills and curricular concepts, they may be supported in different ways. For example, some children who have difficulty with reading comprehension may need to have an abridged version of a book while other children can read the book in its entirety. Children with weak vocabulary skills might benefit from vocabulary instruction before reading a new book. School-age children can use a concept map where they write the vocabulary word, write the definition, identify an example and nonexample, and draw a picture of the vocabulary word.

Changes to the Environment

You may have to change your program environment to meet the needs of all children. For instance, a school-age child can sit on an exercise ball while reading a book or working on a project. Other changes for your environment might include setting up different centers, providing children individual self-monitoring charts, or playing music to keep students focused. For instance, your program can set up different centers (e.g., reading center, mathematics center, exploration center, writing center) and children can move around to the different centers working on different activities. In one center, children may listen to a book while following along with the book in front of them and in another center, the children may play a game to reinforce different math concepts. If there are different tasks children need to complete, they can each be provided with a list of the different activities and use this to self-monitor their progress in completing the different activities. One more example of changing the environment is to include music. Classical music can be very calming for students while they work and can help them to stay focused on their work.

Changes During Activities

Children with special learning needs might find some activities very challenging. For example, a school-age child who is learning math may have difficulty quickly completing addition and subtraction problems. There are many ways to support the child in completing such assignments. One way to help the child is providing him or her with fewer problems to work on at a time. This allows the child to focus their attention on specific problems without feeling the pressure of the entire assignment. A different way to help the child would be providing them with manipulatives (e.g., blocks, number lines) to use while completing the assignment. Visuals and manipulatives support the child by providing a different way to approach the problem. This type of support is helpful for children who are hands-on learners. The help that you give a child will likely change over time as the child gets better at doing an activity. Think about fading help so that the child learns to do the activity on his or her own.

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 and youth 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, family members, 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 (NAEYC, 2020). Here are a couple of ways to make a child comfortable in the classroom:

  • Hire a staff member who speaks the child's home language.
  • Use Universal Design for Learning as you may have to change your program 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. 


Addressing the Needs of All Learners

Watch this video to learn how a staff member supports a school-age child.


You promote learning through your interactions and careful planning of activities every day. In the experiences you provide, you can:

  • Provide a variety of enriching, developmentally appropriate activities that are challenging to their age level, but still allow them to feel successful.
  • Offer plenty of opportunities to engage in active, project-based learning.
  • Present school-age children with a balance of routine and choice in the activities planned.
  • Take field trips to the library or organize a book fair.
  • Create activities where school-age children talk, think, write about, or act out positive values they believe are important.  
  • Create volunteering activities for school-age children.
  • Invite guest speakers that have contributed positively to the community.
  • Hold children accountable for their actions.
  • Provide opportunities for journal writing about personal issues and or topics that are important to school-age children.
  • Use dramatic plays to create scripts where children can use imagination.
  • Offer a variety of materials and options for learning a specific skills or lesson.

Use of technology is an important means for school-age children to learn. Families may seek your input on ways in which they can utilize technology at home. Below are some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other research-based information you can share with program families: 

  • Encourage children and families to eliminate background television and media use when doing homework. 
  • Establish healthy “sleep hygiene” or bedtime habits for children and youth of all ages. Viewing electronic devices close to bedtime can affect the quality and amount of sleep, as well as the ease of falling asleep. 
  • Families can engage with their children by asking them to show how they are using technology and media at school and in your program. 


It’s important to think about how to encourage all learners’ cognitive development. In this activity, think about how your curriculum can support the needs of all school-age children. Read and respond to the Thinking About the Curriculum Cycle activity. In each scenario, note a strength, a need, and experiences or supports that could promote cognitive development. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Turn school-age children’s daily experiences into teachable moments! Be creative in providing children with opportunities for exploration and discovery. Also keep in mind that the internet is a valuable resource for children and teachers. There are many free activity plans, interactive learning modules, and educational games available. Explore the resources in this section to support school-age children’s learning and growth.


Changes to instruction provided to a child based on his or her needs.
Developmentally appropriate practice:
“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, 2020).
Problem solving:
The ability to apply mathematics to real world situations to solve for an unknown number.


Finish this statement: Experiential learning means…
True or false? Research shows that younger school-age children benefit greatly from being read aloud to, while older school-age children do not.
Kelly is a new staff member working in your school-age program. They want ideas about how to help children with the writing process. Which of the following suggestions would help Kelly reach their goal?
References & Resources

AAP Council on Communication and Media. (2016). Media use in school-age children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(5).

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Children and media tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. National Institute for Literacy.

Children’s Literacy Initiative. (n.d.) Why literature circles are an important part of student learning and how to implement them.

Child Trends. (2019). Parental expectations increase kids’ stress.

Gestwicki, C. (2016). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early education (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, Inc.

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012- 4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gurganus, S. P. (2007). Math Instruction for students with learning problems (1st ed.). Boston, MA. Pearson Education, Inc.

Halpern, R. (2003). Supporting the literacy development of low-income children in afterschool programs. New York, NY: The Robert Bowne Foundation.

Learning Disabilities Association of America (2013, September). Graphic organizers.

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

National Council of Teachers in English.10 myths about learning to write  

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the national early literacy panel. Washington DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Neuman, S.B., Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2000). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (2005). Literacy in after-school programs: A literature review  

Olness, R. (2005). Using literature to enhance writing instruction: A guide for K-5teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Peralta-Nash, C., & Dutch, J. A. (April 2000). Literature circles: creating an environment for choice. Primary Voices K-6, 8(4), 29-37.

Prescott, J. (2015) The Power of reader’s theater: An easy way to make dramatic changes in kids’ fluency, writing, listening, and social skills.