Twelve fun ways to promote your child’s cognitive development, by age group

Cognitive learning is so important in early childhood, as scientists believe that the first five years are a particularly important period for acquiring information because the brain is more malleable for absorbing new information. The experiences children receive help neural connections to grow, and they are then strengthened through repetitions.




Your child is born with their brain fully formed, but the architecture of it is built through the experiences they encounter after birth, and it is thought within the first year of life your child can build more than one million neural connections. As your child grows and has more experiences, they will begin to process and link information more competently and so they make more neural connections and their cognition develops.


What is cognitive development? 

Cognitive development refers to the process in which our brain builds, processes and develops information to allow us to understand the world around us. It helps us to develop skills such as thinking, memory, processing and understanding.  Brain development is part of cognitive development 

All children develop at their own rate and in their own time. Jean Piaget, who was a renowned philosopher, explored how children think and how they ‘come to know’. Piaget's theory suggests that a child's cognitive development is not just about acquiring knowledge. He suggests the child has to develop or construct a mental model of the world. 

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How does cognitive development occur? 

Cognition comes as children are exposed to new experiences and they use their senses to actively experiment and explore the world around them in a first-hand way.Everything is a new experience to a newborn baby, and over time the development of cognition will support your child in processing, understanding and retrieving information. It is an essential part of overall development, allowing a child to understand the world and interact with it safely. 

Piaget believed that children are born with innate tendencies to acquire cognition and that, to do so, they go through four phases: 


  1. The Sensorimotor Stage – children in this phase learn about the world around them through their senses, basic reflexes and motor (physical) responses.
  2. The Pre-operational Stage – children begin to think in a more symbolic manner and will be able to use words and pictures to represent their thoughts and ideas.
  3. The Concrete Operational Stage – children begin to think more logically and are more organised in their thoughts. They will also become more reasonable and less egocentric.
  4. The Formal Operational Stage – children begin to be more abstract in their thoughts and can hypothesise answers, outcomes and be logical with their responses. 


Piaget also believed that you couldn’t speed up cognitive development and children needed to reach each of these stages organically, and that to rush children through stages of cognitive development might mean they miss learning important skills. Many still believe this element of his theory today, and that even the art of measuring cognitive development is flawed because of how difficult cognition is to measure.  


Examples of cognitive skills 

Cognitive skills are at work in many aspects of our daily life, for example: 

Making decisions   This involves thinking about our desired end goal, arranging and evaluating alternative options to reach the goal, choosing the option most likely to achieve the goal, and then using the outcome from this experience to adjust the way we make decisions in the future. 

Predicting outcomes –  This involves ‘looking into the future’ and anticipating what is most likely to happen, or what we expect to happen, based on previous experiences.

Problem-solving –  This involves skills of identifying and analysing a problem, looking for the cause, thinking creatively about different possible solutions, choosing a solution to try, and then evaluating if you have been successful. 

Communicating –  This involves sharing the thoughts, feelings and ideas in our head in many different ways, for example through gesture, expressions, words, writing, drawing or dance. 

Imagining This involves using our memory and past experiences to come up with mental images and to create new ideas, thinking about possibilities. 

Developing short- and long-term memory   Memory is information that stays with us over time and is stored so we can access it in different ways. Short-term memory is believed to hold a limited amount of recent information in an accessible state whereas long-term memory is where most information is stored. 


Activities to support cognitive development 

Here at My First Five Years, we believe children all develop at their own pace, and supporting children through play and interaction is more effective than focusing on speeding up areas of development. 

The good news is that supporting cognitive development does not need investment in expensive resources. On the contrary, ‘open-ended’ resources (those without pre-determined ways of playing) are perfect. These objects that you have around the home or can find outside, that may not traditionally be seen as ‘toys’, offer so much potential. 


Cognitive development activities for newborn babies 

  • Give your baby time with their hands and feet uncovered   As your baby’s physical skills develop, they will move their hands and bring their hands to their face and mouth. Your baby’s mouth has more nerve endings per square millimetre than any other part of their body. As they develop their physical control, they will explore their hands, feet and objects with their mouth. Touching their face and exploring their hands and feet with their mouth will help your baby to develop their awareness of their body and will make and strengthen new connections in their brain.
  • Engage in ‘serve and return’ activities – Interact with your baby and respond to the facial expressions, actions and noises they make. Each time they attempt to engage with you, they are offering a ‘serve’ and you offer back a ‘return’. Games such as peek-a-boo, responding to noises and movements through imitation and sharing books are all great serve and return activities.
  • Offer a range of safe, everyday objects for your baby to explore   Your baby will learn to understand objects by using information from all their senses. As they hold, move, put objects in their mouth and look at objects, they will develop their understanding of the properties of the objects that they explore. Your baby’s brain makes links between the areas that process information from different senses as they explore the objects, and this gives them different information about the world. All of this exploration helps your baby to build mental representations of objects.



Cognitive development activities for babies 

  • Make your own photo or memory books   These allow you to revisit past experiences together and share memories. Talk to your child about familiar people, places, events and associated feelings as you look at the photographs together.
  • Share favourite picture books many times   Reading the same book many times allows your child to sequence and anticipate events. By pausing while reading, you can encourage your baby to begin to predict which picture is on the next page, or what happens next. Lift-the-flap books are great to support the anticipation of who or what is under the flap!
  • Create treasure baskets   Gather a variety of safe objects and materials and place in a low-level basket for your baby to sit next to and explore. Consider how each object might engage your baby’s sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing and bodily movements. For example, you could use objects made of metal, rubber, fur, leather, wood, marble and fabric. This will engage your baby’s natural curiosity and encourage them to make choices and decisions about what to handle, while developing concepts such as coldness, softness and heaviness. The contents of the basket can be tailored over time as you observe which objects capture your baby's interest.



Cognitive development activities for toddlers 

  • Create your own role play costumes   Browse charity shops with your child to find items to spark their imagination! It’s great fun to search together for hats, bags, belts, jackets, and all sorts of clothing, or visit your local fabric store where your child can choose interesting fabrics with different textures, patterns, and possibilities. These offer greater scope for imagination than a play outfit for a particular pre-determined ‘character’ because the possibilities for ‘who to pretend to be’ are limitless as your child creates their own character, which can transform over time. 
  • Offer activities to support sorting and classifying   Find everyday objects that interest your child, such as different size spoons, brushes, socks, bottles. Support your child as they play, noticing how they collect, organise and combine similar objects in clusters, lines or bags, arranging and rearranging them according to shared criteria such as size, colour, shape and material. Encourage serialisation of the objects. Linked to classification. this is the ability to organise things by progression, such as by size, numerical values or colour shadings. Offer language and new vocabulary to support your child’s investigations.
  • Incorporate language relating to number into daily conversation   Point out numbers in the environment when you are out and about with your child. On journeys or when exploring an area, count things that you can see, such as ducks on a pond, or cars that drive past. Sing counting songs with your child which involve counting to 10 forwards as well as backwards. Examples of this could be "10 Green Bottles", "Five Speckled Frogs" and "10 in the Bed".  Use number language during daily activities, counting objects and actions. Encourage your child to record ‘how many’ by making marks on paper, a chalkboard, or on the ground.  



Cognitive development activities for children

  • Involve your child in decision-making   It not only feels good to your child to have some say over their own life, but additionally by offering them the chance to contribute to decision-making processes and to use their experience to weigh up options, you are fostering their ability and confidence to make decisions in a way that meets their needs in terms of their personal preferences, feeling and interests. To support this, you could demonstrate your own decision-making process by talking aloud as you weigh up options, for example, saying, I was wondering if we should go to the woods or the park today. The park has lots of great climbing equipment but climbing on the tree trucks and branches is great too, and the trees might give us more shelter if it rains. Hmm, what do you think?”
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for mark-making and drawing   When your child realises that marks can be used symbolically to carry meaning they begin to use marks as tools to make their thinking visible to themselves and others. Your child’s marks, symbols and writing may help them to make sense of important experiences, places or people in their world. Bring mark-making into all sorts of playful situations, through using clipboards and pencils, whiteboards, stickers, notepads etcetera, to draw familiar places they have visited, make maps, and represent their thoughts.  
  • Encourage your child to explain their process and thinking when engaged in an activity   For example, if your child shows you a Lego model, rather than comment only on the ‘end product’, you could ask them to reflect on what sparked the idea, how they went about the task, and what they learned along the way. Perhaps saying, for example, “I wonder where you got the idea to make this? How did you choose the pieces to use? Which was the trickiest part?” 

Do you want more guidance on supporting your child on their journey develop cognitive skills? Our app can guide you every step of the way. For more information check out our app.

Our app was designed to guide you as a parent through the journey to develop your child’s cognitive skills, as well as through 2600+ other skills. It will help you to feel empowered to support your child through play every step of the way and celebrate all their achievements.