Overview: Cognitive development is all about making that brain think and grow. Here’s a few helpful tips to help you understand the cognitive domain.

The human brain is a remarkable organ. An organ that I don’t really understand how it works, but I am amazed at how much a child can learn in the first few years of their life. A young child’s mind grows faster than it ever will in the future. It’s important to take a hold of this precious time to develop the brain for future success.

What is Cognitive Development?

The cognitive domain focuses on receiving, processing, organizing, and sending information to and from the brain. The best way to strengthen this as a child is through the five senses and sensory play.

Piaget’s Theory

Jean Piaget’s theory has 4 stages, but we are going to focus on the first two which ranges from birth to age 7.

The first stage is Sensorimotor, which lasts from birth to age 2. During this time children learn through movement and their senses. They learn about their world by interacting with it. At this stage, children are learning about object permanence, which is the understanding that objects still exist even after they are out of sight.

The second stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is the Preoperational stage, which lasts from about 2 years old to 7. During this stage children are learning to use symbols to represent objects. They need concrete objects to process concepts because they cannot think abstractly. They think in terms of symbols. This is the stage where they begin to write and use symbols to communicate with others. Children in this stage have a hard time seeing different viewpoints.

Erik Erikson

Erikson’s theory relies on one of two things happening in each stage. We will focus on the first 3 stages since that ranges from birth to 5 years old.

The first stage is Trust vs. Mistrust, which lasts from birth to 18 months. During this stage, children are learning to trust their caregivers typically through being fed. If their needs are met then they learn how to trust, but if their needs are not met they learn about mistrust.

The second stage which lasts from about 2 years old to 3 years old is Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt. They learn this through potty training. At this stage, children are learning how to be independent. If they are successful in potty training they meet autonomy. However, if they struggle with potty training and other activities that lead to failure then they develop shame and doubt.

The last stage for children under 5 is Initiative vs. Guilt, which is learned between 3 years and 5 years. If they are successful at getting control of a situation and power over their environment then they develop initiative. On the flip side, if they don’t gain power or try to gain too much power over their environment then they learn to feel guilty.

Keep in mind that these are just theories. Some people believe in them and others do not. From my experience working with children, I find these two theorist to be pretty accurate in their findings.

Remember these theories are not a step by step playbook of your child’s growth. Every child is unique and will develop at his/her own rate.

Cognitive Development Red Flags

Red flags are things to look out for, but do not necessarily mean something is wrong. If you notice one of these red flags mention to your pediatrician that it concerns you. I am not a professional doctor. What I am sharing is based on my knowledge as an Early Childhood educator.

-Does not uncover a desired toy he sees someone hide by 12 months old

-Does not point or vocalize to indicate wants by 18 months

-Does not initiate their own play by 2 years old

-Does not exhibit curiosity by age 2

-Unable to pay attention to a task for 3 minutes by age 3

-Does not substitute an object for another in play by age 3 (ex: using a wooden block when a play phone is not available)

Everyday Learning in the Cognitive Domain

There are so many great activities that you can do on a daily basis to help your little ones expand their thinking. You can start developing the brain at birth with books and sensory experiences.


When Sicily was little she LOVED when I hid objects from her. I remember the first time I did this, she looked at me with an expression of “why did you put that ball under the blanket?”

She knew exactly where I put it and lifted that blanket with a huge smile. Sicily still loves to play Peek a Boo. She is even starting to play a little bit of hide and seek.

Toddlers love books too. The best books for this age are touchy feely books. Usborne Books and More has a great collection called That’s Not My…

We have a ton of these books that we read every single day. To expand vocabulary talk about how the pictures feel. This goes along with providing different textures for your babies and toddlers to feel as well. Gluing a few pieces of fabric that feel different to a poster board is a simple DIY project for young ones.


We talked about how children develop a need for symbols to represent their thinking. Being exposed to writing and given the chance to play around with writing helps develop that symbol need.

You will notice that your little ones will begin to recognize certain signs (stop sign) and words without actually reading them. At first their writing is just going to be scribbles, but as they learn how to write letters you will start to see inventive writing.

I keep notepads all around the house to encourage writing and  I make sure Sicily sees me writing. She helps me write a grocery list and my to do list. As she gets older she will start to add this kind of writing into your dramatic play.

Related: How to Create an Encouraging Environment

Imaginative Play

This brings me to the next everyday play activity. Providing different imaginative play scenarios. I like to set up areas in the house that represent places we recently visited. For example, if we went to the doctors or flower show, I may set up an area that represents these places. Pretend play allows for creative thinking and problem solving. Reenacting what they experienced helps them internalize what they learned.


Puzzles are great for getting kids to think. Right now Sicily is at the stage of banging all the pieces together! But puzzles help develop those problem solving skills. Even those simple puzzles with the picture of where the piece goes is beneficial.

Sensory Experiences

Children, especially toddlers, learn about their world through their sense. This is why babies put everything is their mouth. They learn through taste, so putting it in their mouth is their way of learning about that object.

Sensory experiences do not have to be messy or just revolve around touching. Sitting outside identifying sounds you hear is a sensory experience. You are using your sense of sound.

I love the messy play though. I get right it with them and get dirty. Just last week my kitchen had a river running through it from water play.

Related: The Importance of Sensory Play



Finding collections is so easy for kids. It seems like they want to hoard everything, especially if it comes from nature. Let them hoard it! Collections lend themselves to many great math skills that get the brain thinking. With collections you can sort, classify, measure, weigh, and compare. All foundational math skills that will prepare them for more advanced math.

Let Them Figure it Out

It can be so hard not to jump in and help when your child is struggling. Sicily gets so mad at herself when she is frustrated. But instead of doing it for her I help comfort her and guide her. When she starts to cry because she is frustrated I sit next to her and tell her “It’s okay to be frustrated. Let’s take a few big breaths.”

We take a few big breaths together and then I encourage her to try again. Once she calms down, she gets it. Trust your child. They can do more than you think they can. Let them get frustrated. The best feeling is seeing your child smile once they do something they thought they couldn’t.

Related: 4 Aspects of the Adult’s Role in a Child-Led Approach

Cognitive Development is happening all around every day. By providing opportunities for creativity and problem solving we can help develop those brain connections even further.