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In the earliest years of education, many parents assume school is little more than playtime, but children actually experience a good deal of cognitive development in infant, toddler and preschool classrooms. Early childhood educators can set the foundation for success well into high school and beyond. Why? Because of the reality of cognitive development.

Cognitive development is the building of cognitive skills over time. Young children are constantly building these skills as they learn about their environment. Teachers can structure the classroom to encourage cognitive development in their young students.

Why Is Cognitive Development Important for a Child?

From birth through age five, a child develops many neural pathways. In fact, during this stage, the child’s brain develops more than it will at any other time of life. For that reason, focusing on helping those neural connections develop is vital. This is when the idea of numeracy, language, and object permanence gets solidified in the child’s mind. It is also an important time for pre-reading and vocabulary building.

By the time a child goes to kindergarten, their knowledge of the alphabet is one of the most significant predictors of how well they will read by 10th grade. This means that cognitive development in early childhood is essential. It is in these early years that teachers and parents alike can set the stage for future educational success. Missing this early window can create deficiencies that follow the child into elementary and high school.

Some examples of cognitive development overlap with pediatric developmental milestones, but some focus on educational development alone. Regardless, these are important milestones to track, as they show that your child is learning and developing as they should, preparing for a future of educational success.

Cognitive Development Milestones in Preschoolers

Early childhood educators have an excellent opportunity to help students gain these educational milestones. The young child moves through several developmental milestones in the infant, toddler and preschool years. Some of these include:

An Emphasis on Order and Sequencing

Everything in life has order. For example, we get ready in a particular order in the morning. In their earliest years, young children learn how to recognize these sequences and the patterns they reflect. Order and sequencing also help a child follow a story by identifying the beginning, middle, and end, a crucial skill for reading development.

Sorting Items

Sorting items based on characteristics, such as color, size, or type, is a skill that young children tend to develop in preschool. Children often find sorting objects fun, but it is still an important developmental milestone.

Make Believe

Playing pretend is more than just a fun activity for recess or playtime. It is actually a developmental milestone. Children who play pretend build reasoning skills and language vocabulary as they play with their friends or family members. It also gives children a safe place to explore ideas and feelings.

Progress with Favorite Books

Many children are not ready to learn how to read in their youngest years. However, they should love to be read to. They should understand that the words on the page correspond to the words being read, and they should start to prefer certain books over others. They should know when a book is upside down and how to turn pages to progress the story along. By late preschool, they should be able to recognize some letters and even some sounds of the letters in the books they read.

Beginning Stages of Right or Left-Handedness

It is in infancy that children are in the beginning stages of right or left-handedness, which can be observed as infants reach for items. This continues through the preschool years when most children will show a preference for left-handed or right-handed writing. Teachers and parents should not encourage one over the other and instead allow the child to use the hand that feels most comfortable.

Following More Complex Instructions

As children develop, they should be able to follow multi-step instructions. If you say, “go to your room, get your black shoes, and put them on,” the child should be able to follow all three of these steps.  Children in a toddler room begin to follow 2 – 3 step directions before they are two, older toddlers can follow a 3 – 4 step direction before preschool.

How Does Early Education Affect a Child’s Development?

According to the U.S. Department of Health, participating in a quality early childhood program focused on developing these milestones has a significant positive impact on a child’s development. That impact carries a child into adulthood. For example, by their 30s, children who participated in an early childhood program were at lower risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. In addition, they had better education outcomes and reading and math abilities. Early education has a significant positive impact on a child’s development.

School Activities that Promote Cognitive Development in Children

Cognitive development is something that both parents and teachers can work to develop. Specific activities can help students grow these crucial skills in the school setting. Here are some activities that can be woven into the school environment. While many of these skills can begin prior to preschool, continuing to focus on skills in the classroom setting through the below activities can promote cognitive development in preschoolers.

1. Quoting Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes are about more than just fun, silly stories. They help children learn how to recall facts and memorize information. They also are fun, helping keep kids engaged.

2. Playing with Blocks

Playing with blocks teaches sequencing, logical reasoning skills, and divergent thinking. Children must learn problem-solving when they have a tower that does not work right the first time. Playtime is fun, but it is also developing critical cognitive skills.

3. Morning, Day, Night

Morning, Day, Night is a school-based activity that helps children learn the concept of time. In this activity, the teacher makes three columns for each time of day. The teacher may use a symbol to help the child recognize the word in the title. Then, the teacher clips pictures that show things that happen at those times, such as breakfast food for the morning, schoolwork for the day, and sleeping for the night. The child matches the activity to the time of day.

4. Puzzles

Puzzles teach problem-solving and sequencing skills. They also teach pattern recognition. These are vital skills to help a child in future educational efforts. Puzzles can grow with the child. Very young children can benefit from peg pieces that fit into just one hole, while older preschoolers can do traditional puzzles with larger pieces.

5. Sorting Activities

Sorting activities are an excellent choice for the preschool classroom. Teachers can gather small items in a similar category, then ask the students to sort them based on specific criteria, such as color. Most young children can recognize the color of items and choose the correct sorting pattern.

6. Puppets

Puppets give children a chance to practice make-believe and pretend play. Many children are more interested in acting out their feelings with puppets than talking about them directly, and teachers can use a puppet to interact with a student in a fun, safe way.

7. Constructing Play

Building with Lego or similar building materials is a great way to grow basic cognitive skills. Students can learn to make the pieces work together and problem-solve when they do not come together as they should. This sparks creativity that will teach the child to be tenacious when problems do not work out right the first time.

8. Finger Play

Finger play involves using hand motions while singing songs or chanting rhymes. Many finger plays designed for young children teach pattern recognition and basic number sense, making them an integral part of a young child’s development.

9. Cooking

Simple cooking activities in the classroom can teach sequencing, following directions, measuring, and basic number sense. All of these work to create greater cognitive skills for a young child.

10. Role Play

Role-playing is a type of imaginative play that involves set scenarios. The teacher might say, “What would you say if I sat in your chair?” then allow the child to respond appropriately to this frustration. Role-playing enables a child to work through a scary or upsetting scenario and react appropriately in a safe environment.

Build Your Early Childhood Understanding

Knowing about these cognitive development milestones is essential if you are considering a career in early childhood. You can learn more about them with the proper training. Post University’s Associate Degree in Early Childhood undergraduate degree program could provide this training, so you will be prepared to guide children through these learning events. Reach out to an admissions counselor today to learn more about our early childhood and child studies degree programs.

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