Cognitive Development in Early Childhood – Quality Start

Cognitive Development in Early Childhood: Ages 0 to 3

Early Development in Babies and Toddlers

We hear the term child development a lot, but you may be thinking, what exactly does that cover? Child development refers to an expansion of physical, cognitive, psychological, and socioemotional skills that lead to increased competence, autonomy, and independence for a child. From conception to birth and through early childhood, it is important to ensure children are protected and encouraged to grow across the different developmental areas.

5 Areas of Child Development

There are 5 developmental domains, or specified areas of knowledge and activity, in childhood development. They are:

  • Cognitive Development-

    • Cognitive development is the ability to learn, think, and problem solve.
  • Social-Emotional Development

    • Social-Emotional Development is the ability to interact, self-soothe, associate and actively engage with others.
  • Speech/Language Development

    • Speech and language development is the ability to understand and use language.
  • Physical Development

    • Fine Motor Development is the ability to use smaller muscles, like hands and fingers.
    • Gross Motor Development is the ability to use large muscles, including a wide range of leg and arm motions, sitting up, pulling up, etc.

All areas of child development and learning are connected! We will take a look at each area of development up close, how they are naturally expressed through behaviors and how caretakers can encourage these behaviors with specific feedback. This series, created and written by Lauren Olivas, a CSUSB Masters in Child Development student, will look at stages within the first three years. Stay tuned as we cover important child development skills to watch for and how to identify opportunities to engage.

We’ll begin with first discussing one area of childhood development, cognitive development. Again, this is the ability to learn, think, and problem solve. How do these developmental skills begin to present themselves in infants and toddlers and what activities and opportunities can we create to support them?

Cognitive Development for Infants and Babies

At 2-months-old, learning and problem-solving skills are being developed. There are a wide range of cognitive development milestones babies should be working on in the early years of their lives. These include:

  • Paying attention to faces
  • Following objects with their eyes
  • Recognizing people at a distance
  • Putting things in their mouth
  • Passing toys from one hand to another
  • Looking for things to hide and engaging in a peek-a-boo
  • Responding to affection and recognizing familiar people from a distance

Cognitive Development Activities for Babies:

  • Talk, read, sing and play together every day-feeding, dressing, and bath times are great for this.
  • Look at pictures and picture books together.
  • Hold a toy or rattle above their head and encourage them to reach for it.
  • Pay attention to their differing cries to learn what your baby wants.
  • Play peek-a-boo.
  • Play hide and seek with toys and age appropriate objects.
  • Allow your baby to safely reach for toys, kick their feet and explore their surroundings.
  • Point to and talk about your surroundings.
  • When your baby drops something on the floor, pick it up and give it back to them to explore cause and effect.
  • Establish routines and maintain them consistently.
  • Describe the behaviors you want instead of those you don’t. For example, tell baby, “feet on the floor” instead of “do not climb.”

Cognitive Development in Toddlers

Once your baby transitions to toddlerhood (after one year of age), they should be able to engage in more complex problem-solving skills and cognitive tasks such as:

  • Scribbling on their own
  • Participating in caregiving activities for a doll or a stuffed animal
  • Engaging in simple pretend play
  • Naming items in a picture book (“dog” or “baby”)
  • Finding objects hidden under multiple layers
  • Completing sentences or rhymes in familiar books

Cognitive Development Activities for Toddlers:

  • Talk to your child about your daily routines and what you’re doing.
  • Work on puzzles together.
  • Encourage your child to help with simple household chores.
  • Ask lots of simple questions.
  • Praise and encourage behaviors you want more of rather than scolding or punishing for the behaviors that you do not.
  • Play with blocks and sort shapes.
  • Practice identification, ask your child to name parts of their body or what they see out the car window.
  • Encourage pretend play.
  • Play hide and seek with objects around your home.

(Content provided by Lauren Olivas, M.A Child Development Candidate, Higher Education Mentor for Quality Counts California)

Other Important Resources:

  • Resources for building quality at home.
  • Infant & Toddler Learning Foundations – View our resources to become familiar with the California Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Foundations.
  • What is Sesame Street in Communities and how does it support families and children’s growth?
  • Watch the webinar, “Children’s Emotional Well-Being During Unpredictable Times” from Dr. Eugene Wong on childhood anxiety and how to effectively support a child who worries.


Finally, if you have questions of concerns about your child’s development or behavior, check out Help Me Grow Inland Empire for developmental screening information.

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