23 Activities To Promote Cognitive Development In Toddlers


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Cognitive skills are the mental abilities that we use to read, learn, understand, remember, and focus. We use these skills to process information and respond to it. But did you know that we acquire cognitive skills and develop them constantly when we are young? That’s right.

Infants and toddlers keep observing their environment and continuously imbibe, think, learn, and experiment. Cognitive skills serve as the foundation for the development of a baby’s emotional, social, communication, and language attributes (1).

Keep reading this post as we share more about cognitive skills in toddlers and how you can help your little one’s development years.

At What Age Does A Child’s Cognitive Development Begin?

Your baby is on the learning curve as soon as they start observing the surroundings. For instance, your two-month-old baby can pay attention to faces and follow moving objects with their eyes. Infants and toddlers watch their parents or elders in the family, listen to the language spoken around, make cooing noises, taste foods, hold or grab objects, or cuddle with their caregiver. They imbibe and learn in these ways (2).

Cognitive development continues for months and years together. A 12-month old has achieved a bit more of the skills as they can move items, stand, sit, follow instructions, and understand object permanence, among other things.

What Are Toddler Cognitive Skills?

As your baby grows up, they come across various milestones of cognitive development. According to Jean Piaget’s  sensorimotor stage (first stage of ‘theory of cognitive development’), infants and toddlers between zero and 24 months of age interact with the world around them. These sensory and motor experiences help them develop cognitive skills.

At each developmental stage, your toddler will develop newer and more complex skills. Let’s explore the various cognitive milestones in toddlers (3) (4).

  • By the time your baby is between nine and 12 months of age, they can sit, stand, crawl, and even walk with support.
  • A one-year-old will have a better understanding of the world than they had during infancy. They enjoy looking at picture books, imitate gestures made by others, put one object into the other, manipulate them, recognize words, and respond with sounds and gestures. They also begin understanding the concept of object permanence.
  • When they are between one and two years of age, they start to differentiate between ‘me’ and ‘you,’ identify familiar objects and people, and try to respond to words.
  • Toddlers who are between two and three years of age show increased independence and learn a lot by exploring the world around them. Cognitive skills that most two-year-olds have are:
    • Imitation of their parent’s or family members actions
    • Name objects in the books
    • Identify their reflection in a mirror
    • Understand and respond to instructions given by adults
    • Ability to sort objects according to color, size, or type
    • Grab and lay building blocks

How Do Toddlers Develop Cognitive Skills?

As babies grow, the nerve cells (neurons) in their brains branch out and form a new connection every time they learn something new. Each neuron can have multiple connections, and together, they form pathways (5).

Imagine these neural pathways to be the wiring system in your house. Each neural pathway is a circuit. While some activities like breathing and digestion are present at birth, other pathways result from cognitive development. It means that the more your baby explores, learns, and interacts, the more pathways are formed. The more these pathways are used, the stronger they become. New neural pathways are formed when your toddler picks up different skills at different stages of development.

These early cognitive skills lay the foundation for complex cognitive abilities that emerge later in life.

Engaging Cognitive Activities For Toddlers

You can engage your toddler in innumerable activities to boost their cognitive development.

1. Sing along

Music is a sensorimotor and cognition developer. Teach your toddler to sing after you or with a music player. It will entertain them and improve their social and emotional skills.

2. Practice animal sounds recognition

Toddlers love animals and are quick to pick up on their sounds. How about practicing animal sounds and asking your toddler to identify them?

3. Learn letters with flashcards

Using flashcards with toddlers is a great way to teach them and boost their memory. You can begin with letters and practice with them daily.

4. Practice matching simple puzzles

Get your toddler a two-piece puzzle that is easy to identify visually and enables your little one to use their memory and logic to complete them.

5. Learn colors with a color sorter

Colors are fun, attractive, and essential for your toddler’s cognitive development. Get your baby a color sorter and teach them how to use it. It helps in boosting cognitive and logic skills in your toddler.

6. Understand cause and effect with button toys

An important part of cognitive development in your toddler is understanding the cause and effect phenomenon. A simple button toy that performs an activity, lights up, or gives out a sound is a fun way to teach your child cause and effect.

7. Practice stacking with wooden blocks

Allow your toddler to stack building blocks in any way they want. It allows them to imagine and get creative. Giving them some suggestions once in a while is useful.

8. Explore textures with touch-and-feel toys

Toys for toddlers come in different shapes and materials. It is because toddlers are encouraged to touch and feel different textures and learn about them.

9. Pretend-play with kitchen toys

Toddlers have a keen sense of imagination. Providing them kitchen toys allows them to use their imagination and creativity in their play. It is also a good way to teach them about food, tastes, and smell.

10. Practice passing through a bike course

Cognitive skills in your toddler are not limited to their mental skills. Set up a bike racecourse in the garden or draw a course with chalk and encourage your toddler to observe and pass through the course accordingly. They can explore using their hands and feet in coordination to move ahead, behind, turn around, which improves their ability to understand the reactions and react appropriately during an outdoor play.

11. Set up a scavenger hunt

The activity is more appropriate for toddlers around two to three years of age who understand instructions better. Set up a treasure or scavenger hunt for your toddler and give them a reward to motivate them.

12. Play with musical instruments

Babies are instantly attracted to music and sounds of all kinds. Playing with rattles, banging on utensils, and beating on a drum with drumsticks improve your toddler’s dexterity and develop a sense of sound and music in them. Get them a toy musical instrument and encourage them to play it.

13. Let them help with chores

Fun activities with your toddler can be a learning opportunity for them. Allow your child to help you in daily chores such as cleaning their toys and putting the toys in the bin. These will instill a sense of responsibility, improve dexterity, and teach them to follow instructions.

Cognitive Activities To Boost A Toddler’s Memory

Here are some easy and fun activities that can boost your toddler’s memory.

14. Hide an object

Hide an object under the blanket or shuffle it between your hands. Ask your toddler to find the item. Such activities boost your child’s short-term memory and visual memory. It also lays the foundation for object permanence.

15. Repeat songs and stories

Singing to your newborn or infant is recommended as the sounds and tunes could help in cognitive development. As your baby grows up to be a toddler, singing nursery rhymes, narrating stories with images, and encouraging sing-alongs are recommended. Once you feel your child is familiar with a rhyme or song, pause at a point and ask them to continue (6).

16. Practice numbers and letters

You can keep repeating letters and numbers, and once they are acquainted with them, you can ask them to recollect.

Cognitive Activities To Improve A Toddlers’ Logic

Though underestimated, logic plays a critical role in your child’s life as they grow older. Here are a few things you can do to help your toddler develop logical abilities.

17. Set up simple daily routines

Build simple and defined routines and procedures. For example, if you are heading out, pick out two outfits of your choice, and ask your toddler to choose what they would like to wear. During snack time, give your toddler the option of two healthy snacks and ask them to pick what they would like to eat. By giving your toddler a choice, you encourage them to think independently while still in control.

18. Sorting-based games and toys

By the age of two years, your toddler will be able to identify objects and sort them. To encourage and strengthen their ability to sort things based on different parameters, you can ask them to sort toys, blocks, animals, colors, or ask them to choose their favorite. The routine can be incorporated during your daily outdoor sessions with your toddler too.

19. Give them puzzles

A great way to boost your toddler’s logic is by engaging them in matching games and puzzles. For example, a puzzle game where they need to match the animal puzzle piece with the puzzle piece of the sound they produce or a game in which different pieces fit in a specific, logical orientation.

Cognitive Activities To Boost A Toddlers’ Imagination and Creativity

Try these activities to boost your toddler’s imagination and creativity.

20. Get creative with art

Children are imaginative and creative. These traits are naturally present in them and can be further honed by creating art, crafts, and painting. For example, use playdough to make a miniature cat or dog and ask your child to follow your steps. After a few times, your child will create an object that they have seen or observed in the environment around them. A similar activity can be taught by asking them to draw or color. Use bright colors that are attractive to your toddler.

21. Engage in outdoor play and short visits

Unstructured play is equally essential for boosting your toddler’s imagination and creativity. Take your child out to a playground or open space to allow them to explore the world outside. A visit to a zoo, a picnic, or a similar experience can boost your child’s cognitive skills.

22. Provide experiences

Start with smaller experiences, but as your toddler begins to grasp more, you
need to improvise and provide variety. You may well be sitting with a zebra, a lion, and an astronaut at a tea party hosted by your little one.

23. Get artistic with sidewalk chalk

You can stock up on materials that your child can use to get creative and keep them engaged. One such material is a blackboard and chalk. Let your child think freely and get creative while drawing on the board. It helps your child improve their motor skills, dexterity, and creativity—all of which are needed for cognitive development at this stage.

Unstructured Toddler Cognitive Activities Examples

While there are plenty of activities that can help boost your toddler’s cognitive skills, unstructured play or free play is equally important for their development. Unstructured play gives toddlers and children the freedom to imagine, explore, create, and play without any rules (7).

The freedom cultivates and boosts cognitive development along with physical and emotional development. Encouraging your toddler’s free play with children of the same age also helps build their social skills. A combination of structured and unstructured play makes children creative, innovative, imaginative, disciplined and helps them develop critical problem-solving skills as they grow up.

You can encourage your toddler to play outdoors to explore and interact with the world. However, toddlers can have just as much fun indoors. Some examples of unstructured indoor play include:

  • Building with Lego blocks
  • Playing with dough
  • Playing with a kitchen set
  • Playing with water
  • Playing with figurines (cars and dolls)
  • Playdates with other toddlers
  • Narrating a story to friends or family members

Unstructured play is said to be an essential part of childhood and shapes the way your child thinks. Here are a few tips you can use to encourage your toddler during unstructured play.

  • Keep lots of materials, such as age-appropriate toys, cardboard boxes, paper towels, blocks, storybooks, blank books, and playdough handy.
  • Keep cognitive toys and books on shelves that are easily accessible to your toddler.
  • Keep a designated space in their room where your child can just be themselves. It’s okay if they get messy while playing.

How Does A Baby Rattle Help With Cognitive Development?

Rattles are one of the first toys your baby plays with. While in the first two or three months, your baby is attracted to the sound and movements of the rattle when you shake it, from four to seven months, they are likely to hold the rattle by themselves (8). You encourage them to shake the rattle and make noise. By doing so, your baby learns the purpose of a rattle.

Once your child is familiar with their rattle, play ‘hide the rattle’ with them. Shake the rattle to make noise wherever it is hidden as it encourages your child to understand object permanence and motivates them to look for it. Even in the first two or three months of your baby’s life, the rattle noise is a concept that helps boost your baby’s cognitive development.

Other benefits of using a baby rattle for cognitive development are:

  • Different rattles make different noises
  • Your infant learns to grasp, hold, and move the rattle, helping them develop their motor skills
  • Many rattles are teethers, too
  • Toddlers learn to imitate adults by moving the rattle just like the adults do

Infants and toddlers are continuously imbibing and learning from the world around them. Their immediate environment and experiences affect their behavior and skills. These sensorimotor experiences of your toddler help improve their cognitive development. As a parent, engage your toddler at different stages of development to boost their cognitive skills.


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