Cognitive development includes reasoning, memory, problem-solving, and thinking skills that help young children understand and organize their world. For preschoolers, this evolves into complex mathematical thinking and scientific reasoning.

woman and child playing with blocks

Children play an active role in their own cognitive development by exploring and testing the world around them, but they also need support from parents, teachers, and other adults. When infants and toddlers feel safe and secure, they are more willing to experiment with their world, such as discovering how a pull toy works, observing what happens when they turn on a faucet, and trying out different behaviors to see how people react. In the process, they begin to understand basic mathematical, spatial, and causal relationships. Toddlers also explore concepts through a variety of symbolic activities, such as drawing and pretend play. More and more, young children can rely on their developing memory to help them make sense of the world. All this activity in the first three years lays the foundation for the more complex cognitive skills that preschoolers develop.

Cognitive development is presented as two different domains for preschoolers— Mathematics Development and Scientific Reasoning—to reflect the increasingly complex and more differentiated cognitive abilities of this age period. Mathematics development in preschoolers refers to understanding numbers and quantities, their relationships, and operations, such as what it means to add to and take away. Mathematics also includes shapes and their structure, reasoning, measurement, classification, and patterns. Preschoolers are eager to measure their height to see how much they have grown and to chime in with repeating patterns in books and songs.

Increasingly, children use math strategies to solve problems during daily activities, such as figuring out how many more cups are needed at snack time. Because math includes generalizations and abstractions, math skills help young children connect ideas, develop logical and abstract thinking, and analyze, question, and understand the world around them. Children develop math concepts and skills through active exploration and discovery in the context of stimulating learning opportunities and intentional teaching strategies.

Scientific Reasoning refers to the emerging ability to develop scientific knowledge about the natural and physical worlds, learn scientific skills and methods, and continue developing reasoning and problem-solving skills. For preschoolers, scientific investigation includes making observations, recording them, talking about them, and analyzing them. Their investigations reflect their natural interests in how things work, in plants and animals, their bodies, and weather. In the process of investigating, they can learn to use measurement and observational tools, such as a ruler and a magnifying glass. During the early childhood years, science provides opportunities for rich vocabulary learning and collaboration with peers and fosters a sense of curiosity and motivation to learn. Problem-solving and reasoning become more complex as preschoolers gain new abilities to ask questions and gather information. Their inclination to be curious, explore, experiment, ask questions, and develop their own theories about the world makes science an important domain for enhancing learning and school success.

Because cognitive development encompasses a broad range of skills, behaviors, and concepts, children display great individual variation in their development from birth to 5. Prior experiences, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, temperament, and many other factors can impact the rate and course of cognitive development. Children with disabilities may require extra support as they use their senses and bodies to explore or as they describe their scientific investigations. The instruction and learning opportunities young children experience set the stage for their cognitive development and success.

Cognitive development from birth to 5 is influenced by children's cultural and linguistic backgrounds, temperament, and many other factors. Children who are dual language learners (DLLs) may express their knowledge and understanding differently—depending on the content of the skills and the context in which they were learned.

Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

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