Home Visitor's Online Handbook


Teacher with student learning her nameCognition refers to young children's increasing abilities to learn. Young children gain information from their physical environments (e.g., home, neighborhood, and community) and their social environments (e.g., interactions with important adults, experiences they have, and the culture around them). The ELOF provides a detailed progression of the knowledge and skills a child achieves in these domains.

For many years, we believed that infants and toddlers learned only through what they could touch, taste, see, smell, or hear. Now, we know that:

  • Very young children need adults to help them in their learning
  • New information coming into the brain travels first through the emotional center of the brain
  • Children develop ideas about how things may work and test these ideas out

As scientific interest in infant cognition has grown over the past two decades, infants and toddlers are no longer seen as simple sensory-motor learners but have been called "scientists in the crib" because of their impressive mental capacities.

Young children learn when adults follow their interests and engage in interactions and experiences. Adults help children use their attention and interactions to:

  • Become interested in an object, event, another person, or their own physical abilities
  • Provide information about how objects and people work
  • Encourage them to explore safely
  • Remember earlier experiences
  • Provide just enough support for them to stay with a challenge when they become frustrated

How To

You support parents' ability to contribute to their child's cognitive development and general knowledge by:

  • Helping parents become accurate observers of the actions that demonstrate their child's learning
  • Thinking with parents about what part of the environment might help or hinder learning:
    • Environmental supports include:
      • Having a limited number of interesting materials that the child can safely explore within his reach
      • Limiting TV watching and screen time as much as possible
      • Keeping hazardous, fragile, or very important or valuable items out of the reach of children
      • Providing engaging play materials, a safe play area, and ways to enrich or expand play and exploration
    • Hinderances include distractions such as:
      • Noise
      • Nearby activity
      • TV or CD playing in the background
      • Too many things in the play area
  • Encouraging body awareness (e.g., "You are kicking, kicking, kicking!" "Where is your nose? Yes! Where are your eyes? Yes!" "Look at how high you're climbing!")
  • Talking about developmentally appropriate ways to read or look at books
  • Taking advantage of different items in the home to talk about textures; for example, "The sofa feels rough and the table feels smooth."
  • Using empty containers to offer olfactory experiences (e.g., soak a cotton ball in vanilla extract or fresh lime juice, put it in a clean, empty container, glue the top on, and punch holes in the top for the child to smell)
  • Pointing out the learning of "cause and effect" when the parent responds to an infant's cries or smiles or offers a kitchen pot and different, safe utensils that make sounds when the child bangs on the pot (e.g., a rubber scraper, a wooden spoon, a metal spoon, etc.)
  • Suggesting experiences that help a child discover object permanence, such as:
    • Talking about things that are out of sight,
    • Playing a CD under a blanket
    • Even the often annoying but educating, tossing toys on the floor for the adult to pick up
  • Providing lots of opportunities to move and explore (e.g., keeping one low kitchen cabinet not childproofed and filled with things that are safe for the child to explore or taking the child outdoors to play with sticks, leaves, grass, and stones)
  • Putting different toys in a special box every day for the child to discover
  • Offering opportunities for sorting and categorizing items such as stuffed animals and books or large and small containers
  • Making bigger and smaller piles of items and asking things like, "Which one has more? Which is bigger?"
  • Sharing the study and discovery of bugs or dandelions or what mud does
  • Exploring the environment with parents to discover learning opportunities
  • Being aware of what is safe for exploring
  • Building the parent's capacity to provide a safe learning environment

Experience It

A home visitor is talking with Isaiah's mother about his developing skills and knowledge; the parents discuss what they have learned from the home visits. As Isaiah plays with his parents, the home visitor videotapes it and reviews what they are all learning.


What do you observe Isaiah doing?

Answers may include:

  • Isaiah opens and closes the egg carton, then shakes it.
  • Isaiah gets an object out of "his" drawer and puts it in the egg carton.
  • The three adults are shaking and swaying scarves; Isaiah has a scarf around his neck that he is holding.
  • When his father is putting Isaiah's sock on, Isaiah repeats "blue sock" after his father says it.
  • Isaiah's mother is playing with the egg carton with him and putting blocks into it. Isaiah says, "I do it."
  • Isaiah is holding a bag with a zipper. His mother asks if he can zip the zipper. He says something and hands it to his mother. She tells him to hold it, and together they pull the zipper.
  • Isaiah rubs a rattle on his head with two hands.
  • Isaiah runs and pumps one arm as he runs.

What do you observe that focuses on enhancing Isaiah's knowledge?

Answers may include:

  • The family is working on counting.
  • The home visitor suggests using an egg carton to count the treasures in the child's drawer.
  • The egg carton will allow for sorting as well as counting, which adds another dimension to Isaiah's learning.

How can you apply these principles to working with families in your program?

Answers may include:

  • Use materials the child is already interested and expand their use or add additional materials for new experiences.
  • Use materials from the home in creative ways to enhance the child's cognition and general knowledge.
  • Use daily routines to help children learn, such as matching socks in the laundry and noticing one-to-one correspondence while helping to set the table.

Reflect on ways you can use materials and routines in your families' homes to enhance the child's cognition and general knowledge.

Answers may include:

  • Are there routines or materials related to their culture that you might follow up on to enhance the child's cognitive experiences?
    • Use aspects such as fishing, drumming, chanting, singing, simple poems, or finger plays from the family's culture to plan rhythm, simple math, or social studies experiences.
  • Do you use everyday materials in your home visits to enhance the child's knowledge and skills?
  • How can you enhance what infants, toddlers, and 2-year-olds already know to extend their learning?
  • Individual reflection

In what other developmental domains did you observe Isaiah and his family engage?

Answers may include:

  • Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development
    • Isaiah used fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination to put objects in the egg carton
    • Isaiah ran using his arms and legs
  • Language and Literacy
    • Isaiah conversed with his mother and father (e.g., "I do it," something like "I need help," "blue sock")
    • Repetition
      • Isaiah's father said words and he repeated them
  • Approaches to Learning
    • Exploring
      • Isaiah put "treasures" in the egg carton, then lifted it up and shook it
    • Experimentation
      • Isaiah wanted to try things himself
    • Self-regulation
      • Isaiah was able to ask for help when he needed it
  • Social and Emotional Development
    • Self-confidence and Independence
      • Isaiah wanted to try things himself and his mother supported it
    • Asking for Help
      • Isaiah was able to ask for help and his mother provided it, but supported his emerging ability to do it himself
    • Isaiah sat on his mother's lap
    • They both smiled

Learn More

News You Can Use: Supporting Early Math Learning for Infants and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers develop and refine math concepts and skills through everyday routines, experiences, and most important, caring interactions with trusted adults. Teachers, home visitors, family child care providers, and families all have an important role to play. Explore ways adults can be more intentional in how they support young children's math learning and school readiness.

  • Gopnik, Alison, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl. The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.