Nurturing Cognitive Development in Child Care

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Cognitive development is a major focus of early learning programs and one of the four developmental domains where we can see each child experience substantial growth. As kids undergo cognitive development, it’s exciting to observe the changes in how they think, learn, process information, solve problems, and understand both abstract concepts and the physical world.

The cognitive development of each child progresses rapidly in early life, and coincides with profound physical development in the child’s brain. Parents and providers can play a role in nurturing cognitive development in child care settings by facilitating daily interactions with each child that support the progression of eight core cognitive capacities.

In this blog post, we’re taking a closer look at how parents and child care providers can nurture cognitive development in child care settings. We’ll highlight the four stages of child cognitive development you should know, explain the eight cognitive capacities, and share some of our favorite activities that both parents and child care providers can use to support high-quality cognitive development in their kids.

What is Cognitive Development in Child Care?

As we’ve already mentioned, the process of cognitive development is related to each child’s evolving ability to learn and process information. Cognition also involves attention, memory, problem-solving, imagination, thinking skills, exploratory skills, and the ability to understand and work with abstract concepts.

You might think of cognitive development as a natural complement to the physical developmental domain – but while physical development focuses on the body, cognitive development focuses on the development of the young mind.

Much of our formal knowledge about child cognitive development comes from the work of Jean Piaget in the late 1800s. His development of a framework for child cognitive development makes us think about him as a scientist in modern terms, but Piaget actually spent a lot of time working in child care settings! His ideas about cognitive development were heavily influenced by the time he spent with his nieces and nephews.

Before Jean Piaget’s work, experts believed that children and adults exhibited essentially the same thought patterns, but that kids were “slower” at thinking, or simply “not as smart yet.” Piaget’s key insight here was that kids and adults actually don’t think the same way – that kids are still in the process of developing the tools and capacities they need to think like smart adults. By Piaget’s understanding, kids weren’t “less smart” than adults – they simply had a different way of thinking that reflected their early stage of cognitive development.

What are the Four Stages of Child Cognitive Development?

Based on his observations while working with children, Piaget created a four-stage framework that explains the changes kids experience in their cognitive processes and abilities. Let’s take a closer look at each developmental stage and its defining characteristics.

First up: The Sensorimotor Stage

Kids are born into the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development, and remain in this stage up to around age two. In this stage of development, kids learn about the world through their sensory experiences (smelling, touching, tasting, hearing and seeing), and by manipulating objects in their environments.

A key element of the sensorimotor stage is the development of object permanence – the understanding that objects continue to exist after they disappear from sight. This leads children to the realization that objects can exist outside of their perception and paves the way for more complex cognitive processes like object naming, categorization and abstract thought.

Next on the Docket: The Preoperational Stage

Around the age of two, kids enter the preoperational stage of cognitive development, remaining there until approximately age seven. Language development is rapid in the preoperational stage, as children in this stage start to think symbolically and represent their thoughts using words or pictures.

We can observe many interesting behavioral changes during the preoperational stage of cognitive development. Kids start to recognize their own reflections in the mirror, sort objects into various categories (color, shape, type, etc.), and show an awareness of the past and present. They also become more curious and may ask parents and child care providers a lot of questions about the world they observe around them.

It’s Getting Real: Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage lasts from ages seven to eleven, and is characterized by the development of logical and organized thought about concrete events. Kids in this stage are developing the ability to rationalize observed events and use logical reasoning to discover the general principles that shape the world around them.

The concrete operational stage importantly coincides with a keypart of social-emotional development: increased empathy. Kids in the concrete operational stage begin to recognize that their thoughts and feelings are their own unique experience, and may not be shared by their friends, parents, teachers or child care providers.

The Final Act: Formal Operational Stage

In the formal operational stage of cognitive development, which begins around age 12 and extends through adulthood, kids are able to use deductive logic, engage in abstract thought and rationally analyze hypothetical situations.

These changes will ultimately give each child the ability to engage in complex cognitive tasks, such as anticipating danger, learning from the mistakes of others and creating plans for the future.

Nurturing Cognitive Development in Child Care Settings: The Eight Cognitive Capacities

A key element of supporting cognitive development is engaging each child with tasks, activities and learning opportunities that support their progression across the eight cognitive capacities.

  1. Sustained Attention – Sustained attention is the capacity to look, listen or think about a specific thing for a period of time.
  2. Response Inhibition – Response inhibition is the capacity to ignore distractions (visual, auditory, etc.) and remain focused on a stimulus or task.
  3. Information Processing – Information processing is the capacity to rapidly uptake new information as it is presented, especially in a classroom setting.
  4. Cognitive Flexibility and Control – Cognitive flexibility and control is the capacity to quickly and smoothly change your mind. It includes the ability to transition between tasks, try a new tool for solving a problem, or consider alternate points of view.
  5. Multitasking – Multitasking is the capacity to successfully shift focus and attention between two or more activities.
  6. Working Memory – Working memory is the capacity to retain information in short-term memory long enough to complete a task.
  7. Category Formation – Category formation is the capacity to organize information and concepts into categories that make them easier to understand, remember and manipulate.
  8. Pattern Recognition – Pattern recognition is the capacity to detect patterns in observations of the world, and ultimately use those patterns to discover underlying principles or predict what could happen next.

Nurturing Cognitive Development in Child Care: Key Tasks and Activities

Now let’s focus on some of the activities and tasks that both parents and child care providers can introduce to help support cognitive development in child care settings during the early years of life. We’ve divided our list into three age categories to help you choose tasks and activities that are appropriate to your child’s developmental level.

Birth – 6 Months

From birth to six months old, kids are just learning to manipulate objects and perceive the world using their senses. Parents and child care providers can nurture cognitive development during this time by:

  • Talking to the child and making mutual eye contact.
  • Reading to the child, speaking in different voices for different characters and showing pictures.
  • Decorating the child’s room or child care space with stimulating, brightly colored objects and posters.
  • Placing toys near the child, but just out of reach.
  • Singing songs to the child.

6 Months – 2 Years

From six months to two years old, kids are still in the sensorimotor stage of learning. Having developed their senses and perception during the first six months of life, children may now play a more active role in their cognitive development by participating more directly in learning activities. Parents and child care providers can start doing things like:

  • Naming colors, shapes, animals or objects in picture books, having the child point to those objects, and eventually having the child name those objects as they become more familiar.
  • Teaching the names of common household objects (table, chair, wall, crayon, ruler, etc.).
  • Playing hide and seek within the same room, either using objects or encouraging the child to find a hiding place.
  • Giving the child one-step directions (“Pick up the doll”) and progressing to simple two-step directions (“Pick up the doll and give it to Mommy”).
  • Introducing the child to simple matching games with cards or blocks.

2 Years – 5 Years

Between the ages of two and five, kids enter the preoperational stage of cognitive development, where they will remain throughout the preschool years and up to age seven.

Parents and child care providers can nurture cognitive development during this time with a variety of activities, including:

  • Playing simple card games and board games with the child.
  • Introducing the child to jigsaw puzzles, memory games and simple matching games.
  • Reading books, singing songs, telling jokes and riddles, and playing word games.
  • Teaching numeracy skills, counting, and playing simple math games.
  • Engaging in “pretend play” games like “house” or “doctor.”
  • Playing “parade” or “follow the leader.”
  • Asking the child to help with simple chores, like sweeping the floor, wiping the table or putting away toys.
  • Asking the child to tell you about their day or re-tell parts of their favorite movie or story.
  • Nurturing the child’s curiosity with responsive and thoughtful answers to their “Why?” questions.
  • Teaching songs and games that involve movement or simple actions (e.g. Simon Says, or Head, Shoulder, Knees & Toes)
  • Introducing stacking or building games using wooden or plastic blocks or boxes.
  • Introducing rhythm and music with simple instruments.
  • Introducing the child to the arts with activities like coloring, drawing, painting and sculpting.
  • Having the child help with cooking, including tasks like measuring, pouring, mixing and learning ingredients.
  • Allowing the child to explore the indoor and outdoor environment with proper adult supervision and guidance.

Participating in structured activities throughout the day helps kids build the capacities of sustained attention, response inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Skills like category formation and pattern recognition are developed as kids learn to name and identify objects they encounter in the environment. As kids gain more life experience and a better understanding of the world, they become better multitaskers and learn to process information more quickly.

Engaging children in these cognitive development activities in a patient and thoughtful way will have a significant positive impact as they get prepared for Kindergarten and beyond. We hope you’ll have fun using these activities to nurture cognitive development in your children!

Track Cognitive Development Milestones with Procare Solutions

Cognitive development progresses quickly in the first five years of life and parents won’t want to miss a single moment or milestone of their child’s growth. It’s also important for child care providers to track cognitive development in each child, ensuring an early intervention if there are any signs of slow progress. Thankfully, Procare is here to help.

Procare provides trustworthy, modern and easy-to-use child care management software with the ability to help you manage every part of your child care program. With Procare, you’ll be able to track each child’s cognitive development in relation to state early learning standards, capture developmental moments via image or video, and share those special moments with moms and dads through our parent engagement app.

Our expertise in child care has also helped us create simple solutions for attendance tracking, staff management and child care billing – everything you need to successfully run your center every day.

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About The Author

Amelia Schrader

Amelia is the Director of Demand Generation at Procare Solutions. A graduate of University of Colorado at Boulder with a Bachelor of Business Administration (Marketing emphasis), Amelia spends her free time outdoors with her husband and their energetic goldendoodle, Finn.

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