10 Ways to Boost Cognitive Development in Preschoolers

Neelabja Adkuloo

Neelabja Adkuloo

Published 29th Nov 2022

Did you know by the time a child is in preschool, their cognitive potential has grown by 99%?

It’s exciting to observe the changes in how a preschooler thinks, communicates, and solves problems.

However, if you lack proper knowledge of the milestones and warning signs in preschool cognitive development stages, you can’t confirm if a 5 year old should start to understand the concept of time or do basic addition.

This blog post unwraps the cognitive expectations from a preschooler and takes a close look at how teachers and providers can help promote overall cognitive development in preschoolers.

Table of Contents

What are the cognitive skills in preschoolers?

With practice, time, and experience, preschoolers can likely:
  • balance on a board or a beam
  • count 10+ items
  • ride a tricycle
  • recall bits and pieces of a story
  • imagine what is going to happen next in a story
  • tell a story
  • dance and sing
  • imitate the behavior of those around them
  • learn their daily routine
  • throw or kick a ball/hop/skip/run/jump/swing
  • make friends and socialize with them
  • dress and undress themselves
  • cut paper with scissors or tear it with their hands
  • name 5+ colors
  • play games, like puzzles
  • categorize and sort objects
  • understand concepts, like big and small, tall and short
  • ask lots of questions about news stories/death/sexuality/gender. For example, your 4 year old may ask, “Where do babies come from?”
  • laugh at jokes
  • develop a sense of humor
  • understand the concept of time, like past, present, and future
  • write or copy shapes, letters, or numbers
  • negotiate for things they want
  • not understand what’s real and what’s fiction
  • recognize and write their name
  • walk along a straight line, a circle, or up the stairs

Milestones in cognitive development in preschoolers

Kids aged 3

  • Sorts items by color or shape
  • Plays with dolls and stuffed animals
  • Makes toys work
  • Matches an item in their room to a picture in a book
  • Completes puzzles with 3 pieces
  • Understands concept of the number ‘two’
  • Draws or copies simple shapes, like a circle

Kids aged 4

  • Identifies and names colors
  • Counts from 0-5 correctly
  • Starts to understand time
  • Follows commands with 2-3 instructions given simultaneously
  • Remembers parts of a story
  • Imagines what will happen next in a story
  • Draws a person with 3-4 body parts

Kids aged 5

  • Counts 10 or more items accurately
  • Names 4+ colors
  • Understands the concept of time better
  • Understands things used in everyday lives like soap, money, food
  • Draws a person with 5-6 body parts
  • Writes letters and numbers independently
  • Draws or copies geometric shapes, like a polygon

Milestones yet to be achieved by preschoolers

Remember that milestones are not rigid rules for how a child is expected to develop. Instead, they provide a framework for what to expect from a child’s preschool cognitive development stages. Having said that, you may NOT see these changes in the cognitive development of the preschoolers yet:

  • Stands up from a seated posture
  • Repeats an activity after observing only once
  • Recalls the position of objects by memory
  • Responds to a great variety of new situations
  • Perception of depth and skilled hand-eye coordination

How to promote preschool cognitive development

Here are 10 easy play ideas based on developmentally appropriate practices that you can use with preschoolers:

1. Play outdoors or take short excursions


Unstructured play is vital for boosting a child’s exposure to varied experiences and their imaginative skills. Visit a playground, zoo, or a picnic spot to allow them to explore and navigate the unknown world. You can also get artistic and invite them to an outdoor tea party you host with an astronaut, a sailor, a vet, etc.

If you and the child are pretending to be vets, you could say ‘What’s wrong with the animal we’re taking care of?’ or ‘How do you think we can make the animal feel okay?’

2. Boost preschool cognitive development with creative activities

Encourage preschoolers to engage in arts and crafts, drawing, painting, molding, and creating things out of waste. For example, you can use play dough to make miniature animals or you can color white rice to make rainbow rice bins .

3. Hand them puzzles and sorting-based games


By the age of three, a toddler should be able to identify pieces of a puzzle and sort objects based on color, shape, size, and texture. To hone this ability, incorporate cognitive activities for preschoolers that require some form of sorting in their daily routine.

For example, get them to stack rings in ascending or descending order or motivate them to match an animal with their offspring. You can also test their judgment and rationale with card or board games like chutes and ladders, teaching them to take turns, share, and solve problems in the physical world.

4. Practice letters, numbers, and counting


Repeat letters and numbers to familiarize toddlers with them and ask them to recall the sequence once they’re acquainted. You can also encourage them to practice counting with hands-on activities, like counting watermelon seeds .

Using flashcards is a great way to recall letters, if you practice with them regularly.

5. Encourage singing rhymes and songs

Nursery rhymes are not just fun to sing, they can be highly stimulating and their recall value is also high. They teach children to build their vocabulary and repeat language patterns, improving their auditory memory.

Exposing kids to finger rhymes, haikus, and folk songs sets them up for success with reading and is entertaining in equal measure. You can even practice recognising animal sounds with nursery and action rhymes.

6. Narrate stories with images


The difference between a child with a basic vocabulary and a developed vocabulary is reading. By reading to the child, you’ll be developing their:

  • Memory
  • Language patterns
  • Imaginative skills
  • Listening skills
  • Attention span

You’re the primary source of the child’s language in their formative years, which is why it’s important you unravel the world of literature for them. Ask them questions about a character’s intentions or what they imagined an alternate ending to a story would have been.

7. Play with musical instruments to boost auditory cognitive skills


Banging on utensils, playing with a noisy basket, and beating on a drum with drumsticks can develop a toddler’s sense of music, honing their dexterity. Try to vary children’s experiences by offering different musical instruments. For example, introduce drums and after a couple days, swap it for a piano. This will encourage the children to think of new ways to play.

8. Pretend-play with household and kitchen toys

Symbolic play or make-believe play pushes a child out of their comfort zone, forcing them to think of new ways to act. For example, when a toddler uses a block representing a mobile phone, they’ve to pretend to talk on it. Similarly, they can even pretend the block is a knife and cut food items with it.

If they’re able to act the part, it means their brain has developed the ability to connect an object with a symbol representing something else.

9. Understand cause and effect with button toys

Button toys stimulate children to actively practice cause-and-effect thinking, propelling them to see the relationship between cause and effect (e.g. He’s sick, hence he can’t go to school). A simple button that lights up, makes a sound, or performs an activity helps children exercise their rational skills.

10. Practice passing through a maze or an obstacle course

Grab a roll of painter’s tape and make a maze on your floor, patio, or driveway to hone a toddler’s problem-solving skills. Through this activity, children are forced to push the limits of their mental faculties to guide their bodies, balls, or toys through the maze.

You can even use tables, chairs, big crates, or huge blocks to build an obstacle course indoors or outdoors.

Illumine is designed for preschool cognitive development

It is important for childcare centers to have a strong curriculum in place to support preschool cognitive development in the first five years of a toddler’s life.

Illumine is the one single solution that caters to your center’s overall needs – from lesson planning, activity monitoring, assessment and observation sharing, to, parent engagement, billing and payments, and more!

Not only that, Illumine makes it less time-consuming for busy teachers to provide high-quality education by reducing the amount of time spent on planning developmentally appropriate lessons, saving hours of time each week, which in turn saves the center’s costs.

Average weekly hours saved with Illumine

Being able to do a multitude of things with one single platform simplifies preschool classroom management, helping teachers focus their energies on creating interactive and effective preschool cognitive activities.

Talk to an Illumine expert today to get a tailored childcare solution that caters to every child’s unique preschool cognitive development needs at your center.

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