Preschool Tips: Cognitive Development

Why is cognitive development important?

Cognitive development: "The growth and age-related changes that occur over time in children's mental processes related to attention, memory, perception, problem solving, emotional regulation, and language acquisition." (Zobairi & Piotroaski, 2013)

According to ,“in preschool, children begin the basics for learning numbers, letters, vocabulary, speech -- the skills necessary to learn to read in elementary school.” (Rodriguez, 2014). As an educator or parent, this makes it very important to strengthen these skills as they are developing via engaging activities, reading, and oral communication. The website goes on to add that “play promotes healthy brain development and helps children build confidence, begin to solve problems and work with others.” (Rodriguez, 2014). This helps young ones to achieve developmental milestones, which of course promotes cognitive development!

Two characteristics of Preschool Cognitive Development:


According to, three and four year olds are pre-optional thinkers (Seefeldt, 2010). This means that they have not developed the ability to think abstractly yet and only think of what they see in front of them. They tend to see things from their own point of view and no one else's
Preschoolers have a "what you see is what you get" understanding of the world. This is because they have yet to develop the ability to use logic to correct a misconception involving the way things look or sound.  Example: If a teacher had two lines with ten blocks each, and one line appears longer in length, a preschooler may have the misconception that the longer line has more blocks. As parents and teachers we want to have the preschooler expand their visual horizon and logic outside their usual concepts and schemas.


Preschool children in the cognitive development stage begin learning to classify objects according to their characteristics. As stated in Early Education: Three, Four, and Five Year Olds Go to School, children at this stage focus on only one attribute or aspect of an object and ignore all others. This is because they have not yet developed to recall information from their memory or past experiences (Seefeldt, 2010). Seefeldt and Waski (2006) state that preschoolers may be able to group objects into categories based on color, for instance, but they may have to think harder about organizing objects according to their shape instead. They go on to say," four-year-olds are beginning to understand part/whole and hierarchical relationships, they have difficulty grasping that objects can be in more than one class" (p. 2). Routine is very important for children of this age because they will be able to predicate what they are doing and what is expected from them (Seefeldt, 2010).


Milestones in Preschool Cognitive Development

According to data released by the American Academy of Pediatrics a major cognitive milestone met by children between three and four is the ability to accurately count to at least five. Preschoolers are going from a “simple concept of quantity like ‘more’ and ‘less’ or vague measurements like ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’ to” the more complex concept of counting and knowing exactly how many (Clare, 2013).

Preschoolers are also developing an increased capacity for memory and recollection as well which helps them with things like numbers and colors. This helps them reach the other cognitive milestones for this age group ie: following commands and engaging in imaginative and fantasy play (Gavin, 2011). Preschoolers should be able to follow following simple, three-part commands, and be able to speak in complete sentences that incorporate five words or more (Clare,2013).

These are the cognitive developmental milestones your child or student will experience from ages three to five, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services: 

           3 years old (36 months) 

    • Makes mechanical toy work
    • Matches an object in her hand or room to a picture in a book
    • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
    • Sorts objects by shape and color
    • Completes puzzles with three or four pieces
    • Understands concept of "two"

            4 years old (48 months)

    • Correctly names some colors
    • Understands the concept of counting and may know a few numbers
    • Tries to solve problems from a single point of view
    • Begins to have a clearer sense of time
    • Follows three-part commands
    • Recalls parts of a story
    • Understands the concepts of "same" and "different"
    • Engages in fantasy play

           5 years old ( 60 months)

    • Can count 10 or more objects
    • Correctly names at least four colors
    • Better understands the concept of time
    • Knows about things used every day in the home (money, food, appliances)

Activities to Improve Cognitive Development in Preschoolers:

1. Senses: Obstacle courses, water tables

2. Problem solving: puzzles

3. Cause-and-effect: memory games, tic tac toe

4. Expression of ideas to others: Guess who

5. Properties of objects: matching/folding socks, putting away silverware

6. Questions: Go fish, Battleship

7. Symbolic thoughts (Imaginative play): trains, dolls, dress up

8. ABC and 123 classification (activity in the video below)

For more insights into the development of perception and classification in preschoolers' cognition, take a look at this short video:

  1. YouTube Video

  2. ABC and 123 Classification


 Center for Disease Control. Learn the Signs. Act Early. (2014, August 20). Retrieved September 15, 2014, from

Clare, J. (2013, October 24th) 5 Top Cognitive Development Goals for Preschoolers. Retrieved September 9 2014 (Links to an external site.)

 Gavin. M (2011 October) Communicating with your Child. Retrieved September 9 2014 (Links to an external site.)

Hsiao, C., & Richter, L.M. (2014). Early mental development as a predictor pf preschool cognitive and behavioral development in South Africa: The moderating role of maternal education in the Birth to Twenty cohort." Infants & Young Children 27, no. 1: 74-87. PsycINFO, EBSOhost (accessed September 5, 2014).

Rodriguez, D. (2014, February 3). Why is Cognitive Development Important in Preschoolers? Retrieved September 7, 2014.

 Seefeldt, C.  (2010, July 20th) Cognitive Development in Preschoolers. Retrieved September 9 2014 (Links to an external site.)

Slentz, K., & Krogh, S. (2001). Early Childhood and its Variations. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum.

Zobairi, N., & Piotroaski, N. (2013). Cognitive development. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science.