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Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development - Infants (Birth to 12 Months)

Your baby doesn't yet have the words for everything they're learning, but they do have you! Relationships with others are a key factor in cognitive development at this stage. Daily activities, routines and interactions with adults and other children help them become aware of people and things in the physical environment. (Peek-a-boo, anyone?) They begin to notice, wonder about and explore the world around them.

About This Domain

The Cognitive Development domain focuses on children’s ability to acquire, organize, and use information in increasingly complex ways. In their search for understanding and meaning, young children play an active role in their own cognitive development. They begin to explain, organize, construct, and predict—skills that lay the cognitive foundation needed to explore and understand increasingly sophisticated concepts.


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Construction of Knowledge: Thinking and Reasoning


CD Goal-1: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children use their senses to discover and construct knowledge about the world around them.

Discover the world around them by actively exploring objects (putting toys in mouth, watching, waving, banging objects, dumping, picking up and dropping objects).

Turn head or move toward sounds.

Notice consequences of their actions (open and shut cabinet door, drop Cheerios and watch them fall).

CD Goal-2: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children recall information and apply it to new situations and problems.

Search for objects that they saw someone hide or that are partially hidden.

Respond differently to familiar vs. unfamiliar people, objects, and situations (reach for new interesting toy instead of old familiar toy; move toward familiar caregiver but hide head on parent’s shoulder when new person comes near).

Anticipate routine events (smile, wave arms and legs, move toward adult holding bottle).

Repeat an action to make something happen again or to reach a goal (make sounds when music stops, bounce up and down to get adult to continue “horsey ride”).

Observe and imitate sounds, movements, and facial expressions, including things they have seen in the past or in other places.

CD Goal-3: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children demonstrate the ability to think about their own thinking: reasoning, taking perspectives, and making decisions.

Show awareness of others’ reactions to people, objects, and events.

Show awareness of another person’s actions by establishing joint attention (look at an object, then at caregiver, and back at object).


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Place non-mobile children where they have opportunities to see and hear new things, see familiar things from different views, and watch or join in with others. Hang clear, simple pictures, mobiles, and unbreakable mirrors where infants and toddlers can see and/or hear them.
  • Provide objects of varying sizes, textures and shapes to play with such as empty appliance boxes (check for staples and sharp edges), baskets, or pillows.
Effective Strategies to Support Children’s Development and Learning
  • Hide toys while infants are watching and encourage them to find them. Play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek.
  • Give children a chance to collect, sort, and organize objects and materials both indoors and outdoors. Make sure children with disabilities and non-mobile infants have access to the same wide variety of materials.
  • Use routines and real-life situations to help children learn. For example, talk about body parts during diapering or “hot” and “cold” while eating. Talk about things that go together and the concepts of “same” and “different” while sorting laundry and picking up toys.
  • Give children many experiences with cause and effect, such as winding up a toy, playing a music box, shaking a rattle, and rolling balls down a ramp.
  • Provide opportunities to play with materials in ways that change them, such as separating play dough and squishing it back together or mixing two colors of finger paint.
  • Use reflective dialogue and comment on what you see children doing as they play. This encourages children to pay attention to what they are doing and it makes it easier for them to recall the event later.
  • Provide safe opportunities for children to explore and problem solve.
Adaptations for Individual Children
  • Help children participate in activities and enjoy a wide range of sensory experiences, especially for children with sensory impairments. For example, play music with a bass beat that children who are deaf can feel through their bare feet. Make sure children see others moving in time to the music. Remember, some children are overly sensitive to sound, light, or touch. Expose them to new sensory experiences gradually.
  • For children who cannot point or talk, look for gazes or other gestures that communicate their thinking or response to questions.
  • Make extra efforts to help children with disabilities connect concepts and words to their experiences. For example, for a child who is blind, provide different things to touch, hear, feel and smell.
  • Make sure a child with hearing loss is looking at you and at the object you are communicating about before speaking or signing about it.
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Mathematical Thinking and Expression


CD Goal-4: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children count with understanding and use numbers to tell how many, describe order, and compare.

Indicate they want “more” with signs, sounds, or looks

Show interest in obvious differences in quantity by looking at or reaching for objects (reach for a basket with three balls rather than a basket with one ball).

CD Goal-5: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children demonstrate concepts about position, as well as identify and describe simple geometric shapes.

Discover different shapes by exploring (put rings in mouth, roll balls).

Attempt to put objects into other objects (put blocks into a bucket).

CD Goal-6: Through their explorations, play and social interactions, children compare, sort, group, organize, measure, and create simple patterns using concrete objects.

Discover objects of different sizes and weights by exploring (put toys in mouth, pick up large objects).

CD Goal-7: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children use mathematical thinking to ask questions and solve problems.

Differentiate primary caregiver from others


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Provide counting, number, and shape books. Include books that encourage children to interact and engage with the book (varying textures, lift flaps, push a button, etc.).
  • Offer toys or objects with one-to-one relationships (e.g., containers with lids, makers with tops).
  • Provide toys that have incremental sizes (e.g., nesting cups or stackable rings).
  • Provide many opportunities for children to play with blocks. While they are playing, talk with children about the size of the blocks, the shapes they are using, and how two blocks can be put together to make another shape.
  • Provide a water table or large plastic container with water where children can play with measuring cups and containers of varying sizes. Talk about experiences.
Effective Strategies to Support Children’s Development and Learning
  • Talk frequently with children throughout the day using math words, such as words referring to quantity, number words, size, more, less, etc. (Talk about how many Cheerios on the plate, “Your shoes are bigger than the kitty’s paws”).
  • Point to and count as you do activities such as building a block tower or passing out materials.
  • Read books that present basic mathematics concepts in the context of everyday environments or routines (e.g., home, going to bed, mealtimes, etc.).
  • Look for shapes and patterns in the natural environment and teach concepts such as shapes through everyday routines and interactions. For example, say, “I see that you have red circles on your shirt.”
  • Help children pair items that go together because they are used together (pail and shovel).
  • Sing counting songs, such as “5 Little Ducks,” finger plays, and number rhymes and use fingers or other objects to indicate the numbers being sung.
  • Talk about adding to and taking away from blocks and other toys as children play with them.
  • Count objects.
  • Point out patterns in the environment.
  • Play pattern games with the children, such as clap, clap, tap your toe, clap, clap, tap your toe.
  • Give children opportunities to put objects in order according to size, weight, and length, and recognize when an object is out of order.
  • Model problem-solving strategies (talk out loud about what you are thinking as you solve a problem).
Adaptations for Individual Children
  • Make areas physically accessible to all children.
  • Provide blocks of different shapes and sizes covered with various textures to help children discriminate between shapes.
  • For Dual Language Learner use the names of numbers and shapes in their home language as well as English.
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Scientific Exploration and Knowledge


CD Goal-8: As a result of their explorations and participation in simple investigations through play, children observe, describe, and demonstrate respect for living things, the environment, and the physical world.

Show curiosity and explore the natural world using all their senses (rub hands over grass, lift face to feel wind, pat family dog, splash water).

CD Goal-9: As a result of their explorations and participation in simple investigations through play, children demonstrate their ability to use scientific inquiry by observing, manipulating objects, asking questions, making predictions, and developing ...

Gather information through sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

Explore body movements to make something happen (kick a mobile).

Use multiple senses to focus intently on objects, displays, materials, or events.


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Offer toys that allow children to experiment with cause and effect (for example, knobs that twist to make a sound or levers that slide open to make an object appear).
  • Arrange the environment to encourage exploration. For young children who are not yet able to roll over or search for desired toys, adults may need to help them find or hold these items.
  • Use moving objects to attract young children’s attention and stimulate interest. Hang mobiles, wind chimes, or plants where children can watch them move, as well as enjoy their color and shape.
  • Offer different textures and surfaces for children to explore (e.g., furry material, smooth silk, bumpy sandpaper, bubble wrap taped to floor, or hard plastic).
  • Provide a variety of hands-on experiences so that children are able to actively explore their environment.
Effective Strategies to Support Children’s Development and Learning
  • Observe what children are interested in (what toys/objects they like to play with). Notice and name things that interest them. Add toys or other objects that may extend their current play or make it slightly more complex.
  • Play “Name That Body Part” while changing infants and toddlers and as you help preschool age children dress. (For example, “Where are your toes?” or “Show me your ears.”) Sing songs with actions, such as the “Hokey Pokey” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” where children can use and identify various body parts.
  • Look for books with real pictures of animals and practice making animal sounds together. Talk about the animals. (For example, “The goat is furry and makes a sound like this, ‘M-a-a-a-a.’”)
  • Allow children time to figure out what to do with new play materials. Take time to watch rather than direct their actions.
  • Talk with children during routine care-giving tasks about sights, sounds, and smells in the environment (“Smell that bread baking!”).
  • Place infants and young children in various positions that allow them to observe the environment from different perspectives (tummy time on a blanket, sitting with support, seated in an infant swing).
  • Encourage children to wonder and ask questions. Model your own sense of wonder.
  • Provide experiences for children that allow them to see that they can use their senses to discover more about the world around them. Give them opportunities to taste, touch, smell, listen to, and see a variety of objects and materials.
  • Sing with children
  • Provide toys that allow children to experience cause and effect.
  • Take a walk and talk about which things in the environment.
  • Be careful that all materials and experiences are age-appropriate and safe for the children using them. Make sure that children are well supervised.
Adaptations for Individual Children
  • Give children sensory materials in jars, bottles, or plastic bags to allow them to explore materials without touching them if they prefer not to touch them.
  • Give children sensory materials in containers or plastic bags to allow them to explore materials without touching them if they prefer not to touch them.
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Social Studies, Family and Community Connections


CD Goal-10: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children demonstrate an understanding of relationships, roles, and what it means to be a participating member of their families and the diverse groups/communities they belong to.

Observe actions of children, adults, animals, and objects nearby.

Seek out parents, siblings, and caregivers for play and for meeting needs.

Express enjoyment or show preference for familiar people with sounds, expressions, and/or movement.

CD Goal-11: Through their explorations, play, and social interactions, children identify and demonstrate appreciation of similarities and differences between themselves and others.

Notice faces and facial features.

Notice differences between primary caregivers and others.

Respond differently to adults and children.


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Ask families to bring pictures of their families including their children. Hang at the children’s eye level, checking with parents first for their permission.
  • Play music from many cultures, such as Native American flute music. Provide instruments from a variety of cultures, such as rainsticks, drums, and maracas for children to play.
  • Use fabrics from various cultures to decorate the room. Display posters and pictures of children and families from many different cultures and regions around the country and around the world.
Effective Strategies to Support Children’s Development and Learning
  • Learn as much as you can about the cultures of the families in your program. Incorporate books, pictures, toys, music, and other materials that are familiar to children into daily activities. This brings family cultures into play areas in positive ways.
  • Learn to say a few important words in the home language of children whose families speak a different language. (Consult with parents about which phrases are most important.)
  • Use wordless picture books, creating opportunities to use words in a variety of languages.
  • Model pleasant, polite interactions with family members and other adults. Children will imitate you.
Adaptations for Individual Children
  • Be sure that all areas, both inside and outside, are physically accessible to all children.
  • Provide assistive devices for children who need them.
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Creative Arts and Expression


CD Goal-12: Children engage in a variety of creative activities for enjoyment and self-expression including play, visual arts, music, expressive movement, and drama.

Explore sensory properties of art media (smear paint, pat and pound dough).

Use toys and household objects in a variety of different ways during play (wave, then scrunch, then throw a scarf).

Imitate and make a variety of sounds with simple instruments, toys, and their own voice.

Express feelings, such as joy by moving their bodies (kick feet when excited, hug soft toy).

CD Goal-13: Children demonstrate an appreciation for different forms of art including visual arts, music, expressive movement, and drama.

Show wonder or fascination with objects, activities, or experiences (pay attention to bright or contrasting colors, look at caregiver singing lullabies, show bodily excitement when they hear music).

Hold, touch, and experience different textures (fuzzy blanket, smooth skin, rough carpet).


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Provide musical mobiles for infants to watch and listen to.
  • Provide a wide variety of sensory materials both indoors and outdoors
  • Set up a music area with different types of instruments that children can explore.
  • Play a variety of music, including classical, jazz, and multicultural music.
  • Play music with many different beats and rhythms, such as marches, waltzes, polkas, Reggae, Latin, folk music, and jigs. Encourage children to move to the music.
  • Provide streamers, ribbons, and scarves for children to use as creative movement props.
Effective Strategies to Support Children’s Development and Learning
  • Use puppets and stuffed animals to act out songs, rhymes, and stories.
  • Offer creative play activities both indoors and outdoors. Play music outdoors where children.
  • Encourage children to move and dance to music in many different ways.
  • Set an example by demonstrating spontaneity, a sense of wonder, and excitement.
  • Sing often with the children in large and small groups both inside and outside. To add variety, use your own voice, an instrument, or recorded music.
  • Repeat familiar songs often so children can sing them by heart.
  • Read and sing along with books that have words to songs, such as The Wheels on the Bus and Mary had a Little Lamb, to help children acquire beginning literacy skills.
  • Make homemade musical instruments such as oatmeal box drums.
  • Model your own enjoyment of music and the feelings you have while listening to, singing, or playing music.
  • Encourage children to sing along and to play instruments in rhythm with music. Talk with the children about varying the tempo from fast to slow and the dynamics from loud to soft. Vary the tempo and dynamics as you sing and play music.
  • Sing songs or play music that encourages movement, such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
  • Invite family and community members in to teach simple dances from a variety of cultures.
  • Invite family members, authors, artists, musicians, and storytellers from different cultural and language backgrounds to visit so children can observe firsthand the creative work of a variety of people in the arts.
Adaptations for Individual Children
  • Use paintbrushes with large handles.
  • Provide painting mitts or gloves for finger painting.
  • Attach musical instruments to a mitten or glove to make them easier to grasp and hold.
  • Encourage children who have difficulty singing to participate in music activities by humming or some other vocalization or by playing an instrument.
  • Encourage children who have difficulty with movement to move any parts of their body they can.
  • Give children with hearing impairments opportunities to touch speakers as music is played, feel instruments as they are played, and to learn familiar songs in sign language.
  • Support the creative expressions of each child to boost confidence and help children see value in their own work.