Cognitive development basically means “thinking skills.” You have probably noticed how your toddler—unless he is the real independent type—seems like he has no brain. He asks you the same questions over and over again, gets you to fix stuff that is only mildly broken, needs help at the faintest tinge of trouble, and generally doesn’t remember or understand anything constructive you tell him. This is part of being a child =)
Generally, life should present things that require your baby or toddler to think things through. You may have to encourage the opportunity or perseverance, but overall a child that isn’t overly sheltered comes across all kinds of things each day which require thought.
Furthermore, each child is born with different personalities and cognitive aptitudes, so it is too hard to standardize what a child should know when, or how to teach them best, beyond the basic guidelines you can get from any baby-raising book.
That said, there are times where you want to manufacture circumstances to help the child think things through. This comes up routinely in our house where a baby or child keeps getting hung up over a particular situation. We work with them to facilitate their learning or experimenting, and then we create a little verbal script or song so that they can remember the next time. You would be AMAZED at what putting a couple tips to a nursery rhyme tune can teach! Your child may not remember what you say normally, but they could remember ten thousand verses to “Here we go round the mulberry bush!” So take advantage of that.
With four little ones, the main thing I have learned about cognitive development is that setting up a learning opportunity and being there but not telling them the answer is the main thing that causes their brains/smartness to grow. The child who can think through to the answer themselves is ten times smarter than the child who takes off once the answer is given. Now you may have to guide them with prompts, faces, gestures, or whatever. I am not saying to be useless while they’re trying to figure things out. But generally speaking, the more questions you ask, and the less you actually help, the more they will learn. Pick an area they are struggling with… motor, control, routine, character, language, sequences, academics, whatever. And I guarantee you that whatever you do for them will keep them from doing it themselves. You have to use wisdom to pick the right level of challenge but then let them think/do themselves.
Here are some helpful questions to ask your child:
- What do YOU think?
- What comes next?
- Where should we put it?
- What do we do now?
- Where could it be?
- What do you want to do?
- What should you say?
Here are some examples of activities (older babies and up):
- Show a baby something and hide it while they watch. Let them find it.
- Try to get your baby to crawl by giving them some tummy time and moving around an object they really like slowly in front of them.
- Hold out something your baby wants and wait for them to realize they need to let something go in order to grab it.
- Dress your baby and wait for them to switch hands if necessary or hold out feet, etc.
- Hold out two things a baby wants, one in each hand, and let them choose which to get first.
- Play “hide and seek” with your baby/toddler and encourage them to find you with less and less help.
- Give your young toddler a stool and tell them to get something way up high. Next time ask but wait for them to think of the stool, or ask prompting questions.
- Call your toddler from various rooms and let them locate you. Or tell them to put something in the trash when the trash can is in another room. Works well with the laundry basket too.
- Give your toddler basic instructions to follow when you’re cleaning up. When they get the gist of it over time, pick one time where you just hand them the appropriate thing and see if they know what to do with it and where. (putting away cans, using the dustpan or sponge, wiping up a spill, etc)
- Every now and then, stop and let your toddler fill in the word you were going to say. This has to be in an easy context like, “Where’s the towel? It’s time to take our…!” Or you can do nursery rhymes and let them fill in the rhyming word.
- Ask your preschooler to tell you what letter starts a particular word you say. Try to wean them onto less and less help.
- With your preschooler try the “I’m thinking of…” game. Animals are a favorite thing, or objects, people, foods, but try to use less and less obvious clues over time.
- Read stories and ask preschoolers comprehension or evaluation questions like, “Why did Harold choose a purple crayon instead of red?” or “Do you think it was a good idea for Harry to refuse his bath?”
- When your child hits the “Why?” stage, ask Why a lot yourself. Not only does this stimulate thinking, but it helps you revise the knowledge they have which is often slightly off. (i.e. “Yes we have to pick up your brother now. Do you know why?”)
Not helping is so hard to do sometimes. Your three or four year old is trying to complete a worksheet and you can tell there is just one piece of information they are missing in order for them to get the question. But you filling in that one piece of information is never going to get them to THINK for themselves. Giving a similar example that might give them a hint is ok. But actually filling in that missing gap makes them more reliant on you the next time.
I was particularly frustrated when my first son was 4.5 and went through the stage where he knew his phonics but couldn’t blend them together. I was always tempted to exaggeratedly and slowly blend the sounds together for him until he heard that “b” + “eh” makes the sound “beh.” But then I realized that my zeal was usurping his. He wasn’t motivated enough to try the blending himself or THINK about it. So one day I repented and gave him a couple index cards with “bed” and so forth on them and asked him to come get me when he knew what one of the words was. What do you know? Eventually he came running. =)
Now I am not talking about letting your little one do something they actually can’t. If they can’t do their zipper, do it for them. (Let them try first to make sure, but then do it.) Or if they can’t speak, prompt and gesture and make sounds to encourage them. But generally speaking, you should get in the habit of fostering independence in your babies/toddlers. Generally this alone will encourage them to think for themselves and solve problems. It is this one area that in the life of a small child actually encourages them to develop cognitively, in all sorts of ways. Even more than learning letters, shapes, colors, or whatever other useful information they can master. Because information is not development. Information is used by development–it sits on top of basic skills, being ready for manipulation or application.
Many children, especially first-borns, fall into this trap because they are encouraged to read or count but not to become independent. They may be geniuses academically but they are late bloomers overall because they were not encouraged to think and do for themselves as much as subsequent children were. Or sometimes the pattern is reversed and the last child is a late bloomer because the house was so busy that someone always did something for the baby instead of encouraging her to do it herself.
I have a post somewhere on Independence which addresses the same topic. This is the best path to follow if you are truly trying to foster your baby’s or toddler’s cognitive development. Set up the opportunities so that the child is one small step away from victory and let them get to the finish line themselves.