Cognitive Development Activities for 3 to 5 year olds

Once your child gets past the early preschool activities and you are stumped for what to teach them… i.e. they seem to have picked up “life” things already, try some of these things:

Verbal Games (usually very good for in the car)

  • Guess What?: “Guess what has four feet and a long hairy nose?”
  • Inventory Questions: “Yesterday, what did you have for breakfast?”
  • Yes or No: “The sky is yellow.”
  • Which One Doesn’t Belong, and Why? “newspaper, book, computer, or birthday card?”
  • Follow My Directions: “Crawl under the table…move two steps to the left…” (Works even better if you hide an M&M at the end.)
  • Categories: “sock…shoe…shirt…” (the child says, “Clothes!”). Or you can do the reverse game where you name the category, and the child thinks of as many items that fit. We used to use a sing song or silly pattern to give them time to think, i.e. “Doo Dee Daa Daa… shoe…. Doo Dee Daa Daa… shirt….). You can also play this game on paper while drawing pictures, if your child is visual, and take turns if you have multiple siblings.
  • Finish It: “I like to…”
  • What Comes Next?: “tree flower flower tree flower flower…” (the child says “tree!”)
  • What Did I Repeat?: “pig horse pig chicken” (the child says, “pig!”)
  • What Do You Do If…?: “What do you do if you get locked outside?” (kindergarteners)


  • Hide and Seek (and variations: count by twos, fives, tens)
  • I Spy (colors, shapes, textures, smells, other adjectives)
  • Charades
  • Simon Says
  • Twenty Questions w. increasingly helpful clues
  • “Hotter/Colder” (hide something and guide with clues to proximity)
  • “Pictionary” (not the real board game, but just you and your child with a piece of paper)
  • shell and pea game
  • popsicle stick crafts (birdhouses, bridges, etc)
  • “Highlights” or Puzzlemania magazine (some activities are too hard, but others are fine)
  • sorting laundry by proper owner
  • making a grocery list (based on observation)
  • workbook pages with Complete the Pattern exercises

Board Games

  • Memory
  • Connect Four
  • Dominoes
  • Dot to Dot game
  • Tic Tac Toe
  • Battleship
  • Old Maid
  • Uno
  • Candyland (the easiest)
  • Chutes and Ladders (slightly harder)
  • Guess Who? (harder)


  • Megafort (strategy, imagination)
  • Tangrams or mosaic-type games
  • harder Lego sets (deduction, directions)
  • puzzles (25 pieces for beginners, up to 300 pieces for a 5 yr old)


  • Mouse Trap
  • Domino Rally
  • Elefun
  • Marble Run (Quercetti)
  • obstacle course
  • putting away silverware (no sharp knives obviously)
  • matching/folding socks
  • filling dishwasher (plastic items)
  • “What Do You Feel?”: blindfold and feel/identify objects in sand, rice, beans, or brown bags

Remember that with cognitive development, you are trying to grow and exercise thinking skills… not acquire information! Academic activities like “Brain Quest” help your child get smarter, but they do not necessarily grow their cognitive skills, although some of the spatial games and riddles are an exception. Real cognition is not adding more content, but more structure.  It is not information but the neural infrastructure that makes the content come alive… connections, conclusions, etc. So you want games which encourage comprehension (what and why?), analysis (breaking information down), synthesis (putting information together), and evaluation (So What? or Is it good?).  Don’t confuse making your kid “smarter” with exercising their brain. Of course the two go together, but there are specific ways to get the thinking skills to stretch and grow that strategy games/toys force while academic learning does not. You don’t have to buy stuff if you don’t want to, but if you don’t, you’ll need to make up for it with even more verbal one-on-one time.  Kids this age thrive on skill-building.

Most cognitive development occurs in tandem with language so that your talking to your child with more reasoning-based or refined analysis will teach the child how to reason/analyze. But don’t confuse this with your child’s talking (expressive) ability, which may not match their cognitive ability. Three year old boys are ready to learn this stuff, even if they can’t talk. This is easy to forget. Talk through the Who/What/Where/When/Why/How as if they understood it all. You’ll be amazed how much it will start coming back to you by the time they’re four and five.

Also remember: All Problems are Opportunities. The more problems your child encounters and works out, the smarter she will ultimately be. This is because little children learn a lot by memory and routine. When something is thwarted, however, the routine is interrupted and they are forced to think up new options. They are also forced to consider outside information like house rules or consequences. My husband and I stage “problems” sometimes to make things into learning opportunities. (“Uh-oh. The power went out. Why did it go out? What could we do?”… or “Uh-oh. I can’t reach the game I want. And Daddy’s not here to help me. What do I do?”)

That said, here are some more (free!) ways to encourage problem-solving around the house…

  1. Simple chores and house projects are great teachers. Real-life applications with, almost always, problems to work through.
  2. Reason through their own situations with them—ask the right questions and wait for them to respond, don’t just fix everything or tell them the right conclusion.
  3. Be prepared to “be in the moment.” Learning opportunities come up frequently with preschool children where they’re open to your guidance/moralizing, but you have to be prepared to do it on their timetable… (usually never yours!)
  4. Allow your child to make harmless mistakes and learn from them. Preschoolers often want their own way but are capable of realizing that adult advice makes more sense when shown. So work with their initiative. For example, they don’t want to wear a coat so let them outside in the cold and see. They want a certain game that is too hard without supervision and you don’t want to play, so let them see that they can’t do it on their own and change their minds. Don’t be cruel or unsafe. Just let their brains figure it out. Sometimes YOU will be the one who is surprised at their ingenuity!
  5. Work on a project from beginning to end. This can teach a child so much. But it can also take a long time. For example, talk about needing enough food, go to the pantry to see, make a list of what you want to serve, what’s in those things, go to the store to get them, take them home and put them away, start cooking the food, then eat it. Whew! (Try this with just one item or one easy meal first, like pizza.)
  6. Tell them something isn’t right and let them guess. As in, “We can’t go to bed until we’re all ready. But we’re not ready yet. What do we have to do?”
  7. Always, always, always ask questions like, “What do we do next?” “What should you do?” “What do we need?”… This teaches children to think before they act, cry, or seek help. Most three to five year  olds verbalize their thinking aloud rather than silently, so you can figure out what’s making them upset or stuck. Older children may be able to answer Why? or What If? scenarios, which gives you a chance to get inside their thinking process and embellish or refine it as necessary.

60 thoughts on “Cognitive Development Activities for 3 to 5 year olds

  1. Does anyone else worry that as parents we spend too long worrying about creating a little genius instead of nurturing our child to develop at their own pace? Surely most of us naturally spend time questioning our child, making him/her think as a development towards independent and life-long learning. I find it somewhat false when told to create a problem for my child to solve or to constantly find learning opportunities, it will happen anyway!

  2. Ha! This is a good comment. I agree with you in spirit. However, I have had two significantly delayed children, and two normally developing children, and these types of activities have shown me how helpful they can be for both groups. Especially in isolated areas where there seems to be confusion about a rule. Point well taken =)

  3. I am a teacher and a mom and I really enjoyed your suggestions. Another idea: I like using statements, such as when reading books or noticing new things like “I wonder why”, “I wonder if”, “I wonder what will happen next”…

  4. Im taking a cda class, and I’m having trouble wtih activities for 3-5 years old. the theme is mice and each activity has to incorprate physcial, cognitive and creative. have any suggestions? I really need it.

  5. Hi I am working on my CDA and i am looking cognitive activities for my binder.The activities have to be for the ages 3 to 5yrs of age. i am having a hard time finding some.Do you have suggestions they would be helpful.

  6. I have a 3 year old and a 5 year old and I work for a public school district. My concern is that the emphasis being placed on academic learning for younger students is actually hurting kids in the long run. Years ago, preschool, Kindergarten and even early 1st grade were designed to build the cognitive abilities in students to prepare them for the academic knowledge to come. Now that the academic learning has been pushed down to those levels, children are not fully developing the cognitive skills needed to help them learn and build on the academic concepts. Add to this the diverse home environments students come from, and that compounds issues even further. Cognitive development at this age is of paramount importance to future success whether kids go to public schools, private schools, or are schooled at home.

  7. As a busy mom I am always looking for quick ideas to spend time with my child while really providing some quality “mothering”. I think it is great when I can combine both an enjoyable activity with a method to also assess and participate in his developement. Thank you for your thoutful ideas.

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  9. I am completing my cert 111 in childcare and you have helped me out with my last assignment on cognitive devopment as I had a brain block . Thankyou and good luck to every one

  10. ashleigh: hahaha me too (h5)
    cathy: i reckon most azn parents think that way, just because its what they do. but i agree with you too : P
    thnx for all the information,, i t really helped with my cer 3 as well XD

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  13. the above information has really helped me in my studies since iam persuing a bachelor degree in earlychildhood. If i may ask, do you offer any employment opportunities?

  14. i am bless because i found something really meaningful to me about this cognitive development .. it really help a lot for my studies especially in involving those children on how they will develop their cognitive skills.

  15. Can any1 give me any ideas??? I am a student that needs to present language experiences using resources e.g. poems, books, puppets for children aged 3-5yrs….. HELP I’m clueless!!!

  16. Thank you for the information, it has helped me with my Diploma in Children’s Services, which i am doing at the moment.

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  18. btw i was gon say this helps alot w the classes that im taking, child growth, and wellness class. thnx for the post

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  20. I’m not a parent, but a student studying Cognitive Development as part of my undergraduate course and I needed some activities as part of my practical and this came up. Nice stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  21. my 3 year son still dont know to speak. he only hum,points out what he need,play with his toys properly,still makes baby sound,follow some instructions. now we r sending him 2 play school.we r worreid when he will start 2 speak words [mom,dad,potty e.t.c]. we r dieing 2 know.

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  23. OMGoodness, THANK YOU SOO MUCH, I Am NOT a cert 11 or student or whatever allll that means, I am A REAL BUSY MOM of a REAL BOARDERLINE makin me crazy 3 yr old LOL but I NEVER KNEW until reading YOUR Article here, that THE MAJORITY of the things she does is NORMAL…I have 2 girls, 12 & 3 so u can imagine my SUPRISE when the 2ND was NOTHING LIKE the 1st!! LOL!!! N now I’m hands down BEATEN by my toddler–I have found STRENGTH, HOPE (which I swear ALL HOPE WAS LOST Before reading this) that we were going to b involved in special schools n parenting groups forever –NOT that that’s not what I was prepared to do I think I’ll still give a call,just for CHILD’S benefit u know, I just want to b the best parent FOR HER NEEDS, special or whatever!!! Doesn’t matter) ..sorry rambling bcuz I googled “my 3yr old hates me” cuz that’s how I feel n now I don’t feel alone or afraid anymore…JUST THANK U THANK U THANK U N THANK U FOR BEING FUNNY ABOUT IT TOO! Point well taken !

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  25. I personally have a tendency to go along with every thing that was in fact written in “Cognitive
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    I am grateful for pretty much all the facts.
    Thanks for your effort,Ezra

  26. Hi RiddleJ, firstly – WOW!! This list is amazing!! It’s great to see it all complied in the one place, especially for mums like me its crazy trying to do your own research so thank you so much. I will definitely be trying these out on my littlies – AND passing it onto my friends. Jen.

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  28. I found your information very interesting. Am having difficulty with my five y/o making connection what she hears and how she responds. I will use some of these suggestions you offered. How much time do you think it will take for the connection to manifest itself

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  33. I found you today as I was looking into cognitive development and I really like your insight in your quote ‘real cognition is not adding more content, but more structure’…. Thank you…you are a precious gift to your kids and all of us, mums and students in our own right as we journey along this road of understanding how we can help kids without throwing them a label that says ‘they are not enough!’…. God keep you close

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