Child learning on computer

A child’s cognitive development refers to how a child’s thinking processes change and develop as he or she grows up. A preschooler’s thinking changes in significant and surprising ways during this period as they start to gather and remember information from their environment in order to start shaping and expressing their own perceptions of the world around them.

At this stage in a preschooler’s life, they make great strides in starting to be able to think and reason. Starting at age three, children will start to reliably acquire, store, and recall information or experiences; in short, they’ll start to form memories1. They’ll also start learning to use symbolic thought along with more advanced pretend play (that is, mimicking the actions of people around them). Children might also start exhibiting the following cognitive development milestones starting at three years old:

  • Paying close attention to stories and making remarks related to the story
  • Can identify basic shapes—square, circle, triangle 
  • May be able to sort things by color, size, or shape2

So how can you help your child boost his or her cognitive development during this time? Here are some tips.
Eat healthy with your child
A healthy and balanced diet is important to fuel your child's cognitive development. Poor nutrition is one of the known risk factors for poor child development, including cognitive functions3. Make sure to fill half of your child's plate with colorful vegetables and fruits (the greater the variety and colors, the better), and split the other half between whole grains (think brown rice, whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta) and healthy proteins (fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds)4
Play with your child
Play is very important for a child's cognitive development. Kids learn best through play, and children at play are good at solving problems, creating, experimenting, thinking, and learning all the time5. Also, playing together with your child helps further the bond between the two of you. This will let your child feel how important he or she is to you and will help him or her gain confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world. 
You can play with stacking and building games, or games that combine moving and singing, for example. It's also a good idea to follow your child's lead while playing (responding and following what your child wants to do in playing) too, as child-led play helps in building communication skills.
Read and talk to your child
This helps your child’s cognitive development by helping them to learn language and improve his or her communication skills6. Storytelling or reading aloud to your child helps him or her learn about sounds, words, and language. This is also a good time for them to start on their listening and understanding skills. And of course, imparting the love of reading books is a great thing too. 

Look for illustrated books about the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, counting, or funny stories with quirky characters in them. And when you read the story aloud, try changing your voice and expression for different characters to get your child's attention. 
But don't do all the work here. Have your child participate by letting him or her turn the page, or point at different things on the page too. Ask him or her about the things you just read about, or just ask what his or her opinion is about something that happened in the story.
Let your child help with simple chores7  
Your children can learn a lot from helping you with household chores. Aside from skills that they can use when they grow up (like organizing and cleaning), they can also learn the values of communicating clearly, cooperation, and working as a team; which are all important for your child’s cognitive development early on. Furthermore, chores done quickly frees up more time to spend bonding with your child, so it's a win-win!

Have your child help with a chore that fits with your child's age and abilities, like returning his or her toys to its box or shelf after playtime, or setting placemats on the table before the family eats. You can start by doing a chore together until your child can do it on his or her own.

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1 Anthony, M PhD. "Cognitive Development in 2-5-Year Olds." Scholastic. Accessed 01 October 2020.
2 Developmental Milestones: 3-5 Years." University of Pittsburgh. Accessed 02 October 2020.
3 Early nutrition, growth and cognitive development of infants from birth to 2 years in Malaysia: a study protocol.” BMC Pediatrics. Accessed 16 October 2020.
4 Kid's Healthy Eating Plate." Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Accessed 02 October 2020.
5 Thinking and play: preschoolers." The Australian Parenting Website. Accessed 01 October 2020.
6 Growth and Development, Ages 2 to 5 Years." HealthLink British Columbia. Accessed 01 October 2020.
7 Preschoolers (3-5 years of age)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 02 October 2020.