Children Ages Zero to 5 Learn through Play, Build Cognitive Skills Too!

September 14, 2017

In early childhood education, building children’s cognitive skills does not always require a structured lesson plan. Why? Because children need time on their own to experience and learn from their surroundings and alongside others through engaging in playful activities.

Playtime, which can include child-driven or non-child driven activities, allows children to gain cognitive abilities by learning the right and wrong way of doing something, exercising physical abilities to help them explore challenges and limits, and developing their linguistic abilities through social interaction with other children and adults, as Vilma Williams, senior manager for the Multilingual and Special Programs Department, Council for Professional Recognition and an early childhood education (ECE) expert explains.

“Children learn through direct experiences, and by interacting with friends, peers, and grown-ups. Play is the vehicle for learning. Through play, children develop cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills,” Williams said.

In fact, you can help support children’s cognitive development by practicing the following tips when interacting with children from birth to five1:

1. Young infants (birth to 8 months) – Infant play begins at the very start of life, especially when they interact with loving and supportive family members and with other important people in their lives, such as you.

3 ideas for promoting interactive infant play

  • Let the infant track an object as you move it slowly approximately 10-12 inches from the baby’s head.
  • Talk with the infant and ask questions. Wait for a response in the form of a coo or babble.
  • Begin playing interactive games like peek-a-boo.

2. Mobile infants (9 – 17 months) – Children at this age start to show preferences for active or quiet play. Mobile infants also start to pretend with objects while playing.

3 ways to engage a mobile infant in play

  • Show children how to combine objects in play to go beyond the exploration stage.
  • Sing and dance together, which allows them to learn words in an easier manner.
  • Read board books together, letting the child turn the pages.

3. Toddlers (18 – 36 months) – The hallmark of play during the toddler years is the advent of pretend play. Toddlers love playing with other children and like to make up their own rules for play scenarios.

3 ways to play with a toddler – hint: follow their lead, play along!

  • Follow the child’s lead. Offer toys and observe what toddlers do with them.
  • Play musical games or finger plays like Hokey Pokey or The Wheels on the Bus. These teach words, sounds, how to follow directions and have fun!
  • Invite a toddler to join in with another child’s play. Children can learn social skills this way.

4. Preschoolers (3 – 5 years) – At this age children need ample, uninterrupted choice or free play time throughout the day to develop their memory, attention, and self-regulation skills.

Use these 3 free play ideas as development activities for preschoolers

  • Shop at the pretend grocery to encourage dramatic play
  • Participate in small group activity of making simple recipes like English muffin pizzas to develop problem solving, counting, and understanding picture-based reading.
  • Play an animal lotto game with a small group of children to encourage memory, concentration, and attention skills.

In “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Kenneth R. Ginsburg explains how play aids in certain aspects of child development:

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.2

No matter how you choose to engage with young children, by leading playful activities or having the children take charge of their time through free play, it’s rewarding to know that even fun activities have the potential to teach children cognitive skills. What children acquire during these experiences have the potential to help them experience, adapt, and learn, which is a powerful way to assist in their everyday development as they meet different milestones during their growth.

1 Washington, V. (2017). Essentials for Working with Young Children (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: The Council for Professional Recognition.
2 Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics, 119, 182-191. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697

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