Toddlers do not think the way we think and have not yet developed the full brain architecture that adults have. The study of cognitive development attempts to tease apart and understand how thinking changes and develops from birth to adulthood. Cognition, or thinking, includes:
In other words, cognitive development is the emergence of the ability to think and understand.
Your toddler’s cognitive development or thinking skills accelerate with help from her physical development. Being able to cruise or walk, reach for items and manipulate objects in her hand with her fine motor skills, opens up the world to your toddler by allowing her to approach, assess and experiment with novel objects.
Similarly, having more language and more connection with other people allows your toddler to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and:
Toddler curiosity knows no bounds. As your toddler glories in her increasing mobility and reach she will be into everything; opening cupboards, rooting in your bag. In order to facilitate this curiosity have lots of interesting and safe items at toddler height. For example, have a Tupperware cupboard in your kitchen that your toddler can safely explore. Toddlers somehow like the illicit frisson of exploring something ‘grown up’ and Tupperware provides safe, lightweight items to pull out, stack up and, of course, knock over.
Faced with a problem your toddler will try one solution and then another. This makes them tenacious, natural scientists. For example, if your toddler is playing with a shape sorter she will try one solution and then another. With toys and objects that are hidden or lost, she will look for them systematically. However, expect a few meltdowns when her attempts to solve a problem are thwarted and be on hand to calm and help.
Toddlers have a natural developing interest and innate understanding of the:
Toddlers are equipped with a basic understanding of matter and forces and even as babies they understand that our world has gravity and are confused if items defy gravity (for example floating bubbles). Through play with liquids and solids, your toddler will refine her understanding of matter and cause and effect. She will use her body to immerse herself in real-world experiments, such as splashing in the water, knocking things over, enjoying being on swings and slides at the park.
By three years of age, your toddler will understand there are living and non-living things in the world. At first, it will be basic and often be down to whether something has a face, so a mushroom may not be defined as living but a robot dog might. She will love to observe animals and be interested in the weather and how the outside world changes with the seasons and weather conditions.
People, emotions and life lessons are probably the key interest of toddlers. This is where we begin to see differences in toddlers with autism as their ‘social blindness’ becomes increasingly apparent when other toddlers attend so tenaciously to the emerging social and emotional information around them.
Play is a universal part of children’s lives whatever culture, tribe or time in history they come from. A lot of toddler play focuses on understanding and learning domestic skills such as cooking, washing and DIY.
Your toddler’s language skills will really take off, not only in her emerging vocabulary but also the words and sentences she understands and the emotion and tone used in communication. You will see your toddler experiment and imitate your tone e.g., being firm with a teddy bear or being angry or disappointed.
From your toddler’s first birthday she will love to count up in twos; one, two hands; one, two eyes. She will really enjoy action songs with counting that allow her to visualise items and count them in a physical action song e.g., ‘Three little ducks went swimming one day’.
By the age of two, she may have memorised counting to ten but this is more a feat of language and memory than numeracy. There are so many opportunities to count things with your toddler and this will help to reinforce the idea of when you add one thing to a group of things the entire number goes up. So count out spoons when you set the table and count flowers in a vase by physically pointing at each one. Try to keep this as a fun game rather than trying to make your toddler write down or identify numbers (although my autistic nephew just loved to line up long lines of numbers from an early age, so if your toddler is drawn to numbers and counting you can have lots of number games).
Sorting and classification are hugely important human instincts and skills that allow us to understand the world around us, for example, animals versus plants, babies versus adults, wasps versus ladybirds.
As your toddler’s language acquisition accelerates, her ability to sort and classify the world around her will become increasingly sophisticated. Toddlers really enjoy sorting games and again this is something that you can do as part of everyday life (‘Let’s sort the clothes into whites and colours so we can put the white clothes is a hot wash.’) Even before your toddler can identify all her colours she will be trying to make sense of categories that you are making so a red triangle might sometimes be sorted with the red things when you are sorting by colour, but it might go in with the triangles when you are sorting circles and triangles. At first, having sorting games where there are two options makes it easier for your toddler to understand the category archetypes that are being sorted, for example, animals with faces and fur.
By 15 months
By 18 months
By 24 months
By 30 months
By 36 months
By looking at the milestones of cognitive development above you will have a rough idea of how your toddler should be thinking, conceptualising and playing during the toddler years. It can be hard to know how your toddler is thinking and conceptualising by looking at their external behaviour but here are a few pointers to look out for.
By 12-18 months your toddler should make full eye contact and smile and laugh with you and respond to her name when you call it out. She should point to things that interest her and play with a range of toys.
Enjoys pretend play e.g., using a banana as a telephone and is able to interact with you or others during play e.g., looking to you for a reaction or showing you toys. When sharing books she should be pointing and labelling some nouns in the book e.g., dog (even if not clearly said).
By their third birthday your toddler should be following two or three-part instructions e.g., please give me the book and then wash your hands. She should also be able to answer simple questions and tell you about physical needs e.g., thirsty, tired. You may also notice unusual ways of playing e.g., lining up toys or sorting them into colours or at the other end of the spectrum, be unable to concentrate on an activity for a 10 minute period.
It’s really important to be your toddler’s advocate and speak to your doctor if you have concerns about developmental delay in your toddler. Early intervention by you and a child development team can be crucial to supporting your toddler’s development and can help to provide them with any extra help they need to reach their potential.