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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Cognitive development in toddlers

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 looks at brain development and behaviour and attempts to tease apart and understand how thinking changes and develops from birth to adulthood. Toddlerhood is a hugely accelerated stage of cognitive development and children first begin to develop their reasoning and thinking skills in the toddler years.
In Short
Cognitive development is the way our thinking and understanding of the world around us changes and develops from birth to adulthood.

Physical development, such as cruising, walking and picking up items helps your toddler to accelerate her fine motor and cognitive development skills.

Your toddler’s language will really start to develop as she begins to understand the emotion and tone used during all communication. You'll notice she will start to imitate the tone you use when you're being firm with the family pet, for example.

In addition, take the many opportunities to count things with your toddler as this will help to reinforce the idea of when you add one thing to a group of things the entire number goes up.

Toddlers can be very persistent and although your toddler may get frustrated she will not yet tend to feel low self-esteem as she struggles with new problems. However, expect a few meltdowns when her attempts to solve a problem are thwarted and be on hand to calm and help.

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:

  • Information processing
  • Conceptual thinking
  • Perception and integration of information from the senses
  • Use of language to think.

In other words, cognitive development is the emergence of the ability to think and understand.

Moving helps thinking

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.

Language helps thinking

Similarly, having more language and more connection with other people allows your toddler to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and:

  • Conceptualise the physical and social word
  • Understand concepts explained by others
  • Understand and empathise increasingly with other people.
Toddler curiosity

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.

Top tip: Don’t leave lighters or medicines in your bag and don’t leave your bag on the floor as toddlers will not realise that these items might be dangerous. It’s really vitally important to get down to your toddler’s level in order to see the world from her point of view. This way you can toddler-proof your house and the places you visit, rather like the security detail. Sadly many toddlers are rushed to the hospital due to their innate curiosity at this age and brightly coloured but dangerous objects like dishwasher tablets are very appealing to them.
Problem-solving and persistence

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 are scientists

Toddlers have a natural developing interest and innate understanding of the:

  • Physical world
  • Living world
  • Social world
  • Domestic world.
The physical world

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.

The living world

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.

The social world

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.

The domestic world

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.

Toddler language skills and cognitive development

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.

Toddler number skills and cognitive development

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 skills

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.

Milestones of cognitive development in toddlers

By 15 months

  • Understand your words for some body parts e.g., head.
  • Point to several pictures of familiar nouns e.g., dog.
  • Understand the words ‘no’ and ‘look.’
  • Seek out a hidden toy by moving things out of the way or going to where it fell.

By 18 months

  • Can point to their body parts when asked e.g., ‘Where is your arm?’
  • Favourite word may well be ‘No!’
  • Has a vocabulary of between 5-40 words.
  • Gestures with arms to communicate excitement, ‘more’, ‘do it again.’
  • Points and ejaculates urgent words.
  • Can carry out simple instructions e.g., ‘bring the teddy here.’
  • Refers to his or herself with their given name (or a garbled version).
  • Likes simple matching and sorting games and jigsaws.
  • Starting to enjoy mark making (12 to 18 months).
  • Uses gestures and a few nouns to tell you what she wants.
  • She can copy your actions.
  • Her memory is improving so she can remember things that happened a week ago.
  • Doesn’t respond with anger if a toy is taken away.
  • Cannot see things from another person’s perspective.
  • Has no self-recognition – so if you put a red sticker on her forehead and show her her reflection, she will not reach up and touch the sticker on her face as she won’t realise it’s the same one she can see in the mirror.

By 24 months

  • Has a vocabulary of 200 words, which are mainly nouns.
  • Leaves off the endings and beginnings of words e.g., bag said ‘ba.’
  • She may understand five times as many words – over 1000.
  • Is refining her understanding of cause and effect e.g., when she blows on a candle and it goes out.
  • May use comforting words and gestures if a baby cries.
  • Can follow more complicated instructions, e.g., ‘bring me the nappy bags from my bag.’
  • Developing self-recognition.
  • She may be starting to put words together.
  • Works things out in her head without trial and error.
  • Goes back to find things where they last were.
  • Enjoys pretend play and imitating.
  • Snatches back a toy taken away from her.

By 30 months

  • Knows her full name.
  • Asks ‘Who’ and ‘What’ questions.
  • Uses the pronouns ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘You.’
  • Likes construction toys.

By 36 months

  • Knows her primary colours (this can be much earlier in some toddlers).
  • Asks ‘Why’ questions.
  • Understands number concept of ‘one’ and ‘lots.’
  • Can categorise and sort items e.g., sort pegs into their three colours.
Cognitive developmental problems

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.

1st birthday check

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.

2nd birthday check

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).

3rd birthday check

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.

‘Kai is a proper little busy body. Every walk to the shops takes ages, he picks up everything, touches spider webs, put his hands in puddles. He reminds me of ET, on a new planet and checking out the world like a proper little scientist. Bless.’
Real mum story. Lesia, mum to Kai 30 months.
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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.