8 Ways to Promote Cognitive Development in Your Preschool Classroom

child playing with a puzzle

There are four stages of cognitive development, as defined by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. As a preschool teacher, you’ll find that your children are in the preoperational stage, where they think about things symbolically. This just means they are learning to use language as a way to represent and give meaning to an object. This way of symbolic thinking is all about children learning that a word or an object is used to represent something other than itself (McLeod, 2018).

The preoperational stage of development is a fun stage when children’s memory and imagination begin to develop. It can be challenging for you as their teacher since children at this age are often egocentric and have a harder time thinking about how others may feel or think about things. They often struggle to think outside of their own viewpoint. When you think about helping your students grow and develop, one of the best things you can do is focus on promoting cognitive development, which is easily done through play and many other activities. 

  1. Bring on the books!

There are so many benefits that come with little ones picking up books, like learning new words and ideas, and growing their imaginations. Books can help children experience new ideas and places, and really expand their background knowledge.

A little reading nook is also the perfect place for them to pick up new skills, like numbers (“Can you find two books that you like?”) and dexterity, as they turn pages one by one. Books are great for teaching emotional skills and understanding social situations, too (“Look at her face. What emotion do you think she feels? Why do you think that?”) and (“What did he do that hurt his friend’s feelings?”).

  1. Sing away the day. 

Making songs a part of your daily routine is a great way to get children excited about whatever you’re doing and teach them new things. At the same time, singing songs promotes memory and word identification, which are both invaluable at this age. Use songs to reinforce new concepts you’ve introduced and to help with those busy (and sometimes chaotic!) transition times. Offer two or three options of songs and let the children choose which you sing. 

  1. Listen to sounds.  

There are noises all around us, but as adults, we tend to tune them out. However, preschoolers are still getting used to them! This is wonderful because you can use the stage they’re in to teach them how to relate objects to sounds in their everyday lives. For example, they can note birds singing outside, shoes walking down the hallway, and water running in the sink.

Stopping to listen to sounds (outside especially) will teach them inhibition skills as they inhibit the urge to do other things while listening. It also helps strengthen their attention skills as they focus in on the specific sound stimulation over other sensory input. 

  1. Put the pieces together. 

Puzzles are a normal part of almost any classroom, and for good reason! They’re fun, accessible, and because they vary in how challenging they are, they can be a good activity for any student in your classroom. Of course, puzzles allow them to concentrate and use their hands, but they also teach sequencing (“This one goes in first, and that one goes in last”) and the importance of task completion.

Puzzles are a great way to build the “error of correction” skills in children when they have to try new ways, sides, and even find a different piece for a hard spot in the puzzle. All of this trial and error strengthens their cognitive flexibility and working memory skills. There’s nothing quite like a job well done! 

  1. Get those ABCs down. 

There are so many things you can do with the letters of the alphabet! Besides learning what they look like and what they do, once a child knows the alphabet, it opens a whole world of possibilities for activities. Letter recognition and letter knowledge is one of the foundational early literacy skills necessary for reading. 

Students can practice all sorts of skills and greatly enhance their memory and critical thinking abilities by learning letter sounds, tracing, rearranging, and even finding letters around the classroom to put in order. The very best way to teach letter knowledge that “sticks” is through play! So, create fun games and learning opportunities, turn your little ones into letter detectives, and put away those worksheets. 

  1. Put things in color. 

Being able to name colors is a major milestone for littlest learners, especially your toddlers, so whenever you get the chance, make a point to say the color of something. Naming colors in everyday situations is a great way to do it. For instance, “That’s a nice purple shirt!” or “Can we find the blue car?” The more you practice with the children in your classroom, the better they’ll get.

Before you know it, they’ll be naming colors themselves, or even requesting items in certain colors! You can teach colors in multiple languages and incorporate colors in with your early literacy, early numeracy, and even your science experiments! They sure do love to investigate what happens when they mix multiple paint colors together.

  1. Count it up! 

Counting can get confusing pretty quickly for preschoolers. Have you ever heard them count and miss (or repeat) a few numbers? It happens a lot, but the good thing is that there are a ton of things you can do to help your students learn to count. From counting shoes to counting crayons, you have plenty to work with in your classroom! You can use counting rhymes and songs to teach them these invaluable early numeracy skills. Spend some time online finding early numeracy games you can play that are inexpensive and don’t require you spend alot on fancy games.

Early numeracy skills are foundational for their lifelong learning and most kids learn these skills through fun activities in your classroom and their everyday life experiences. When you teach early numeracy, you build your students’ ability to do so much more than just verbally counting. You’re actually teaching them that number symbols represent quantities, how to recognize quantities and figure out number patterns, and even how to manipulate quantities. When they add more items to a set or remove a few objects, they learn basic addition and subtraction, which is the foundation for comparing and manipulating quantities.  

  1. Take time to sort. 

Most of the little ones in your classroom are at an age where they’re very interested in helping! So why not take the time to teach while you get a little help? It may take some extra time (and patience!), but it can make a big difference. A messy classroom is the perfect opportunity to teach categorizing. When there are cars, blocks, crayons, and books all over the place, show your students how to sort things out (“Let’s put all the blocks here, and put all the books there”). Sorting activities will strengthen and build children’s executive functioning skills, which include their attention, inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and several other skills related to future life opportunities.

As a preschool teacher, you’re probably already doing a ton when it comes to promoting cognitive development in your classroom, and you may not even know it! Still, it’s important to intentionally look for activities that promote cognitive development, and then incorporate them into your lesson plans. Remember: Play is a great way to learn, so we encourage you to take advantage of your students’ love for fun whenever you can! 

A Successful Learning Experience for Your Students 

As you look for ways to promote cognitive development in your preschool classroom, it’s important to note that every child is different, and the students in your classroom will pick things up at different rates. Cognitive development doesn’t follow a set schedule, and each child in your classroom is learning at their own pace (something that you may need to gently remind parents of on occasion). With this in mind, differentiated instruction is important in your classroom, as it allows you to meet the needs of each child in your classroom (honestly, it sounds more complicated than it is).

Be sure to provide activities that will challenge your more advanced learners so they continue to grow (and… win-win, when you avoid their boredom, you have better behavior!) and include more basic activities for those who have yet to master the specific skill. You can use center time to pull groups of children to sit with you at a table and do an activity to reinforce the skills they need help with, or to introduce a new more challenging concept. It’s a lot of work, but the results — and smiles — are so worth it!
At Impact Early Education, we know your work is never done. That’s why we provide valuable professional development courses for preschool teachers, directors, and owners in a way that works for you. To learn more, explore our courses or contact us today.

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