After the “terrible twos” are the magic years – magic for you because your child’s listening skills and learning skills increase dramatically, and magic for them because they are among the most imaginative years your child will ever have.
But like most parents, you probably wonder a little, if not even worry about your preschooler’s cognitive development.
There are certain preschool cognitive development milestones your child should meet, but what if he doesn’t?
What You Need to Know About a Child’s Cognitive Development
I’ve had five kids of my own kids and taught tons and tons of preschoolers, so I can attest to how different each child is and how each child progresses at their own rate. How they all blossom in their own time, and how some children are unique flowers with a bloom a little different from the rest.
And you already know this.
But what you might not know is that some parts of cognitive development in preschoolers are a little tricky.
What exactly can you expect during the preschool years and when should you worry?
Cognitive Development in Preschoolers
Let me start out by saying that I am not a pediatrician. I am a teacher and a mother, and the information I share here is available upon my own research and personal experience.
If for any reason, at any time, you are concerned about your preschooler’s cognitive development, make an appointment with your pediatrician. Even if you just have a hunch that something isn’t right, talk to your child’s doctor. You’ll regret having not intervened sooner if you don’t.
The Tricky Thing About Cognitive Development
What makes child development tricky is that every guideline is given in a range of months. They are not set in stone, and did you catch that I wrote “guideline”? It’s something to go by.
So when all the experts say that your child should know all his color names by 48 months, and he is already 54 months, do you worry? Unless you are very familiar with preschooler cognitive development, you might be deeply concerned.
And I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t be.
So here is what you need to know about cognitive development milestones during the preschool years.
Children Have to Develop Symbolic Thinking.
Toddlers and young children are still pre-operational thinkers. They focus on appearances of objects rather than ideas and they have trouble comprehending multi-lateral relationships.
So as your preschooler’s intellect develops, they’ll become capable of symbolic thought – the ability to symbolically represent concrete objects, actions, and events. This is demonstrated by re-enacting events through dramatic play, telling stories by drawing pictures, and attempts at making up jokes.
Categorization can be a struggle early on for this reason. Children have to develop symbolic thought. They won’t understand that an apple can be an apple and a fruit, or how whales and humans can both be mammals, but with valuable, constructive play, preschoolers begin to think more abstractly.
Your preschooler will also probably exhibit many egocentric tendencies – they’re more aware of their own point of view than that of others. They won’t be able to understand why others feel differently than they do. If they feel incredibly happy when they get a fruit snack, they’ll be confused as to how their sibling or friend can have a fruit snack but still be sad.
You can help them with this by pointing it out in appropriate situations, and by teaching them what others might feel in different circumstances.
Why do Preschoolers Ask so Many “Why” Questions?!
As your child’s cognitive skills continue to develop, they’ll start to think about how things work and begin asking why about everything. Asking questions may be annoying or overwhelming at times, but this is a cognitive milestone too!
Although they’ll be full of questions, they won’t be ready for full explanations for many of these yet (think, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Where do babies come from?”).
Do the best you can, and tell them enough to satisfy their curiosity but not enough to confuse them.
When it comes to questions about why they need to do certain things, you can tell them that it’s good for them or that it’s to help keep them safe.
Take even their most absurd questions seriously. It’s a sign of their growth and learning, and even if you don’t know how to answer some of their more abstract wonderings you can steer them in the right course or help them learn to find out for them self – like looking in the right book.
Milestones in Cognitive Development in Preschoolers
For a concrete idea of what to expect in your preschooler’s cognitive development, here is what you can typically expect.
Cognitive Development 3-4 Years Milestones
- Correctly name basic rainbow colors
- Understand the idea of same and different
- Actively participate in pretend play
- Follow three-step commands
- Remember parts of a story
- Understand time better (for example, yesterday, today, tomorrow)
- Have a basic understanding of counting from 1-3
- Sort objects by shape or color
- Complete chunky or block puzzles
- Recognize and identify common objects and pictures
Cognitive Development 4-5 Years Milestones
- Correctly name all rainbow colors
- Correctly name at least three shapes
- Speak clearly using six or more words in a sentence
- Count ten or more objects
- Recognize some letters and numbers
- Recognize own name
- Better understand the concept of time via the order of daily activities, like breakfast in the morning, a nap after lunch or stories before bedtime
- Focus on a single task for 5-15 minutes
- Recognize familiar word signs, such as “STOP”
Signs of Delay in Preschool Cognitive Development
Knowing when to be worried is difficult, but if you ever wonder, even a little, just make an appointment with your pediatrician.
Milestones are set in place to be a guideline. Even if your child is meeting all those milestones and you are still worried because you have a “hunch”, act on it!
Your motherly (or teacherly) instincts are valid!
Signs of developmental delay in preschool-aged children include the following:
- Inability to use sentences with more than three words
- Using “me” and “you” inappropriately
- Continuing to experience extreme separation anxiety
- Showing little to no interest in pretend or imaginative play
- Not socializing with other children or non-family members
If you are concerned about your preschooler’s development, you should discuss it with your pediatrician. She can help you have your child tested if they agree there is reason for concern.
How to Encourage Your Child’s Cognitive Development at Home
Don’t worry yourself thinking you have to teach them too much too early, just try to put your preschooler in environments that let them explore their curiosity and be exposed to new things. Museums, zoos, aquariums, and libraries can be perfect for this, and many have free programs for preschoolers.
Here are other tips for developing cognition.
- Read to your child every single day.
- Talk to your child as often as possible.
- Sing songs as a family.
- Ask open ended questions and encourage lengthy responses.
- Use higher-level language to develop vocabulary. For example, teach real names for body parts and model how to use “real words”.
- Get on your child’s level and play.
- Practice gross motor skills in regular play. Allow your child to take some risks and figure things out on their own.
Hope for success
Have confidence that you and your child can learn the answers to the many questions you’ll both have, and try to cherish this special time of your child’s life and your time as a parent or teacher. They’re called the magic years for a reason.
I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.