As a developmental therapist working in early intervention, I’m excited to share my favorite cognitive activities for toddlers aged 1 to 3. These fun and developmentally appropriate activities can be enjoyed at home or in the classroom, helping support toddler thinking and learning.
Engage toddlers’ cognitive development with interactive activities that enhance executive function and problem-solving, such as:
- Nature play
- Loose parts play
- Imagination games
- Sensory play
- Music & fingerplays
- Puzzles & close-ended toys
Cognitive development is the building of mental and intellectual skills. For toddlers, this is thinking, learning, and understanding. Here’s what it looks like:
- Curiosity about the world and how things work
- Knowledge of objects and their functions
- Longer attention span for activities
- Pretend play and role-playing with objects
- Learning numbers, counting, and “more”
- Sorting and noticing similarities and differences
- Creative problem-solving in various ways
Check at FAQs at the end of this post to learn more.
Cognitive Activities for Toddlers
Nature play offers toddlers an open-ended, sensory-rich experience, fostering cognitive development and executive function skills. From exploring the outdoors and experiencing different weather to engaging in risk-taking play and moving through obstacles, these activities promote emergent science, recognition, and motivation, enhancing attention and persistence in playful ways.
- Exploring outdoors
- Experiencing different weather
- Nature scavenger hunts
- Fill + dump with rocks, pinecones, or sticks
- Sink or Float with nature objects
- Moving through obstacles (over, under, around, through)
Cognitive Skills: emergent science, recognition, motivation, attention, persistence
Loose Parts Play
Loose parts play offers toddlers open-ended materials to explore, promoting cognitive development through creative manipulation. This unstructured play fosters emergent math and science skills, encouraging persistence, reasoning, and the ability to watch and imitate others. Learn more about the benefits of loose parts play and check out a giant list of loose parts materials.
- Plastic bottles and jugs
- Electric Tea Lights
- Fabric Squares
- Nature Objects
Cognitive Skills: using objects in a new way, emergent math, emergent science, persistence, reason/logic, watching and imitating others
Loose Parts 2 is the definitive guide on toddler loose parts play. And the photographs are phenomenal. Check out the book series for inspiration and education on loose parts.
Imagination games play a vital role in toddler cognitive development by encouraging role-play and introducing symbolism. Favorite imagination play toys include costumes, toy animals, and toy vehicles. These activities enhance cognitive skills, such as imaginative play, motivation, and memory, while fostering discovery and self-expression.
- Dress up
- Pretending to be an animal
- Cars, trains, construction vehicles
- People figures
- Animal figures
- Find the toy
- More imagination games for toddlers
Cognitive Skills: imaginative play, motivation, using objects in new ways, memory, exploration/discovery, watching and imitating others, finding hidden objects
Books and reading are wonderful cognitive activities for toddlers, introducing early literacy skills and broadening understanding of objects, living things, and people through symbolism. Engage your child by exploring illustrations, adding actions to books, and reading books about your child’s interests.
- Find and name objects in the pictures
- Connect stories to real life
- Play with the sounds of letters and words
- Emphasize rhyming and alliteration
- Choose books that match your child’s interests
Cognitive Skills: identifying objects when they are named, attention, reason/logic, exploration/discovery
Sensory play is a fantastic cognitive activity for toddlers, providing an immersive body-mind experience. Engage your child with sensory bins, dough play, sensory books, painting, and eating new foods. Sensory play allows toddlers to begin building early science skills.
- Water tables
- Sensory bins
- Eating new foods
Cognitive Skills: reason/logic, emergent science, emergent math, persistence, motivation, exploration/discovery
Music and Fingerplays
Music and fingerplays are excellent cognitive activities for toddlers, fostering memory, attention, and cause-and-effect understanding. Engage toddlers with singing, dancing, and musical instruments to promote emergent math and science skills while encouraging imitation and following instructions. Learn how dancing supports the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
- Scarf dancing
- Pot and pan band
- Rhythm sticks
- Fingerplays (The Itsy Bitsy Spider or Patty Cake)
Cognitive Skills: memory, attention, following instructions, watching and imitating others, cause and effect, emergent math, emergent science
Block play offer a fun cognitive activity for toddlers, nurturing creative, early science, and math skills. Engage your child with open-ended building with anything from tree blocks to Magnatiles for a perfect blend of STEM learning and imaginative development.
Discover all our favorite block activities for toddlers ages 1 to 3.
Cognitive Skills: emergent science, emergent math, imaginative play, using objects in a new way, reason/logic, problem-solving
Puzzles & Close-Ended Toys
Close-ended toys benefit cognitive development, building trial-and-error and problem-solving skills and instilling confidence. However, they should not replace other play experiences as they can lead to frustration. Striking a balance between close-ended and open-ended toys is key for fostering holistic cognitive growth in toddlers.
- Puzzles (chunky or knob puzzles)
- Shape sorters
- Stacking/nesting cups and rings
- Pop-up toys
- Hammer and peg toys
Cognitive Skills: emergent science, emergent math, cause and effect, attention, reason/logic, problem-solving, persistence
Cognitive Activities in Daily Routines
You can also enhance toddlers’ cognitive development through daily routines. Explore these simple ways to nurture their learning and understanding in day-to-day activities.
- Counting with food at meals
- Sorting toys at clean-up time
- Water play in the bathtub
- Completing household chores together
- Practicing dressing and undressing
- Singing in the car
Cognitive Skills: cause and effect, attention, reason/logic, problem-solving, persistence
FAQs: toddler cognitive development
Adding cognitive activities at home and in the classroom is crucial for supporting and nurturing your toddler’s brain development. Engage in nature play, imagination games, reading, sensory play, music, blocks, and close-ended toys to foster holistic cognitive growth. By integrating these activities into daily routines, you create a strong foundation for your toddler’s future development and learning.