How Does Play Support Cognitive Development?

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

Cognitive Development in Children

Can we just talk about how amazing toddlers’ brains are? In the span of a few years, they go from first words to telling full stories. From stacking a couple of blocks to constructing entire block buildings. And from chewing on stuffed animals to using them in complex pretend play! Most amazing of all, most of that development happens naturally when kids are raised in supportive, loving environments with plenty of opportunities to play.

So don’t stress about making flashcards or drilling numbers at this age. The most powerful tool you have for your child’s cognitive development is play! Here’s how different types of play support your child’s development.

Grows Their Problem-solving Skills

Part of a child’s cognitive development is their ability to solve problems. For a toddler, that can be as simple as finally learning how to zip their own jacket. But those same skills will serve them later with more complex problems from schoolwork, social situations, and extra-curricular activities.

In fact, toddlers are naturally drawn to problem-solving activities during play. These are a few brain-boosting favorites:

  • Puzzles
  • Stacking blocks
  • Playing hide-and-seek with objects
  • Memory games
  • Dressing and undressing themselves or toys

When toddlers engage in activities like this, they’re pushing their brains to develop creativity, analytical thinking, and persistence they’ll need later in life. For more ideas, see our 7 Problem-Solving Activities for Toddlers!


Boosts Their Language

While language is often considered its own area of development, there's plenty of crossover between a child’s cognitive development and their language development. Playing with your child is one of the most powerful ways you can help grow their language skills. Whether you’re playing make-believe, building a block tower, reading, or doing a puzzle, nearly any type of play is naturally filled with opportunities to grow your child’s vocabulary and increase their understanding of sentence structure and grammar.

So play together frequently and don’t hold back when it comes to “big” words. In the process, you’ll also boost their social skills and sense of self-worth!


Starts Symbolic & Logical Thinking

Okay so that “logic” part may not truly come into play for a while. At least according to Piaget’s Stages of Development, kids don’t begin to think logically until around age 7 in the “Concrete Operational Stage.” However, the foundation for logical thinking is laid in the “Preoperational Stage,” around ages 2-6.

This is when kids begin to use symbolic thinking such as using one object to represent another (i.e. pretending a block is a toy car). In fact, this is actually considered an important developmental milestone!

And if you think that sounds a lot like pretend play… you’re right! By providing frequent opportunities for child-led pretend play, you’re actually helping your child develop the symbolic thinking that will help them become logical thinkers later on.


Increases Their Attention Span

If you’ve ever tried to force a toddler to focus on a task they don’t want to do… well, you know how pointless that is. That’s why play is far better at building your child’s attention span! When they find a challenge they want to tackle, such as building train tracks or solving a puzzle, their attention spans can be surprisingly long!

So follow your child’s lead here. Whether they’re playing with dolls or building with blocks, if they are engaged and focused, try not to interrupt them and remove distractions like TV noise. (One caveat: many kids will play endlessly with screens, but since these activities are often hyper-stimulating, they aren’t building their attention spans in the same way. Minimal to moderate screen time is still the way to go!)

And if you have older kids who need help focusing on homework, try out these tips for focus and concentration as well!


Real-world Role Playing

Remember that, for toddlers, social and emotional learning is perhaps even more important than learning letters and numbers. Pretend play is one of the main ways your toddler makes sense of the world and their place in it, so encourage it any chance you get… especially when they’re interested in role playing real-life scenarios. Fantasy-based pretend play is great too, but real-world roleplaying is especially helpful for learning social norms, practicing their social skills, and growing their vocabulary.

Follow their interests and pretend with them as much as possible. You can also encourage their pretend play by providing toys like dress-up clothes, play kitchens, doctors kits, and other real-life props. For even more immersive pretend play, the Let’s Pretend Pop Ups let you set up an entire restaurant, vet’s office, or grocery store in the playroom in minutes.

For more educational play ideas, check out our favorite activities to build your child’s communication skills!