What Is Cognitive Play?

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

Parenting a preschooler can feel like a crash course in childhood development…(in a good way!) You might vaguely remember learning about cognitive development and play in that Psych 101 class you took in college, but now you’re seeing it in action! Your kiddo has grown from a cooing baby to a talking toddler figuring out the world. If you’ve ever wondered what you can do to help support that rapid cognitive development, the answer is simply to help them engage in meaningful play!

What Is Cognitive Development?

Before we dive into the types of play that support cognitive development, it’s helpful to have a basic definition of cognitive development. In the simplest terms, cognitive development is the growth of kids’ ability to think. This encompasses their problem solving skills, their ability to use reason and logic, their ability to engage in abstract thinking.

What Is Cognitive Play? The Role of Play in Cognitive Development

Almost any type of child-led play can help kids’ cognitive development in some way, but when you see the term “cognitive play'', it’s likely referring to types of play that are particularly good at building kids’ problem-solving and thinking skills. Some classic examples include puzzles, building with blocks or other construction toys, and memory games.

Problem-solving play can also include anything that is challenging for your toddler like dressing and undressing their dolls or figuring out how to fit all of their toys into their wagon. These activities help toddlers learn to analyze challenges and persist through trial and error. (For more ideas, see our 7 Problem-Solving Activities for Toddlers!)

Language is another critical part of kids’ cognitive development. After all, we think through words, especially when we’re trying to think about more abstract concepts. A rich understanding of their language equips kids to tackle these challenges later in life! Playing, speaking, and reading with adults helps kids grow their vocabularies and intuitively understand sentence structure.

It’s also important to remember that kids play in ways that may not seem like play to us, and these activities are also beneficial for cognitive development. Just as young babies can’t help but practice standing and crawling, toddler and preschoolers can’t help but practice their growing cognitive skills. When they suddenly fixate on sorting their toys by color or lining up all of their animal figurines from biggest to smallest, they’re building pre-math skills. When they’re determined to impossibly fit all of their books into their backpack, they’re building spatial reasoning. And when they simply stare at the pictures in their books, they’re often trying to retell the story to themselves, building their memory, focus, and future reading comprehension skills.

In short, anytime toddlers and preschoolers truly focus on any task, it likely feels like play to them, and there is probably some form of cognitive benefit! Want more details? Check out our post on How Play Supports Cognitive Development to get brain-boosting play ideas and learn the different cognitive skills kids develop through play! Lastly, explore our entire collection of cognitive play toys perfect for cognitive development.