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The 9 Best Cognitive Activities for Toddlers

The best way to improve your toddler’s cognitive development is through play! As children play, they are developing important cognitive abilities like planning, strategizing, problem-solving, reasoning, critical thinking, attentiveness, and self-regulation. Implementing cognitive activities for toddlers into your daily routine is super important for healthy development.

These 9 cognitive activities create an amazing foundation for learning and can help lead to academic success later in life.

When implementing these cognitive activities, allow your child to be the leader. Research has shown greater benefits when a child initiates the play rather than when adults lead the playtime.

The 9 activities below are different play-time activities for cognitive development. Since these activities are play-based, you shouldn’t have any issue getting your toddler involved!

9 Cognitive Activities for Toddlers

While just allowing your toddler to play is great for development, certain activities can really help to improve developmental outcomes.

1) Constructive Play

This is one of the best cognitive activities for toddlers. Whether your child is making a tower from building blocks or a castle with Magna-tiles, when they construct and make their own creative structures skills like problem-solving and critical thinking are developing.

When children engage in constructive play they have to plan what they are going to make, gather the supplies, and work out the various problems they run into when building things like a tower or castle.

Constructive play has also been proven to improve mathematical abilities in young children.

2) Pretend play

Imaginative or pretend play is amazing for cognitive development in toddlers. As children act out and assume various roles, they are developing planning, negotiation, execution, problem-solving, and improvisation skills.

As children communicate during pretend play, they are also growing their language and literacy skills. Young children tend to actively talking about what they are doing, and what they are planning to do next.

Pretend play is a great opportunity for parents to ask questions and further stimulate those critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Cognitive activities for toddlers

3) Physical activity

Physical activity in toddlers and preschoolers is a major contributor to cognitive development. Many research studies have shown that increased physical activity results in greater attention, working memory, academic success, and behavior in the classroom.

These studies also showed beneficial effects on language learning since children are communicating with each other during physical play.

Incorporating more physical activity both indoors and outdoors is a great way to promote healthy development and an active lifestyle.

4) Puzzles

Puzzles are one of my favorite activities for both toddlers and older children. Puzzles help to improve attention span, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

According to a research article from Sciencedaily.com, the type of puzzles that children can do actually depends on their current cognitive development stage. 3-year-olds tend to complete puzzles using a trial-and-error method, whereas 4-year-olds will use the reference picture to complete the puzzle.

Make sure you choose the right puzzle for your child’s age to avoid frustration. As children become more confident, they will seek out more difficult puzzles.

5) Sorting Activities

Sorting and grouping things together is a great activity to help your child develop. As they engage in this activity they will start to notice similarities and differences, they will learn how to categorize, and they will begin to develop early math and literacy skills.

At this age, children will sort out colors, shapes, and sizes of different objects. Even just sorting different objects by color within your home is a great brain-stimulating activity!

Our world is largely categorized, even the food at the supermarket is organized based on types of food. As children develop their sorting skills, they will gain a better understanding of our modern society.

6) Sensory Bins

Sensory play is one of the best activities to help with cognitive growth. As children play using their 5 senses, they are developing nerve connections within their brain and body. Research actually shows that as the sensory experience gets richer (using multiple senses at a time), their patterns for learning, thought, and creativity are greater.

Through sensory play, children also learn how to interact and maneuver different types of objects and matter. If they want to get sand from one container to the other, they have to problem-solve, plan, and implement their strategy to achieve their desired goal.

This is such a great activity because even just a bucket of water, or a pile of sand will create an amazing sensory experience for your child.

Cognitive activities for toddlers

7) Arts and Crafts

The importance of arts and crafts in cognitive development shouldn’t be underestimated. As children work on creative projects, they are exercising different skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making to achieve the outcome they want.

Having a toddler-safe art box with finger paints, washable markers, paper, and playdough is a great way to encourage creativity, and help your toddler develop those important cognitive skills.

8) Music

Listening, singing, and dancing to music is a great cognitive activity! Not only does it help with pattern, and rhythm development, but it is also a great activity for language and literacy growth.

Encouraging your toddler to dance to songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes, is an amazing way to help improve the mind-body connection. As children listen and dance, they have to understand and interpret what is being said, and then use their motor skills to associate the words with reality.

Allowing your child to listen to music is a super easy and fun activity to help improve those important cognitive skills.

9) Reading

Reading to your toddler daily, even just for a few minutes, is one of the best activities you can do for your child.

A research study from The Ohio State University found that parents who read 5 books a day with their child prior to entering kindergarten were exposed to about 1.4 million more words than children who were never read to.

As you read to your child, you can ask them thought-provoking questions to make it more of an active and engaging activity. By asking these stimulating questions you are helping your child to develop hypothesizing, analyzing, and problem-solving skills.

Cognitive activities for toddlers


Children have a natural inclination to play. We must lean into this instinct to help our children develop to their maximum potential. Implementing any of these cognitive activities for toddlers into your daily routine will help set them up for success down the road.

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