About preschooler play and cognitive development
Play is important for your preschooler’s cognitive development – that is, your child’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and work out what might happen next.
Preschoolers want to learn how things work, and they learn best through play. Children at play are solving problems, creating, experimenting, thinking and learning all the time.
Spending time playing with your child is especially good for your child’s cognitive development. That’s because playing together builds your relationship and sends a simple but powerful message – you are important to me. This message is key to helping your child learn about who they are and where they fit in the world. It also gives your child confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world.
A warm and loving relationship with your preschooler lays the foundation for all areas of your child’s learning and development.
What to expect: preschooler cognitive development
With time, experience and practice, preschoolers will probably:
- start to organise games and make friends
- start to understand concepts like ‘bigger’ and ‘taller’
- ask lots of questions, especially ‘why’
- start to develop a sense of humour and delight in jokes and riddles
- develop some concept of time
- start negotiating with you if there’s something they want
- start predicting what will happen next – for example, in a story
- still not understand what’s real and what’s pretend.
At four years, children still have fairly short concentration spans, so expect that your child might get restless or bored if an activity goes on for too long.
Your four-year-old child is also likely to start asking tricky questions about subjects like sexuality, death and distressing news stories. For example, your child might ask, ‘Where do babies come from?’
By five years, your child will probably sit through a full game or finish a whole puzzle – and that brings the new challenge of playing fair and learning to lose gracefully!
Starting preschool gives your child lots to think about. There are new rules and routines that are different from those at home. This can be tiring and confusing at first. Your child might need time and lots of love and support to adjust.
Many preschools have programs to help children prepare for the transition into preschool. You can also talk with your child’s teacher if you have concerns or want ideas to help your child handle the change.
Play ideas for encouraging preschooler cognitive development
Here are some play ideas to support your child’s cognitive development:
- Play simple board games like ‘Snakes and ladders’ with your child, or simple card games like ‘Go fish’ or ‘Snap’.
- Read books and tell jokes and riddles.
- Encourage stacking and building games or play with cardboard boxes.
- Do simple jigsaw puzzles and memory games.
- Play games that combine moving and singing – for example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’.
- When you’re driving or on public transport, try ‘spotto’ games – for example, ‘Who can see something green?
- Encourage your child to help you with cooking – preschoolers can learn a lot from measuring, counting and naming healthy ingredients for family meals.
- Play outside. For example, you could make mud pies or go on a nature walk together.
It’s a good idea to let your child take the lead with play, because children learn best when they’re interested in an activity. This way, you can use your child’s interests to help your child learn something new through play. Your child will generally let you know if they need help, so try not to jump in with solutions too early.
And during any kind of play, you can ask your child to describe what’s happening. This is a great way to show interest and also encourage your child to practise language skills. For example, if you and your child are pretending to be vets, you could say, ‘What’s wrong with this animal? How are we going to make it feel better?’
If your child seems to be having trouble learning at preschool or is still very upset about going to preschool or school after several weeks, it’s a good idea to consult your health professional or your child’s teacher and talk about your concerns.
Screen time, play and preschooler cognitive development
It’s good to know that screen time can support your child’s learning.
For example, your child could develop problem-solving skills by working out what online characters should wear in rainy weather. Or your child might build letter and number knowledge and vocabulary by watching a good-quality TV show like Sesame Street.
You can help your child learn through digital play by:
- choosing good-quality apps, games and other media
- using screens with your child
- helping your child manage screen time.
And remember – healthy screen time is all about balance. It’s good for your child’s development to do lots of different activities, including pretend and creative play, physical play, social play and reading, as well as digital play.