Cognitive Development
Promoting Exploration & Discovery
Core Finding: CD-EXP-C03

In very young children, cognitive development takes place through play. Creating a safe environment for children to explore and discover through movement and free play helps promote cognitive development in later years. Toys and object manipulation are helpful for exploration and discovery.


Play is the essential “work of children”.

It is the mechanism by which children learn, how they experience their world, practice new skills, and internalize new ideas. Through play, children engage in activities that encourage their cognitive, emotional and social development.
  1. Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Reading, MA: Da Capo Press.

Maternal flexibility and provision of choices to children during play have been positively associated with full-term and preterm toddlers’ cognitive development.

Researchers found that mothers’ maintaining behaviours (i.e. behaviours that helped the child stay engaged in the activities, such as choice providing strategies) or flexibility during play allowed children to participate in learning activities while gradually developing independent problem-solving skills. Mothers’ maintaining behaviours when their children were two and 3.5 years old supported general cognitive development both concurrently and when children were 4.5 years old. On the other hand, directive behaviours, such as mother-initiated task changes, hindered independent exploration and initiation.

One of the most important discoveries about the developing mind is how early and significantly children, even starting in infancy, are uniting individual observations into coherent conceptual systems.

Children are not simply passive observers, registering the superficial appearance of things. Instead, from very early on, they are building explanatory systems, or implicit theories, that organize their knowledge. Such implicit theories contain causal principles and causal relations. These theories enable children to predict, explain, and reason about relevant phenomena and, in some cases, intervene to change them.

As early as the first year of life, babies develop foundational theories about how the world of people, other living things, objects, and numbers operate. These theories are not simply isolated forms of knowledge but play a profound role in children's everyday lives and subsequent learning.

Object exploration provides infants with opportunities to learn about the characteristics of objects.

An infant who visually examines an object while simultaneously rotating it is receiving rich perceptual and motor feedback from multiple perspectives, which contributes, for example, to perception of the object as a three-dimensional entity. Similarly, an infant who alternately mouths and looks at an object can integrate tactile and visual information about its properties.

Such exploratory experiences also create opportunities for object categorization, a foundational ability for subsequent cognitive and language development. Indeed, frequency of object manipulation and exploration as early as four months is positively related to the Bayley Mental Developmental Index (BMDI) scores which measure cognitive ability and expressive vocabulary size at 1, 2, and 3.5 years of age.

When babies are very young, placing them for short periods on their tummy, so they can explore objects and the environment, is helpful for exploration and discovery.

Through exploration of the environment, and"peek-a-boo" and other games that involve hiding objects, adults can support children’s emerging awareness of the environment around them.
  1. Brazelton, T., & Sparrow, J. (2006). Touchpoints Birth to Three (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Da Capo Press.

Creating a safe environment for babies to move freely and explore objects with their senses will help build their cognitive skills. A German study on nine-month-old babies found that infants who had the opportunity to crawl around may be better at spontaneously observing and exploring objects than those that did not. The study found that infants' mental representations of 2D and 3D objects related to their ability to crawl and manually explore objects.

The importance of providing opportunities for babies to crawl and move around to explore is also supported by a study in the poor rural Qinba mountainous area in the northwest of China. This study on eight to ten-month-old infants born in winter and summer found that babies born during the winter months tended to have higher cognitive scores than those born in summer. This is probably because babies born in the winter months started crawling in summer and often wore very light clothing when they became more mobile in summer. Hence, there were more opportunities for them to crawl on the warm floor.

Caregivers were also more willing to take their infants outdoors in the summer, which meant their infants were exposed to more stimulation.

In addition, longer daylight hours meant higher activity levels and more stimulation received by the babies. Parents in Singapore do not have to contend with seasonal changes, but providing opportunities for movement and exploration in babies will help cognitive development.

Playing with toys helps promote exploration and discovery. Toys with contrasting colours are fascinating to babies and stimulate their developing vision. As they grow, infants can use toys to explore object permanence and cause-and-effect relationships. Building blocks also help them build motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Block play provides a foundation for learning about problem-solving, and basic math and science concepts.

Children can explore, move, and hold blocks before stacking them vertically or lining them horizontally to form simple structures or complex designs. They can select blocks of the same size or in uniformly descending sizes.
  1. MacDonald, S. (2001). Block Play. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.
As children play with blocks, they gain an understanding of spatial relationships (i.e. dimensions and shapes, and how they work together).
  1. MacDonald, S. (2001). Block Play. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

Play gives children the chance to discover how things work and to practise new skills repeatedly. Exploring toys that allow children to figure something out on their own, or with a little coaching, builds their logical thinking skills and helps them become persistent problem-solvers. These toys also help children develop spatial relations skills (understanding how things fit together), hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills (using the small muscles in the hands and fingers). Some examples of such toys include puzzles, shape-sorters, blocks, nesting blocks or cups, art materials like clay, paint, crayons or play-dough.

Playing and exploring in natural environments, such as by going on nature walks, allows children to explore freely. Direct contact with natural environments lets children climb, build, take apart and experiment. This exploration helps develop their physical and intellectual capabilities.

Play also develops children's mathematical skills. A researcher found that children as young as 2.5 to 3 years old can understand the cardinal counting principle: that the last number counted in a set is the amount the set contains.

But this skill only shows when children do a playful task.

While young children are playing and exploring, it is best if they are in a place of minimal distraction. Researchers discovered that early development learning might not be beneficial to a baby if it creates overstimulation. In the experiment, infants were conditioned to turn their heads to the sound of a buzzer. The training for the task began either at birth, at 31 days, or at 44 days. He discovered that babies took many more trials and days to learn the task if they learned from birth than those who learned later.

While infants and young children need stimulation, too much stimulation could distract them from other tasks. It could also replace other more crucial activities to their development, such as social interaction.