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Cognitive Development in Infants - The 7 Abilities That Help Them Learn

Toddler doing jigsaw as part of The Wriggler Help Them Learn Series

Have you ever wondered how to promote cognitive development in your infant or toddler? Or if there are simple activities you could be doing to help promote their natural intelligence? Well there are, and they’re pretty easy once you know the basics, which is why we at The Wriggler have created the Help Them Learn Series to get you started!

What do we at The Wriggler know? 

As a mom to two great kids and a practicing Chartered Educational Psychologist, I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to cognitive development – it actually is my bread and butter and I love it! I work with babies who are just a few months old right the way through to adults, administering developmental and cognitive assessments and making recommendations for how to help them learn based on their individual profiles of strengths and needs. I’m so lucky that this work gives me a bird’s eye view from cognitive development in infants right across the lifespan and it never ceases to amaze me that we can see the threads of the cognitive abilities that we use every day as adults from even the earliest months in an infant. Who would have thought that putting those shapes into a shape sorter as an infant would help you to read a map and navigate with a GPS as an adult!

Most kids don’t need an individual cognitive assessment though, and will develop just fine without any intense interventions. Having said that, with a little understanding about what cognitive development in infants is, you can build simple games and activities into your typical day to help enhance and promote that normal cognitive development in childhood. And that’s why we at The Wriggler have created the Help Them Learn series.

What is the Help Them Learn Series?

help them learn dad helping baby read

The Help Them Learn series is a play series designed to promote natural cognitive development in infants and toddlers, from around 6 months to 3 years. It consists of a weekly play plan that can be done at home with your little one. Each plan:

  • Uses simple materials – typically household items or toys that most people will have in their homes already.
  • Targets one of the 7 cognitive abilities that the most current research has been shown to make up overall ability or 'general intelligence'
  • Typically take no longer than 10-15 minutes to implement
  • Is designed to be fun for parent and baby,
  • Is parent-led, but aims to promote independent play skills so you can ultimately sit back and watch the joy of them playing while you get to have a hot cup!

You can find out more about what #HelpThemLearn series here. My aim for this post is to dive straight into some information about cognitive development/ability – what it is and examples of it from real life. Once you know this, the options for play ideas are limited only by your imagination.

A caveat:


Just to say from the outset, this is a very jargon-y topic and I don’t want your head spinning after the first paragraph, so I’m going to try to make it as digestible as possible. My husband James, who is co-founder of The Wriggler, is also a teacher so his job is to help me make this stuff as easy to learn as possible. 

When I went through some of this information with him, he found the concepts pretty interesting but was adamant that the names of the abilities are wordy and impossible to remember. He also found it hard to relate to them in the real world – “yea but when do I use Fluid Reasoning in real life?” So, as a way of helping him to remember them a bit better, we started to build simple associations. He found that it was much easier to get his head around the ideas when he could associate them with something more every-day. And having two young kids around us, animals are part of our every-day language. So talking about Processing Speed was made easier by thinking about a cheetah, and talking about short term memory was much more memorable when he joked about a goldfish. We even went a step further and surveyed a group of people to ask them for animals they would associate with each of the seven cognitive abilities. So we now have a cute animal icon to go with each cognitive ability. We hope it’ll stick easier in your memory and make more sense when you start reading the play plans. For now though, let’s look a bit more at what is cognitive ability. 

What is Cognitive Ability?

What is cognitive ability development?

I could bore you to death with the history of cognitive ability, starting with Charles Darwin’s (the evolution guy) cousin Francis Galton who was big into eugenics and selective breeding, and moving on to Alfred Binet’s work on special education in France; but you’ve enough to be thinking about! If you are interested though, this is a good article here. All you need to know is that after years of research, the most current theory is called CHC theory and it argues that cognitive ability or general intelligence, AKA ‘g’, is made up of a number of broad abilities, which in turn are made up of lots of narrow abilities. The broad abilities are all different from each other, such as how we understand pictures or how we understand sounds, but all contribute to the umbrella term ‘g’ or general intelligence. For the purpose of this series, we’re focusing on the seven broad abilities that make up ‘g’, since if we work to improve these abilities, it can have a knock on effect for overall cognitive development in childhood and beyond.  

The 7 Abilities that make up ‘g’ or General Cognitive Ability

Here’s a breakdown of the 7 broad abilities that contribute most to ‘g’ and that we’ll be focusing on for the Help Them Learn series:

  1. Crystallized Knowledge


Jack: Will you come out tonight with me to this thing?

Jill:       What is it?

Jack:  A fundraiser. It’s a table quiz

Jill:       Ugh, not a chance, I’m crap at them. Ask Carmel, she’s brilliant. She just seems to know everything about everything”

Do you know a Carmel? Is there someone who pops into your head when you read ‘table quiz’? If so, chances are that person has great Crystallized Knowledge, which basically refers to the store of general knowledge they’ve acquired over the course of their lives.

In cognitive assessments we look at things like vocabulary, verbal analogies, social comprehension questions that kids ask all the time, e.g. “Why do firemen wear uniforms?” and general knowledge questions, e.g. “What is the capital of Bolivia?” So, based on the fact that the average mother answers 390 questions per day from a four-year-old, or a staggering one hundred and five THOUSAND questions per child per year, a weird consequence of raising little ones will probably be that your own Crystallized Knowledge will improve (which balances the scales after the whole baby brain thing!)

Crystallized Knowledge is one of the major abilities that contributes to overall ‘intelligence’ when it’s assessed formally, so it’s one of the biggies. It’s also one that you’re likely consciously aware of on a daily basis, which is why we go around naming everything we see and pointing frantically and calling when we see a helicopter in the sky. Importantly, this is one that is really heavily affected by parental involvement, and the gap between children is depressingly large even before they start school. A landmark study conducted a number of years back found that there is a difference of 30 million words heard by some children compared to others by age three, which is hugely significant when we consider that this has an impact on later reading ability and general school performance.

Maybe a more optimistic perspective to take though is that your interactions with your child do count! And they do make a difference and develop their brains! So even if the Play Plans for Crystallized Knowledge seem really simple and basic, and we're asking you to let your toddler help you sort the washing, just remember that it’s the simple things done consistently that work! The animal we've gone with to help you remember Crystallized Knowledge is the owl based on its association with wisdom and years of life experience in many cultures. 

  1. Fluid Reasoning


When you think fluid reasoning, think problem solving. People with good fluid reasoning skills can think logically and solve problems in new situations, regardless of their level of knowledge. While Crystallized Knowledge is all about the store of information we pick up throughout our lives, we would depend on Fluid Reasoning skills to get us out of a tricky situation we’d never faced before.

Think Bruce Willis in Armageddon – he was an expert driller on earth, but suddenly had to figure out a way to drill a hole in an asteroid up in outer space and fill it with a nuclear bomb to blow it up – it’s not the kind of thing you’re going to learn in any text book. But his ability to improvise and think on his feet was the exact ability that was needed to save the world – so the ever pragmatic NASA sacked the uber booksmart astronauts who had crystallized knowledge coming out their ears, and replaced them with a group of drillers who were likely high school drop outs but who could think outside the box and find novel ways of solving end of the world-type problems.  

Given the fact that fluid reasoning is more about how you think than what you think, it’s a subtler skill of cognitive development in our little ones. And in many cases, it’s about playing with the same toys in different ways, or asking different questions as you play to get them thinking about their own thinking. The animal we’ve chosen for fluid reasoning is the chimp, as they’ve been shown to be the closest to humans in terms of their problem solving abilities. 

  1. Long term Storage and Retrieval


Think of a messy bedroom and you’re trying to find your second slipper – it’s in there, but takes much longer to find than in a tidy room.

Does that sound familiar? You know the slipper is somewhere, but you don’t know where. Why? Because you haven’t stored it in a memorable place that’s easy to go back to when you need to. That’s Long Term Storage and Retrieval in a nutshell. It’s not about how much information or facts are in your brain (i.e. the slipper) – if you don’t store it in an organised way that’s easy to access at a later date (like beside your bed) – it’s pretty pointless having the information in the first place.

Or your laptop – do you constantly have to use the ‘search’ function to find a file or photo because you can’t remember which folder it was stored in? And don’t get me started on when you can’t remember what you called the file in the first place…

Or maybe you were the kid in school who could understand everything the teacher said, but when it came to exams or an oral exam, you found it really hard to organize your answers to demonstrate your knowledge properly.

Long Term Storage and Retrieval is at play in all of these examples. If we store things in neat categories in our brains, we’re generally able to access and use the knowledge much quicker and easier than if it’s a big old mess.

So naturally, if given the choice, you would choose to have an organised brain where you can quickly and efficiently access the information that you’ve worked so hard to learn when you need it. And I’m guessing you’d choose the same for your little one too, right? Well, luckily, this area of cognitive development for babies can be helped with from very early on. There are two words that are crucial to remember when developing Long Term Storage and Retrieval. The first is:


From even the first days, your baby is starting to build associations. They associate your smell with nourishment and safety; they associate touch and being held with comfort; and they often associate the gust of fresh air once a nappy is taken off with peeing! Many of these associations develop without you thinking too much about it. But there are also some that you try to build consciously. If you have any type of bedtime routine, e.g. bath, low lighting, story time etc., you’re teaching associations between these actions and sleep to start to prepare their bodies to unwind. We also try to associate day time with play time and night time with sleep as the months go on, since they’re not born knowing the difference between night and day.   

Associations also link to how we categorize information which is the second word to remember for this ability. If we categorize information properly, it makes it easier to recall quickly. If I asked you to think of a vegetable, what would you say? Carrot? That’s what most people say. Or a color? Most people say red. Why? Because they fit neatly into those categories. So, the better we can categorize information, the more neatly it gets stored in our brain, and the easier and quicker it is to retrieve later.

So let’s try to build a new association for you… what animal stores its food carefully for the winter so that it can find it when it’s needed? A squirrel! So that’s your association – when you see the squirrel symbol on any of our play plans, you know that it’s about Long Term Storage and Retrieval.

  1. Short Term Memory

gold fish short term memory problems

“What did I come up here for?” you wonder as you look around your bedroom, knowing you left the kitchen for a reason, but the reason has now completely escaped you.

Or maybe you were introduced to someone new in a conversation and 30 seconds in you realize you’ve completely forgotten their name.

That’s Short Term Memory; it basically is what it says. Remembering phone numbers, following instructions and keeping shopping lists in our heads are all things we use our short term memory for. In adults, we tend to be able to remember up to 7 items at a time, plus or minus a couple. For babies, it’s much more limited. It starts when they begin to realize that the ball they were tracking until it rolled under the table is the same ball that comes out the other side. That usually happens at around 4 months old. Their capacity to remember more than one thing at a time develops rapidly though, and they can generally remember multiple items before their first birthday.

Short term memory develops naturally through the course of our lives, and there is growing evidence to suggest that the brain training games that rose in popularity in recent years don’t actually help improve memory; if you move up the levels on the game, you’re just getting better at the game but the improvements don’t generalize to your life and won’t make you better at remembering the items you came to the shops for. Having said that, there are simple games and ideas you can dot throughout the day with your little one to encourage and enhance the natural development of their short term memory, and that’s what we’ll focus on with our #HelpThemLearn short term memory activities. 

We probably only truly appreciate the importance of short term memory when we think about what life would be like without it. With that in mind, the animal we’d like to associate with this one, to help you remember is the goldfish! Regardless of the facts of a goldfish’s memory, it is a commonly held view, which was resoundingly supported in a survey we conducted recently, that a goldfish has an awful memory, so we’re going with the world of popular opinion on this one! We would have used Dory in Finding Nemo if it wouldn’t have been a serious copyright infringement…

  1. Visual Processing

Among your family or friends, do you have a driver and a navigator, i.e. someone who’s more comfortable with Google Maps? Do you have someone who leads the way on holidays, following the guidebook maps and getting a feel for new places quickly, while others are happy to be guided (or come out of their hotel and turn left every time they should turn right)? Or maybe you are an expert at parallel parking, while others around you avoid parking spaces unless there are at least two free spaces around it? These are all tasks that use visual processing skills. 

When I assess visual processing skills as part of a cognitive assessment, the tasks are pretty similar from young children all the way up to adulthood, with just varying levels of difficulty. So whether you’re 2 or 82, you’d be doing things like fitting shapes in puzzles, arranging shapes or blocks to match a picture, and choosing small puzzle pieces in your mind that go together to fit a larger puzzle. It’s basically understanding information that you see and being able to do things with that information

Just like hearing to auditory processing, eyesight has very little to do with visual processing. You might have 20/20 vision but you might miss your next turn with a Sat Nav, not because you can’t see it, but because you really want to turn the phone upside down so that the map looks exactly how the road looks because visualizing it in your head is just too tricky.

Luckily, many of the toys that are popular from 6 months plus like shape sorters, wooden shape puzzles and simple jigsaws, mean children are starting to develop these skills from an early age. There are lots of other fun activities that can also be done with household objects and very little planning, which are fun for everyone! When it comes to processing visual information, there are few who do it better than birds of prey, since their lives depend on excellent visual discrimination skills. So, for visual processing, our symbol of choice is the eagle – keep an ‘eye’ out for these in your play plans!   

  1. Auditory Processing


Auditory processing is about understanding the sounds that we hear. It is different to hearing – we can have perfect hearing and still have auditory processing difficulties. It’s also not necessarily about meaning – I may hear the words you say and know what those words mean, but still process them wrong. So a sentence like ‘tell me how a chair and a couch are alike’ may be processed by a child with auditory processing difficulties like ‘tell me how a cow and a hair are alike’. So, when we’re talking about auditory processing, we’re talking about understanding the sounds of spoken language.

The thing about auditory processing is that it forms the foundation of lots of skills we use in school, particularly learning to read. The most successful way to learn reading for most children is through a phonics-based approach, where children learn how letters correspond to sounds and how those sounds can be blended to make words. But before they get to that point, they need to learn about rhyme, rhythm and song. There are lots of fun games and activities you can start playing with babies from a very young age to encourage these skills to develop. These are often particularly useful in the car, where they also double up as entertainment and/or ways to keep baby awake if you don't want them falling asleep too close to bedtime! So, this was a tricky one in terms of animals and there was no unanimous winner. But overall, our audience chose a bat as the symbol for good auditory processing, which makes sense since they rely on it for their survival.

  1. Processing Speed



“OK love, it’s time to go, put your coat on thanks”

[3 minutes later]

“Pet, put your coat on please, we need to leave”

[2 minutes later… hands him the coat and crouches down to look him in the eye]

“Honey, here’s your coat, put it on please, we need to go”

[3 minutes later… picks up coat off the floor]

“Love, you can play with your toys later, I’ve asked you to put your coat on now”

[2 minutes later… head explodes]

“COAT. ON. NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

[Cue surprised look and crying over how mean you’ve been…Then give in and put on his coat for him]

OK, I don’t think there’s one of us who hasn’t gone through a situation like that at some point, am I right? And for different kids it might be for different reasons – maybe he doesn’t want to go wherever you’re meant to be going; maybe he’s engrossed in the game he’s been playing, or maybe he just doesn’t want to put his coat on. But for others, it might be slow processing speed, which is the act of getting simple tasks done quickly and efficiently.

Processing Speed has very little to do with how smart someone is - I might know all there is to know about Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I may fail my test because I spend most of my time writing an answer to question one which is worth 20% of the marks, and run out of time mid-way through question 2.  So it’s not about how much we know, it relates more to how quickly we can do simple, every-day tasks and organize our time. Getting dressed in the morning (once you have the motor skills for it), organizing books or gear bags for school, writing down homework and copying notes from the board are all things children need good processing speed skills for. And it doesn’t end in childhood… we probably all have that friend, family member or colleague who is always late, forgets important dates or meetings, needs frequent reminding of things and requires the patience of a saint to be around!

Slow processing speed can be irritating, especially when the child or adult is so clever and with it in so many ways, because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they can’t do these simple things well too. It can come across as laziness or a lack of respect and we often have to squash the urge to shake them or wind them up like a clockwork doll to get them moving.

But the reality is, for people with slow processing speed, it’s actually not their fault. They don’t want to be late, or forget stuff, or irritate people because they can’t get organised in time, it’s just something that they find harder than lots of other things. And thankfully, there are ways to help, and while most processing speed activities are more directed from at least age 2 and older, there are simple things that can be done even in the early days, even in terms of promoting motor skills, to start building it up.

So, what animal do you think of when you think speed? Well, we asked the audience and the result was definitive – a cheetah. So every time you see the cheetah next to an activity, think Processing Speed!


Cognitive development starts in the earliest days of your baby's life as they start on their path of lifelong learning. After many years of research into what is cognitive ability, the most up to date theory states that overall cognitive ability is made up of 7 broad abilities which are all different but contribute to your child's overall ability to learn. These are Crystallized Knowledge (think wise owls!), Fluid Reasoning (think problem-solving chimps), Long Term Storage and Retrieval (the nut-storing and retrieving squirrel), Visual Processing (the eagle), Auditory Processing (auditorally sensitive a bat), Short Term Memory (the forgetful goldfish) and Processing Speed (a cheetah). As a practicing Educational Psychologist who conducts developmental and cognitive assessments with babies and toddlers right through to adults, I'm excited to share some of this information with our Help Them Learn play series. Each week you'll be emailed a Play Plan with a simple play idea that focuses on one of the 7 abilities. These will be easy to do at home and won't need any complicated materials. The idea is to build quick and easy games into your daily life that will help promote your child's natural development. So make sure you sign up to our email list below and we look forward to helping you Help Them Learn! 







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