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7 Play Ideas that promote Cognitive Development in Infants

8 min read

7 Play ideas to promote cognitive development in infants

Would you like to know how to promote cognitive development in your infant? Or do you wonder if there are simple activities you could do with them to help their cognitive development or intelligence?

Well there are!

How do I know? As well as being a mom to two great little ones, I'm a Chartered Educational Psychologist with over 15 years experience in the area of cognitive development in infants and across the lifespan. I publish weekly Play Plans to our email list as part of our Help Them Learn series, which you can find out more about here

In a nutshell, cognitive development is made up of seven cognitive abilities. As part of the Help Them Learn series, I publish a different play plan each week that focuses on developing one of these seven abilities. I've covered lots of information about each of these abilities here.

One thing to say is that the thing that makes these play plans different to other play ideas is The Why. My goal for the Help Them Learn series is not just that you'll get some new play ideas for your little one, but that you'll also know why you're doing it and how it will help them throughout their lives, from now right up to adulthood. I've gone into the why of each cognitive ability for you here.

Below, I've included 7 of these Play Plans for you to get started, one for each cognitive ability. They use simple household objects and toys and take just a few minutes to set up but should keep your little one happily occupied while you enjoy watching (and maybe having a cup of coffee!) If you'd like to subscribe to our weekly plans, just pop your email address in the box at the bottom of the page.  

Play Plan #1: A 'penne' for your thoughts!

Cognitive development for babies and toddlers visual processing play idea

The Cognitive Ability: Visual Processing 🦅

Visual processing is about understanding information that you see and being able to work with that information

The WHY

Learn more about The Why of Visual Processing here 

What you need:

Cognitive development for babies and toddlers visual processing play idea

  • Straws
  • Shapes to fit on the straws such as large pasta e.g. rigatoni, cannelloni; toilet rolls, bracelets, hair bobbins etc.
  • Play Doh or anything to stick the straws into

What to do:

  1. Set the straws upright in the Play Doh
  2. Model putting the shapes on the straws
  3. Encourage your little one to try it out themselves!

To make it easier: 

    • use only larger shapes such as toilet roll tubes cut in half so they're easier to manipulate as babies may get frustrated with smaller pasta shapes (and they may be a choking hazard so supervise at all times).
    • use only one or two straws at a time

    To make it harder: 

    • Line up more straws and place them closer together
    • Introduce number concepts and/or patterns by asking them to place one on the first straw, two on the second etc. or playing around with different number patterns
    • Get creative by trying to topple the straws by stacking to the top and discuss concepts such as 'heavy', 'high', 'top', 'up', 'down', etc.  

    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers visual processing play idea

     Play Plan #2: Tupperware Tower!

    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea


    The Cognitive Ability: Fluid Reasoning 🐒

    Fluid reasoning is about problem solving and in particular, figuring out solutions to situations never encountered before.

    The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...
    We've gone into the why of fluid reasoning here

    What you need:

    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea

    • Tupperware! And/or boxes of all shapes and sizes from around the house

    What to do:

    1. Clear away other toys
    2. Place the collection of boxes and Tupperware in a pile in the floor
    3. Encourage your little one by saying something like 'Let's build a tower!'

    To make it easier:

    • Once babies can sit unaided from around 7 months, they can be encouraged to stack even 2 or 3 boxes at a time. Use boxes that they can hold in one hand that aren't too big. 
    • For babies who can't yet stack, simply banging the boxes together is a precursor to figuring out how to ultimately place one on top of another.

    To make it harder: 

    • Encourage your child to learn through trial and error to begin with
    • Talk about concepts such as 'taller', 'shorter', 'bigger', 'smaller', 'steady', 'unsteady', 'fall down', 'build up'
    • Help your child problem solve with questions:
      • How will we build it higher? (Bigger base etc.)
      • Will we put this first? (show a small box) Why? Why not?
      • Why did it fall down?
    • Have fun knocking it down and rebuilding!
    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea
    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea  Cognitive development for babies and toddlers fluid reasoning play idea

    Play Plan #3: The Fast and the Curious! 

    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers processing speed play idea


    The Cognitive Ability: Processing Speed 🐆

    Processing Speed is about doing simple tasks quickly and accurately.

    The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...
    You'll find lots of information about where your little one uses processing speed in life here

    What you need:

    Cognitive development for babies and toddlers processing speed play idea

    • Car / train / ball etc.
    • A tunnel or road - I used an old porridge tin but a flat table mat or book resting on a stack of books would be fine too
    • To add to the fun, a simple road can be made with some electrical tape or masking tape
    What to do:
    1. Clear away other toys
    2. Build the ramp
    3. Run the car/ball down the ramp and encourage your little one to 'go get it!'
    4. Encourage and praise speed as they crawl / walk / run to get it and bring it back to you
    5. Rinse and repeat - repetition is key, plus little ones tend to enjoy doing these things over and over!

    To make it easier: 

    • For babies who aren't yet mobile, sit them facing the ramp and use a bigger car or ball and encourage them to grab it 
    • Once they can hold it when it is rolled straight to them, roll it slightly either side and encourage them to reach for it.

    To make it harder:  

    • Once they master chasing one item, up the ante by rolling 2 or 3, one after the other to really work on their reaction speed!
    • Chat about 'fast', 'faster', 'quick', 'quicker', 'slow', 'go', 'stop', 'ready, steady, go!' etc. 

            Play Plan #4: Organise to Memorise!

            Cognitive development for babies and toddlers processing speed play idea

            The Cognitive Ability: Long-term Storage and Retrieval 
            Long-term Storage and Retrieval is about storing information in a 'neat and tidy' way in your brain so that you can easily access it when you need it.

            The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...
            ...it will help them in these situations

            What you need:

            Cognitive development for babies and toddlers long term memory play idea

            • A couple of storage boxes
            • Two categories of toys, e.g. cars and animals

            What to do:

            1. Clear away other toys
            2. Jumble up the toys in one pile
            3. Hold up one box and say 'the cars live in here' and point to the other box and say 'the animals live in here'
            4. Hand your child one at a time and encourage them to put it in the right box OR let them organise them in the boxes by themselves.

            To make it easier:

            • Use just one box and one type of toys, e.g. 'teddies live here' and walk/crawl/carry your little one around finding teddies and bringing them 'home'  

            To make it harder: 

            • Use more categories, e.g. cars, animals, blocks, dolls etc.
            cognitive development babies and toddlers long term memory play ideas

              Cognitive development for babies and toddlers long term memory play idea Cognitive development for babies and toddlers long term memory play idea

              Play Plan #5: Three Cup Trick!

              Cognitive development for babies and toddlers short term memory play idea


              The Cognitive Ability: Short Term Memory 🐠

              Short Term Memory involves holding small amounts of information in your mind for a short time so that it can be used to get things done. 

              The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...
              ...this one doesn't need too much explaining! But there might be some uses for short term memory that you haven't thought of which we cover here

              What you need:

              Cognitive development for babies and toddlers short term memory play idea

              • One to three bowls or cups, depending on the age of your child
              • Some small objects or toys that your little one is interested in

              What to do:

              1. Clear away other toys
              2. Turn two cups or bowls upside down in front of your little one
              3. Take 1 small toy and when your little one is looking at it say something like 'look! the car is hiding!'
              4. Put the car under one bowl while your little one is watching and say 'where's the car?!'
              5. Rinse and repeat! 

              To make it easier:

              • Use just one bowl and one object. For smaller babies, use larger toys like hiding a teddy under a blanket etc and see do they search for it.

              To make it harder: 

              • Use 3 bowls
              • Ask your little one to watch as you move the bowls around. See if they can follow your movement and choose the right bowl
              • Use the same coloured cups and bowls to make it harder for them to keep track 
              Memory games for toddlers The Wriggler Help Them Learn series Memory games for babies and toddlers The Wriggler Help Them Learn series Memory games for toddlers The Wriggler Help Them Learn series cognitive development Memory games for toddlers The Wriggler Help Them Learn series

                Play Plan #6: The Hungry Plate!

                Play ideas for babies and toddlers that help cognitive development and verbal ability

                The Cognitive Ability: Crystallised Knowledge
                Crystallised Knowledge relates to our store of facts, information, vocabulary and general knowledge.  

                The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...

                ...learn more about that here.

                What you need:

                Play ideas for babies and toddlers that help cognitive development and verbal ability

                • A paper plate with a face drawn on it and a large hole cut out for the mouth
                • A zip lock bag or some type of bag taped to the back of the plate 
                • A selection of small toys and/or objects from around the house, e.g. cutlery, food, small clothing etc.

                What to do:

                1. Clear away other toys
                2. Hang the plate up on a press or wall within your child's reach
                3. Arrange the toys/objects in a little pile
                4. Say something like 'This face/plate is sooo hungry! Let's feed her! I'm going to feed her the ___' (then pick up the object you've named and put it in the open mouth)
                5. Say 'now it's your turn! Feed her the ___'
                6. Either take turns or let your little one fill the bag with the objects you name 
                7. Rinse and repeat! 

                To make it easier:

                • For younger babies, the first stage is getting them to understand that objects have names. When they start to look at objects in their environment as you name them, e.g. 'where is the light?', 'where is Mama?' 'Where is my nose?' etc, encourage them to start pointing at objects. As they develop, introduce the plate or something like it as you sit together on the floor and encourage him/her to hand the objects to you. 

                To make it harder: 

                • Use less common objects
                • Instead of using a pile of objects, ask them to find items around the house based on clues, e.g. 'the plate wants to eat the things you wear on your hands to keep them warm, go get them!' or 'Mr. Plate is hungry for a yellow fruit'. This might be a nice way to include older children into the game.
                Play ideas for babies and toddlers that help cognitive development and verbal ability   Play based learning for babies and toddlers that help cognitive development and verbal ability

                  Play Plan #7: Bing, Bang, Bong!

                  Auditory processing Play ideas for babies and toddlers


                  The Cognitive Ability: Auditory Processing
                  Auditory Processing is about understanding and making sense of the sounds that we hear.  

                  The WHY - you're doing this for your baby/toddler because...
                  ...find out why developing their auditory processing skills will help them in life here

                  What you need:

                  Auditory processing Play ideas for babies and toddlers

                  • A few different pots, pans or bowls made from different materials
                  • 2 large spoons (the same if possible)
                  • A blindfold (if your little one is willing to wear it!)

                  What to do:

                  1. Clear away other toys
                  2. Arrange the bowls in a row
                  3. Give your little one a spoon then blindfold him/her (if they'll let you) or ask them to turn around
                  4. Say 'listen' and then bang one of the bowls with your spoon
                  5. Ask them to look/turn around and say 'now tap what I tapped'
                  6. Rinse and repeat using different objects 

                  To make it easier:

                  • For younger babies, just getting them to tune in to the sounds objects make is a start. Start by giving one saucepan and a spoon and let them bang away. See if they react when a second bowl is introduced that makes a very different sound, e.g. tin and wood. Let them enjoy the different noises (for as long as you can bear it!)

                  To make it harder: 

                  • Have them choose between similar-sounding objects and/or line up 4 or 5 at a time

                     

                  I hope you enjoyed these play plans! If you're wondering why they're called The Wriggler Play Plans, we're also creators of The Wriggler changing pad which is a changing pad for babies and toddlers who wriggler at diaper changing. If you're at that phase with your little one, you might be interested in finding out more here.

                  PS Don't forget to subscribe by popping your email in the box below! 


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