Important Things to Know About Toddler Cognition Development

By Erica Loop
Your toddler is learning new mental reasoning abilities.
Your toddler is learning new mental reasoning abilities.

From the end of the first year to the third, your toddler is developing by leaps and bounds. While the basics of cognition, such as making observations and object permanence, are developing during infancy, the toddler years usher in even more skill building. Understanding your toddler's cognitive development is key to providing adequate learning experiences and proper parenting.

Exploration Changes

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children website, infants primarily learn by straightforward information gathering processes such as touching or listening. As your child grows into the toddler years, he will have a slightly more mature way to making explorations. Instead of only moving objects around, your toddler can now solve basic problems in his head before he tries them with his hands. Understanding how a toddler explores is important for you to know as you set up the learning environment for your child. The learning environment isn't always a classroom; it can include your family room, backyard or even patio. Provide toys and playthings that can help him to explore with his mind, such as simple puzzles or stacking blocks.

Attention Span

Although there are many areas of cognitive growth during the toddler years, don't expect miraculous gains when it comes to your little one's ability to pay attention. While most toddlers certainly have longer attention spans than infants, this area of cognitive development is not yet mature. The national child development organization Zero to Three notes that it is normal for a toddler to have trouble staying in one place or staying focused on one task for long periods of time. The attention function of cognitive development is key for parents to understand when it comes to planning activities and setting expectations. For example, if you expect your toddler to sit quietly and pay attention to an hour-long drama at your local theater, she may not have the ability to comply.


As your little one moves further into the toddler years, he will develop the cognitive ability to imagine dramatic scenarios and engage in pretend play. According to Zero to Three, between 24 and 36 months of age, most toddlers are developing this new ability that will steadily grow through the preschool years. While pretend play may not seem important, it allows young children to learn social roles, experiment with new and different situations in a safe environment and problem solve. Parents who understand the benefits of pretend play can help their children to engage in this type of activity by getting into the drama themselves or by providing toys and materials such as props and costumes.


The Healthy Children website notes that the typical toddler's cognitive development doesn't allow her to engage in high-level reasoning. Toddlers tend to have a fairly one-dimensional view of the world and may easily confuse what is, and what isn't, real. Additionally, they can't fully follow the more adult-like line of reasoning that older children can when it comes to explanations. It is crucial to understand that the toddler has a fairly immature sense of reasoning when you speak to the child and try to resolve conflicts. For example, having an in-depth conversation on the reasons why eating veggies is the nutritious thing to do most likely won't help your toddler eat her spinach any more than simply saying, "Eat your spinach."

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.