Toddler Cognitive Development

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Cognitive development is an important aspect of toddler development. The development of cognition refers to the ability of having knowledge, and the process of acquiring knowledge.

Stages of Cognitive Development in a Toddler

The psychologist Jean Piaget called the development of cognitive ability in infants (0-2 years old) the “sensorimotor stage”, and in early childhood (2-7 years old) the “preoperational stage.”

Below is a summary of a toddler’s cognitive milestones, based on Piaget’s theory:

  • 12-18 months: Experiments to find new ways to solve problems or produce interesting outcomes, for example: when in the bath a toddler may pat the water then start hitting it to see the different result, or they may pat, hit, pinch or squeeze a pet in order to see the different reactions.
  • 18-24 months: first evidence of insight, is no longer limited to thinking by doing, can solve problems mentally, for example: can visualize how a stick could be used to move a toy closer.
  • 24-36 months: still has difficulty with classification, for example: when asked to sort similar objects they tend to change their sorting criteria from moment to moment.

Cultural and Social Influences on Cognitive Development in a Toddler

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that culture and social interactions were the basis of cognitive development in a toddler.

According to Vygotsky, the following cultural and social factors influence toddler cognitive development:

  • the cultural context in which they live, for example: a child living on North America will develop cognitively differently to a child living in China
  • social interactions
  • social processes become the toddler’s individual ones, for example: common social speech becomes the toddler’s inner speech
  • adult interaction
  • guided participation while doing tasks/activities
  • learning from another child who is more experienced at a particular activity

Toddlers and Learning

Some toddlers are more achievement-oriented and high-achieving than others. Parents can however, strengthen these tendencies by doing the following:

  • stressing and reinforcing independence and self-reliance at an early age (in a loving and nurturing manner)
  • encouraging toddlers to complete tasks on their own (with guidance and encouragement)
  • emphasize the importance of doing a task well
  • provide a cognitively stimulating home environment
  • toddlers who are encouraged and supported in a positive manner are more likely to enjoy new challenges and feel confident about mastering tasks

Learning Milestones in Toddlers

Generally, the main milestones in terms of learning development in toddlers are:

  • by 2 years old: capable of appraising their own performances as success or failure, looks to others for approval when they succeed, and disapproval when they fail
  • by 3 years old: have clear internal standards of performance, experience pride and shame depending on how well they meet their own standards

Toddler development and achieving cognitive and learning milestones

Keep in mind that many toddlers may achieve cognitive and learning milestones at an earlier or later time. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, please consult your doctor or early childhood nurse.


Sigelman, Carol K. and Elizabeth A. Rider. Life-Span Human Development. California: Wadsworth.

Piaget, Jean. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, original work published 1930, 1933, 1935.

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