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Thinking and play: preschoolers

Play is the natural way young children learn. Even when it looks like preschoolers are just playing, their brains are hard at work putting together vital knowledge about the world.

About preschooler play and cognitive development

Preschoolers want to learn how things work, and they learn best through play. Children at play are solving problems, creating, experimenting, thinking and learning all the time.

This is why play supports your preschooler’s cognitive development – that is, your child’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and work out what might happen next.

Your child’s relationships also support his cognitive development, especially his relationship with you. And play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who he is and where he fits in the world.


What to expect: preschooler cognitive development

With time, experience and practice, your preschooler will probably:

  • start to organise games and make friends from four years
  • understand concepts like ‘bigger’ and ‘taller’ from four years
  • start to develop a sense of humour at four years and delight in jokes and riddles by five years
  • have some concept of time at four years, and by five understand that the day is divided into hours and minutes
  • start negotiating with you if there’s something she wants
  • start predicting what will happen next – for example, in a story
  • still not understand what’s real and what’s pretend until after five years.

At four years, a child still has a fairly short concentration span, so expect that your child might get restless or bored if an activity goes on for too long.

Your four-year-old child is also likely to start asking tricky questions about subjects like sexuality or death. For example, he might ask, ‘Where do babies come from, Mum?’

By five years, your child will probably sit through a full game or finish a whole puzzle – and that brings the new challenge of playing fair and learning to lose gracefully!

Starting school gives your child lots to think about. There are new rules and routines that are different from those at home. This can be tiring and confusing at first. Your child might need time and lots of love and support to adjust.  

Many schools have programmes to help children prepare for the transition into school. You can also talk with your child’s teacher if you have concerns or want ideas for supporting your child through this change in her life.


Play ideas for encouraging preschooler cognitive development

Here are some play ideas to support your child’s cognitive development:

  • Play simple board games like ‘Snakes and ladders’ with your child, or simple card games like ‘Go fish’ or ‘Snap’.
  • Read books and tell jokes and riddles.
  • Encourage building and construction games.
  • Do simple jigsaw puzzles.
  • Play games that combine moving and singing – for example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’.
  • When you’re driving or on public transport, try ‘spot the’ games – for example, ‘Who can see something green?
  • Encourage your child to help you with cooking – preschoolers can learn a lot from measuring, counting and naming healthy ingredients for family meals.

Learning by doing is best at this age. Your child will learn faster if you step back and provide encouragement and support from the sidelines. Try not to jump in to provide solutions. Your child will generally let you know if he needs help, so follow his lead.

And during any kind of play, you can ask your child to describe what she’s doing as a way to practise her language skills. For example, if you and your child are pretending to be vets together, you could say things like, ‘What’s wrong with this animal? How are we going to make it feel better?’

If you choose to let your child have some screen time, it’s best to focus on quality media choices for your child, and watching or playing screens with her. Screen time includes time spent watching television and playing games on computers, mobile phones and tablets.


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