Watch that brain grow

by | Jun 6, 2020

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A boost in cognitive skills is one area in which your toddler’s development can be seen. Kerry McArthur explores why they are important and how you can help your toddler reach her full potential.

Toddlers develop at a rapid pace on so many levels – from physical to mental – that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the developmental milestones that happen. One thing parents know for sure though, is that we are amazed by how quickly they pick things up and explore the world around them. Broadly speaking, these changes show how your tot thinks and how his brain is gaining knowledge – a group of milestones referenced as cognitive development. It’s key to understand what cognitive development means and how it impacts your child.

The toddler brain boost

Cognitive development refers to a child’s ability to learn and solve problems. This includes everything from a two-month-old baby learning to explore the environment with her hands or eyes, to a five-year-old learning how to do simple math problems.

During the toddler phase, children learn to use language and symbols to interpret the world around them, which blends into fantasy or pretend play. Their focus shifts away from a general one on the area around them, to target one aspect or object instead. Memory is activated and becomes part of categorising, problem solving and reasoning.

Social interactions become an integral part of the learning process too. As Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky’s work proved, a toddler’s cognitive skills benefit from the input and assistance of an adult or more skilled child. Additionally, he noticed that when facing challenging tasks on their own, children tend to talk to themselves. These voiced thoughts become internalised, which then begin to form the base of thinking skills that include memory, attention, planning, and impulse control.

Seeing these skills take root as your toddler grows is a special experience, and while every child is unique, there are certain milestones to look out for.

Milestones of a growing child

12 – 24 months

By the age of two, your toddler should be demonstrating some of the following developmental milestones:

  • Recognising themselves in the mirror.
  • Often says ‘no’ to requests or orders, such as bedtime,
  • Enjoy dancing to music.
  • Enjoy messy activities.
  • Willingly give or release a toy to others.
  • Play with a ball cooperatively.
  • Like to be the centre of attention.
  • Imitate chores.
  • Show jealousy.
  • Begin to recognise distress in others and try to comfort them.
  • Begin to resist and fight.
  • Becomes easily frustrated.
  • Displays a wide range of emotions.

You can help grow your toddler’s social and problem solving skills by including her in family activities, like joining the family at the dinner table. Be sure to play matching games, and develop and stick to a bedtime routine that includes hugs and kisses. Take turns drawing or colouring in to encourage sharing, and have playdates and interactive play time with children her own age.


24 – 36 months

  • Understands simple stories.
  • Their imagination will become more vivid.
  • Learn to match familiar items to pictures.
  • Are able to complete simple puzzles and peg boards.
  • May begin to play “house” and know where and how certain objects are used.
  • Counting will already have begun but now he will begin to understand what the numbers mean.
  • Uses objects for uses other than what they are intended for, like a block for a boat.
  • Can start doing simple grouping and classifying, for instance, dinosaurs are differnt from cars.
  • Name objects and actions in pictures if they are familiar.
  • Able to recognise and describe the location of pain.
  • Demonstrates magical thinking, for example, thinking a doll is a real baby.
  • Follows simple rules and instructions.
  • Starts to learn to how to dress herself.
  • Plays with others, and not just next to them.
  • Recognises basic colours and is able to match items to colour.

Ways that you can assist this development is by encouraging imaginary play and playing hiding games. Looking for hidden treasure is great fun. A toddler in this age group loves to help, so allow them to do so safely. Make a game of everyday chores and use simple instructions – you can even get her to help clean up after herself. Car games are fun to play and can incorporate “find the colour, number and letter games” – include counting by turning it into a competition and adding points.

A pace of their own

Remember above all that every child develops at their own pace. Developmental milestones are a general guide and while there are times that you need to consult a doctor for advice on delays, most toddlers catch up quickly when they are a little behind. The most important thing is to allow them to do so without adding undue pressure. If you’re worried that your tot isn’t developing at the right pace, chat to your paediatrician or clinic sister.