When we talk about cognitive development in infants and toddlers, we are talking about your child learning to think, learning to remember,  learning to gather and organize information, make connections, solve problems, and develop judgement as they make decisions. Cognitive skills are the foundation for a child’s social, emotional, and language development. As the parent or caregivers, we play an enormous role in our child’s cognitive development and can foster that development through our interactions as well as how we prepare their environment at home. 

Infants and young toddlers learn through their senses and motor skills, hence their cognitive development is based on sensorimotor intelligence. For an infant, this means that they are learning through the movements of their own body - first involuntary reflexes and then they learn to control these reflexes and move with purpose. During this time it is important to give your child the freedom to move their body- in Montessori, we generally avoid swaddling babies for this reason and typically place them on a comfortable safe flat surface unrestrained. As babies gain more advanced motor skills, they become more deliberate and purposeful with their thinking. Before long their creative thinking takes off and as they enter toddlerhood children explore their environment through a trial-and-error manner developing their sense of judgment.

The Prepared Environment

The environment plays a major role in an infant’s and toddler’s cognitive development. The prepared environment is a cornerstone of the Montessori method, both in the classroom and at home. A prepared environment for infants may have a floor mirror for them to observe themselves as they move their body, it may have simple high-contrast images or soft toys and either a few toys in baskets on the floor or laid directly on their mat or shelf. As your infant grows and becomes mobile, ensure your home is safe for them to explore as they will likely be more interested in what surrounds them than they are the toys on their shelf.

Your prepared environment at home will give your toddler independence to direct their own learning. A perfect example of this occurred the other day while baking with my daughter. As we were mixing ingredients for a cake she started to recite a poem about baking a cake. Suddenly, she climbed down from her Learning Tower and ran to grab her poetry book only to return a moment later and shove it onto the counter pushing ingredients and mixing bowls aside. Her ability to independently make and show me that connection was due to our prepared environment. She could easily get up and down the Learning tower from the counter where we were baking, she knew right where her poetry book was on her Montessori bookshelves and could easily get it herself to bring back to the kitchen counter.


Choices and decision-making

By giving your child a prepared environment you are giving them the freedom to develop their decision-making. They must choose what to do, where to go, which things to interact with, and which things to avoid. Always within a safe framework, the more your child experiences on their own the more they are able to make choices and develop their judgment. From the time your little one can reach out and grab, give them choices. An infant can choose which toy to hold, which book to look at, which materials to explore. 

Giving your child accessibility by having an open toy shelf with toys displayed or a front-facing bookshelf offers your child more opportunities to develop their judgment and decision-making. At the same time, your child is also learning about their own preferences and developing a sense of self.


Thinking and Problem Solving

Problem-solving skills are not to be left until later toddler years, instead, they can be incorporated into your child’s play from the beginning. The earlier your child is faced with problems and the more they practice solving problems the better they will be at solving them independently. One of the best ways to let your child problem-solve is to let them explore their environment. The hardest part as an adult is to step back and let it happen! In Maria Montessori’s book The Absorbent Mind she talks about tying teachers’ hands to prevent them from helping - while I don’t suggest doing this to yourself - you get the point. As your child explores their world, challenges and problems will naturally occur, as their nurturer, we can let it happen unhindered. (This is why we must have a prepared child-safe environment at home).       

From the very beginning, this may look like watching a frustrated baby figuring out how to roll over -  avoid that little helping hand and allow them to solve that problem on their own. Your older baby may be trying to open a drawer unsuccessfully. Let them try, let them fail, let them try again and again until they figure out how to do it. Beyond facing motor challenges, give your child the space to make errors in play and watch as they learn to solve problems to overcome those errors. You see your child building a tower with blocks and they try placing the smallest block at the bottom only to watch the blocks slide and tumble over and over. Finally, your child figures out they should place the larger block on the bottom to make it more sturdy - hurrah! This is that problem-solving moment our child can own. 

A Pikler Triangle or similar safe climbing tool is a great way for your child to explore their body’s movement and solve problems. As an example, my youngest daughter has had full access to our Pikler triangle and climbing ramp from the beginning. Recently we had the ramp set up as a slide for our older daughter. My little nine-month-old climbed up the slide and stood up holding the top rungs of the triangle. She slowly leaned her body over the top of the triangle and felt her weight pull herself over-little ones are very top heavy! I was there to support and ensure her safety. Feeling her weight pull herself over the top of the triangle she learned not to lean over the top as she would fall head first. I observed her closely after that and saw that she changed the way she interacted with the top of the triangle. At that moment she learned how to safely move her body at the top of the climbing frame making her more aware of her abilities and limits.


Creating a Sense of Wonder

What a beautiful thing it would be to look at the world through the eyes of a child. To have that incredible sense of wonder and interest in the smallest detail about their environment. As our children become more verbal they begin wondering and asking so many questions about the world around them. For us caregivers this is a great opportunity to model how to think critically. Instead of feeding your child the answer to their inquiries, think and problem solves alongside them. 

A small personal example. My older daughter is currently very interested in which animals have teeth and which do not (thanks to a favorite book One Morning in Maine). This is currently our topic for discussion while brushing teeth each day. As we think about which animals have teeth I guide my daughter to use her prior knowledge to problem solve in thinking about other animals. She knows now that birds do not have teeth. So if we wonder together, “I wonder if an ostrich has teeth.” We can problem-solve together, “An ostrich is a bird, I know birds don’t have teeth, so does an ostrich have teeth?”


Remember to slow down with your child and celebrate those small moments of interest and wonder. While walking to the shop to buy ingredients for lunch, stop and look at the snail making its way over a rock. Notice the small things that are happening down on your child's level and get excited about what they can see. Instilling that sense of wonder in your child will encourage them to explore their environment and think more about what they experience.

To create a prepared environment we can check that our home, after being safe, also gives opportunities for cognitive development. We can make our home and our child’s things available and accessible to promote thinking and decision-making. Just as important as the prepared environment is the prepared adult-us. We must ensure that we are aware of our child’s developmental needs, including the need for us to step back and give our child the space to explore and learn to solve problems independently.


Written by,

Góc Montessori



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