Intellectual and Cognitive Development– Birth to Five Years

From day one, our brains are ready to acquire the ability to think, learn, problem solve, process information, make decisions, reason, remember, understand, analyse, evaluate and think in abstract ways. The ability to do all of this relies on cognition and how we develop intellectually.

The sheer magnitude of brain development occurring before the age of 6 is astounding.  This development is imperative for an individual to construct an understanding of the world and how to function within it.

In the coming pages you will find descriptions of intellectual development milestones from birth to age 5. Intellectual skills generally progress in a predictable pattern but, as with all other areas of development, each child will develop these skills at their own individual pace.

These milestones are intended to be used as a guide only. Typical skills appear during particular age ranges however if your child is not demonstrating these at the age specified, it doesn’t mean they are delayed. Due to differing strengths, experiences and makeup, children can present skills earlier and later than the expected age range. If you still have concerns you can contact your local GP, Child Psychologist, Maternal Health Nurse or your child’s educator.

1– 4 months

The infant begins to build an understanding of their own reality through experiences with their  environment.  Infants can visually fixate on an object that has been placed 12 inches from their face and they spend a lot of time watching and playing with their own hands. They can focus and reach for objects, identify their parent’s face and voice as well as localise sounds (look in the direction of the sound). At this age, infants who kick or hit an object by chance making it move about will often repeat this action to keep the movement going. They start to understand routine patterns, as the presence of a bottle means that it is feeding time.

5 – 8 Months

At this age depth perception has developed so babies will display concern of falling from high places. They start to perform actions on using external objects rather than just on their own bodies. Spontaneous vocalisations of vowels and some consonants will lead to saying mama/dada. Babies at this age respond to inflection and tone. They can play with rattles, blocks and soft toys but are unable to focus on more than one toy at a time. Either hand can be used to accurately reach for objects and they can recognise a familiar object even if it’s been turned upside down or back the front, etc.

9-12 Months

At this age a major cognitive advance is made. Babies acquire the understanding that even though an object is out of view or hidden it still exists. This is called Object Permanence. Babies can search for an object that has been hidden from view with a blanket as long as they observe the toy being hidden first. This marks a real achievement as babies who try to find an object that is hidden are displaying intentional, goal oriented actions that underpin the ability to problem solve. They show an understanding of how everyday objects are used for example touching a brush to their hair or putting a cup to their mouth. They will be able to imitate very simple actions and respond to very simple directions. If their name is called they will respond by looking and can communicate yes and no by nodding or shaking their head. They can generally vebalise mama or dada at this stage and will babble to initiate social interaction.

1 Year Old

At this age babies can understand and respond to very simple and familiar instructions and can imitate the words and actions of others. They love games where hiding and finding objects is the goal however, early in this stage, babies will repetitively return to a hiding spot if they have seen an object hidden there previously. As their cognitive abilities mature they will start to search a variety of hiding spots. Babies will start to match two similar objects and name familiar everyday objects. They love looking at storybooks with an adult and will name and point at characters or pictures of interest. Spatial relations and form discrimination begin to develop as babies fit small objects inside larger ones such as in nesting games. Attention span is extremely short and they begin to understand the difference between “you” and “me”. Later in this stage babies will verbalise up to 50 words and can point to a few body parts when named. They will be able to give yes or no answers to simple questions.

2 Years Old

At two, toddlers are able to recognise their own reflection in a mirror, saying “baby” or their name. They can sort objects into two categorise, for instance cars from animals. Toddlers can communicate what they are doing in very simple terms and like to imitate the actions of adults. This year brings an exciting and significant change in thinking as toddlers begin to engage in representational play where an object is used to represent another (block could become a telephone). This means they are using an internal representation or idea in place of a real object. At this age, attention span increases slightly when engaged in self directed exploration or play. They begin to discover cause and effect (an action-reaction combination) and can stack a few rings onto a peg in size order. 2 year olds explore picture books and can name and label objects within the pictures. Language and vocabulary increases quickly with between 70 to 300 words being used, however they are able to understand considerably more.

3 Years Old


The 3 year old child can recognise and match around 4 colours and has the ability to complete a puzzle with around 6 pieces. They can stack around 8 blocks to make a tower and can place blocks in a circle to make a ring. They understand the concepts of similarity and difference and become interested in features of animals that make them different from the next. Their interest in stories increases even further and they make fitting comments related to the pictures and story line.

The 3 year old is starting to understand the concepts of now, soon and later and is starting to sort objects on the basis of one attribute such as shape, size or colour. The ability to compare size is emerging as they begin to understand which object is bigger and which is smaller when two objects are compared.  The 3 year old knows their own age and name with some motivated 3 year olds learning to write their own name.

Their attention span is increasing however they can become easily distracted. They communicate in complete sentences of 3 to 5 words and can talk about the attributes of objects, about others and about their own actions. Why and how questions emerge and songs, poems and chants are accurately learnt.

A 3 year old attempts to copy circles and crosses and also starts to draw recognisable pictures. The ability to count 2 - 3 objects progresses to higher numbers as the year goes on. Play becomes more complex with the emergence of constructive play (play with a specific goal to build or make something) and make believe play (acting out everyday actions and imaginative scenarios or characters). Both types of play require higher levels of cognition, representational thought, creative thinking and planning.

4 Years Old

The 4 year old can identify and name 6 colours or more and can rote count to 20 or more. Their pre-math skills are developing quickly with the ability to match, group and categorise familiar objects. They may even start to sequence three events (eg. place three events on separate cards, in order, from start to finish). They can engage in seriation, the ability to place objects in a line from largest to smallest. Mathematical and spatial concepts such as big, small, tall, short, same, more, heavy, light, near, far, rough, smooth, less, in, on, under, early, late etc. are comprehended.

A 4 year old’s attention span has improved greatly. They can focus on an activity for 10 to 15 minutes or more and can finish an activity. Time is understood on a basic level, for example, what happened a long time ago, what happened before, and what’s happening now. However, more complex time concepts like telling the time and calendar time aren’t yet understood. Children of this age can play games with rules and enjoy simple card and board games, where turn taking, patience and cooperation are required.

Problem solving skills become more effective and they are able to hypothesis, test, analyse and evaluate during play. Constructive play and make believe play become more elaborate as their ability to plan, think ahead and work toward a goal becomes stronger.

Speech becomes playful with the ability to engage in word play and identify rhyming words. 4 year olds form long sentences and communicate daily happenings, short stories, their needs and wants and even start to communicate their emotions. The 4 year old asks and answers copious amounts of questions per day, including who, what, when, where and why questions.

Children at this age start to recognise low numbers such as 1 to 5 or more and depending on their interest level, may even start to recognise many letters of the alphabet. They will attempt to write their name and may even engage in pretend writing.

The 4 year old may start to take on the perspective of others in a very simplistic way, during situations that are familiar to them (for example, they will understand and sympathise with a friend whose block tower has been destroyed by a peer). However, they won’t fully be able to appreciate a more complex perspective or point of view until further brain maturation occurs.

5 Years Old

The 5 year old recognises basic colours and is able to sort objects on the basis of two attributes eg. colour and shape. The math skill of classification emerges (the ability to classify objects into like groups, for example, all are fruit, animals or transport etc) and they can count to 20 and above. They have the ability to sequence over 3 events now and can recognise numbers 1 to 10 or higher. Some children can count to 100 or more.

A 5 year old starts to understand simple arithmetic concepts of addition and subtraction. If shown how, they may use their fingers to calculate very simple sums. More complex literacy skills are also emerging at 5. Children recognise most letters and are familiar with lowercase and uppercase letters. They start to understand letter phonics (letter sounds) and can identify the sounds of some letter. They understand that letters make words and that words are written and read to convey meaning.

At 5, most children can write or copy their name and may even attempt to write family or friends names or very simple words like cat, dog, hat and so on. They learn that text flows from left to right and may even express the desire to read or even start to read. A 5 year old loves telling stories and understands that a story has a beginning, middle and end. However, their stories may not always reflect this understanding.

Drawing becomes much clearer and will depict animals, people, objects and places and can represent a story, explain a theory, express a thought or even a feeling. 5 year olds can copy or draw a square and triangle. Play becomes much more involved with children making up their own games with rules. Their constructive play can become very project based with children engaging in a process of designing, planning, collecting materials, constructing and evaluating their work. Role play becomes sophisticated, with intricate themes/story lines and specific roles assigned to peers.

Time concepts have progressed– children understand today, yesterday and tomorrow and recognise o’clock times when looking at a clock with hands. Attention span has increased, helping 5 year olds attend to an activity for 20 minutes to half an hour or more.

5 year olds language skills are growing everyday with a vocabulary of 1,500 words and understanding thousands more. They communicate using 5 to 8 words per sentence and speech is fluent and phonetically clear, except for a few letters such as “s”, “f” and “th”. At this age children are starting to grasp the concept of money. They may be able to recognise some coins or notes and understand that money is used to purchase goods. They may even start to understand the concept of saving to purchase something more valuable in the future.

Written by Emma Butler BECS
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