Have leftover red Solo cups from that spring barbecue? Perfect! There are several cognitive exercises for toddlers and preschoolers that you can do.
Categorization: For this first activity, you will need several of two other items that are small enough to fit at least three of in the cups (and big enough not to be choking hazards!). In my kit, I use this 3-pack of rubber duckies and a bag of plastic insects, both from the Dollar Tree.
You can do this activity either seated on the floor or in a high chair at the table while eating. Place two cups in front of the child, separated. Next put all of the duckies in one cup and all of the bugs in the other. For younger children, you can repeat the names of each several times. Next, dump them out and place one of each item in their relative cups. Ask the child to sort the bugs and duckies in their respective cups. For younger toddlers, you may have to repeat the demonstration a few times before they get it. If they don’t understand after a few tries, put the activity to the side and work on it again another day. They may not be ready for it yet. For older preschoolers, you may be able to skip the demonstration and just ask them to sort the objects for you. For a fine motor challenge for preschoolers, have them sort the objects using kitchen tongs.
While this seems like a very simple activity, it builds several skills. Categorization is an important pre-verbal skill. Understanding that items can be grouped helps organize the words kids learn. First, they may understand that all things with wheels are different from all things with legs, but may not understand that trucks are different from cars or that cats are different from dogs. Eventually, as their cognitive and communication skills improve, they will make this distinction. The ability to be able to look at the items, understand their differences, is an important skill for future learning.
Hidden Object: During a child’s second year of life they begin to understand that objects are separate from themselves and that objects exist even if they can’t see them. The term for this is “object permanence”. This skill develops with normal brain growth. To test to see if your child has developed object permanence yet, clear the other items out of your work space from the previous activity, keeping one cup and one toy handy. If needed, you can replace the ducky or bug with another small toy.
Hold the object in front of the child, name it, and make sure they are aware that it is there. Next lay it on the ground or table in front of them. Take the red cup and very obviously place it over the toy. Take a few seconds, and then ask them, “where is the toy?”. If they lift up the cup to retrieve the item, they have an understanding of object permanence.
To expand on this skill. Use two red cups. Repeat the activity above by turning over two red cups, one over the toy. If they lift up the correct cup, they have a good understanding that the object remains.
Next, repeat the activity with the two cups, this time sliding the cups until they switch places after covering the toy. Make sure the child watches the switch and see if they can locate the item after the cups have switched places. Each of these activities come with increasing development and age, and if your child is mature enough to make it to the third version of the hidden object activity, they have also likely maxed out their attention span. At this point, enjoy your one on one quality time with them, or if they are done playing, work on their adaptive skills and have them help you put the toys away.