Toddler Cognitive Development - Thinking and Problem-Solving

With each step of toddlers’ physical and social/emotional growth and development, they also make huge steps in their ability to think, solve problems and communicate. This is called cognitive development. Toddlers’ bodies, muscles and brains are growing more and more each day, helping them explore and test things in their environment and learn more about the world around them.

Language development means learning how to use words and sentences to express wants, needs or ideas. Children make a lot of progress in language development between the ages of 1 and 3. Toddlers begin to say two-word sentences around 18 to 24 months, like “Me up!” (meaning “Please pick me up.”). By the time they reach age 3, toddlers are most likely speaking in short, whole sentences, like “Pick me up, Daddy.” They may also be using qualifiers and adjectives, and adding emotion and tone to their expressions. All of these developments should be encouraged through many opportunities for conversation and interaction.


12-18 months

  • By 18 months, uses approximately 10-15 meaningful words
  • Asks for “more”
  • Points to pictures in a book
  • Follows simple commands, first when the adult speaks and gestures, and then later with words alone.
  • Gets objects from another room when asked.
  • Points to objects so you will name them as a way of learning new words..
  • Names a few common objects and pictures when asked

4 to 7 months:

  • Follows a disappearing object with the eyes
  • Reaches to grab a dropped toy
  • Finds a partially hidden object
  • Explores with hands and mouth

18-24 months

  • Likes rhyming games
  • Names common objects
  • Knows shapes
  • Speaks short 2-word sentences (like "want juice", "car go")
  • Uses “I” and “mine”
  • Understands “one” and “many”
  • Sits alone for short periods with books
  • Points to body parts
  • Enjoys pretending (for example, pretend cooking).
  • Learns about 1 new word per week between 1 1/2 and 2 years.

By 24 months

  • may understand 200-300 words and speak about 50 words

24-36 months

  • Understands and asks for “another”
  • Understands "in" and “on"
  • Identifies objects by use (for example, a cup is to drink with)
  • Gives full name when asked
  • Follows 2-3 step directions
  • Uses 3-4 word sentences


When a toddler cries, hits, yells or bites, it may be a sign of frustration given his limited vocabulary and ability to express his feelings. You can help by trying to describe the toddler’s feelings for him. For example “I see you’re sad that it is time for your nap. I know it is hard to stop playing this fun game. You’ll feel better after you sleep.” As a caregiver, recognize your own reactions to the toddler’s emotional upsets. It may be helpful to talk with someone, or obtain professional support and guidance to learn about situations that are especially challenging or tax your ability to remain supportive, loving, and emotionally present with your child’s struggles.

As a parent or caregiver, there is a lot you can do to help toddlers expand their language and communication skills. This section offers several tips to give you some ideas. A good starting point is simply to talk to toddlers often and praise their attempts at communication with you.

Tips for Promoting Language and Communication Development

  • Provide a stimulating, nurturing and caring environment to encourage language and speech development.
  • Talk, read and sing with toddlers all the time during the day. All these things help toddlers learn about words and language and why they are important.
  • Use playtime as an opportunity to develop toddlers’ language skills. As you play along and follow the child’s lead, introduce new words that are related to the activity.
  • Ask questions to encourage expression of ideas and interests, promote reflection, and demonstrate interest in the child’s inner life.
  • If a toddler says a sentence incorrectly, say the sentence correctly. Also, use more descriptive words in your sentence so it helps the toddler expand his vocabulary. For example, if the toddler says “Me want ball!” you can say back to him “I see that you want to play ball. Come on, let’s go play with the bright blue soccer ball together!”


As a caregiver, support a bilingual child’s language development by creating an environment that shows an appreciation for his background. For example, learn a few key words or phrases in the child’s native language, post multi-ethnic pictures around the classroom, and play tapes/CDs of ethnic songs.