Cognitive development and intellectual functioning are highly predictive of future ability to navigate a path towards mental and emotional fluency, productivity and lifelong health.

In its simplest form, cognitive development is the process of learning and improving the general application of typically automatic mental processes. These processes include perception, attention, memory, pattern recognition, executive function, concept formation and reason.

Adding activities specifically targeted to improve cognitive development to your curriculum, along with other activities designed to flex those new mental muscles, will help your students excel in both academic learning and social-emotional learning.

The importance of nurturing cognitive development in young students can’t be overstated. It’s the foundation of every other skill they will learn and the basis of their ability to succeed, grow and thrive.


1. Make Math Matter

Most people, especially children, are interested in topics that are related to their passions, hobbies and lives.

You can use this to your advantage by incorporating sports figures, popular actors, musicians or superheroes (or anything else really) into your math problems—you can get bonus “cool teacher” points if you reference something that shows you’re familiar with the subject matter. For example, starting a word problem with “Batman and Superman had a contest to see who was the best at…” 

Another way to get students interested in the applications of math is by putting them in charge of conducting a poll (of their friends, family or other classmates) and then using their results to make graphs or other visual organizers.

2. Utilize Technology

Most children have had experiences with technology for as long as they can remember. Instead of fighting against it, use it to your advantage!

Incorporate educational computer games and learning programs into your curriculum; use cameras to take pictures of geometric shapes in the wild; use a stopwatch to collect time measurement data, and use programs available online to measure the distances of landforms.

It’s easy to combine technology and math because math is everywhere if you’re willing to look hard enough!

3. Try Visual and Hands-On Learning

Most young students have difficulty imagining numbers and solving math problems in their heads. As adults, we use math constantly throughout the day, so it can be easy to forget that numbers are abstract concepts we use to contextualize pretty much everything. Using abstract concepts like this relies on learning them early and fluently.

Active learning activities allow students to visualize the math concepts and use the visuals they created to build their mental map of math. Start teaching addition and subtraction by counting real objects, like blocks, marbles or beans. Teach simple geometry by having students build shapes with toothpicks and clay dots or tangram sets.

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Language Arts

4. Creative Writing

Young students benefit from daily writing practice to improve their pattern recognition, logical reasoning and empathy skills. You can build this kind of creative writing practice into your classroom’s daily activities with a short writing assignment at the beginning or end of each day. 

Another option is gratitude journaling: mindfully recalling the details of a particular situation or writing down one thing to accomplish during the day or before school the next day.

If you want to get your students even more excited about creative writing, help them become published authors by collecting their writings into a classbook with one of our FREE classbook publishing kits. We’ll even provide an ideal timeline and project reminders so you can stay on track from planning to publication!


5. Graphic Organizers

We love graphic organizers, especially to help students work out their thoughts about a reading or writing assignment! Graphic organizers are perfect for visualizing different patterns and connections present in their readings and writings, making these patterns easier to spot (if reading) or easier to put in place (if writing).

6. Read Aloud

Having books read aloud benefits children in several ways, including:

  • Learning about story structure
  • Discovering different character archetypes
  • Practicing empathy and experiencing new emotions
  • Improving their vocabulary
  • Developing a general understanding of different types of books and genres
  • Improving their language skills

7. Book Discussion Group

Talking about a shared reading experience helps students work through their own thoughts and feelings about the material, while also introducing them to differing perspectives. Considering the opinions of others and how those opinions compare and contrast with their own opinions gives young learners a broader perspective and the opportunity to further refine their own thoughts and opinions based on this new context.

8. Act It Out

Young children create stories when they play. Build on this tendency by putting students into small groups and having them act out scenes from a story you’re reading. You can either create scripts yourself based on the text or find scripts for popular stories and fairy tales online.

For the most benefit, these scripts should include several characters plus a narrator to give important background and context. Acting and dramatic play increase engagement, development of emotional growth and increased understanding of motivation and patterns. 


9. Independent Thinking

Young students find new information and encounter new challenges every day. Practicing independent thinking builds their ability to use logic and other available resources to come to their own conclusions without having to be taught the solutions directly. Independent thinking can be developed as easily as asking students for their opinions when they present a challenge and actively involving them in the solution.

10. Exploration

Opportunities for exploration are everywhere in nature: the discarded chrysalis of a butterfly, the abandoned exoskeleton of a cicada, a shell or an interesting rock. Every one of these is a chance for students to use logic and reason to work out what it is and what purpose it served (if any).

This is also a great way to add another layer to a lesson that involves some time outside walking around the block or taking a trip to a local park. In between the other items on your field trip itinerary, remember to build in some time for exploration, collecting bits of nature or sketching in a nature journal.

students-looking-through-microscope11. Problem-Solving

Hypothetical questions, both fantastical and realistic, are a great way to lead into more complex lessons about problem-solving. The magic of unrealistic questions is how they remove some of the pressure for students to find the “right” answer by being obviously ridiculous.

This foundation of whimsy allows students to indulge in more outlandish, fantastical answers while still using the same crucial logic and reasoning skills they’d use to work through a real-world problem.

Consider fantastical questions like:

  • “How would you build a ladder to the moon?”
  • “How would you build a city underwater?”
  • “What ingredients would you put on a sandwich that had to feed the entire world?”

If you want to try something more advanced, you can try some more grounded and realistic questions. This may remove some of the enthusiasm you saw with the more fantastical questions, and students might initially be hesitant to answer (especially if they think there’s only one right answer). However, with affirmations and gentle encouragement, you can help them bring their imaginative answers to solve realistic problems, too!

Consider reality-based questions like:

  • “How would you raise money for the school to get new playground equipment?”
  • “How would you plan a surprise party without the guest of honor finding out?”
  • “What are good ways to stay warm in the winter that don’t waste electricity?”

Social Studies

12. Develop Background Knowledge

Young learners can develop background knowledge by reading the textbook for the assignment and listening to a recording from an expert in the lesson topic, an actor reading aloud a historical text or music from the time period or geographic location.

13. Add Visuals

Giving students the opportunity to see artifacts or historical documents can help them build a better contextual understanding of the time period or geographic location. If possible, try to locate real world replicas of the items you’re learning about, like model Egyptian statues or a copy of the Constitution.

14. Role Play

Letting students embody the roles of historical figures or people who lived in different times and places helps them gain a more personal connection to the material and imagine what life was like during a different time period.


15. Mazes

Solving mazes is a great way to practice using working memory, executive function, special learning, planning, decision-making and reasoning; it also encourages cognitive flexibility. Mazes on paper work perfectly well, but it can also be fun to try a real life maze—like a hedge maze or a corn maze if the season is right—as part of a field trip.

16. Noises

Play recordings of different sounds, like instruments, sound effects and animals, and ask your students to identify what’s making the noise. This helps build pattern recognition, extrapolation and logic.

17. Matching Games

Any type of memory, concentration or matching game will exercise students’ working memory, which is the retention of a small amount of information in an accessible form. As they gain practice using their working memory for small tasks like matching cards in a memory game, students will learn to utilize this skill more readily in daily life.

18. Stroop Effect Activities

Stroop effect activities involve identifying the color of color-name words that are printed in different colors of ink, some of which match and some of which do not (the word “blue” written in orange ink, for example).

The Stroop effect describes the phenomena of taking longer to correctly identify a color if it’s written in non-matching ink than colors that match the words as written. Learning to correctly identify colors develops focus and attention.

19. Front-loading Lessons

To improve reading comprehension, students might benefit from vocabulary instruction before reading a book. This benefits children who have knowledge gaps in their vocabulary skills and the entire class by having them focus on the vocabulary in the book and think more about how words work.

20. Learn to the Beat

Playing classical music or any other thematic instrumental score can be calming for students and help them focus better on their tasks. This can easily bloom into a lifelong appreciation for music, along with being a simple and useful method students can use to calm and focus outside of class.

By improving cognitive development, your students will learn how to bolster important automatic processes which will determine how they interact with others and succeed in life. These traits will help them develop a lifelong curiosity about the world around them and give them the tools they need to effectively pursue that curiosity in school and simply for curiosity’s own sake.

For more lesson plans, worksheets and other helpful creative writing resources for your classroom, check out our online Teacher’s Lounge and be sure to sign up for your FREE classbook publishing kit!