Key benchmarks and strategies for caretakers and parents for tackling children's cognitive development

Mother and child reading. Picture by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

Mother and child reading. Picture by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

Published May 30, 2023


The first few years of life are particularly important because vital development occurs in all domains of the body and brain.

A child's early years of development can shape their entire life and caregivers need to understand the cognitive and physical development of children aged three to five years old, according to Anne Marie De Beer, Nutrition, Health and Wellness Manager, Nestlé East and Southern Africa Region (ESAR).

The Lancet Global Health Journal states that the brain develops rapidly through different biological processes that occur at various times, building on each other.

Any delay or disturbance in these processes can have long-term effects on the brain's structural and functional capabilities.

During a child's early years, there are significant milestones that take place that lay the foundation for their overall growth and development. Parents and caregivers need to monitor a child's development to track age-appropriate milestones, and ensure that necessary help can be brought in early, should it be required.

She suggests that children aged three to five years old should engage in physical activity for at least three hours per day.

Cognitive development can also be supported through activities such as reading, singing and playing with educational toys that promote learning.

Because early interventions can help identify and address any potential developmental delays or issues that may arise, it is essential for parents and caregivers to become familiar with their child’s developmental stages and ensure that interventions are timely and appropriate.

Cognitive development tracking

Cognitive development or mental development refers to the growth and progress of a human child’s brain and mental abilities up until the age of 18.

De Beer notes that during the formative years, which take place between the ages of 3 to 5, children experience significant cognitive milestones.

As noted in the 2022 Thrive by Five report, children’s development is influenced by their ability to use words and maths, maintain their memory, focus, coordinate their movements, and develop their visual-motor skills.

But since diet helps to build these capacities, inadequate (too little or too much) or infrequent nourishment can hamper neurological and cognitive development and, in severe cases, result in physical stunting, said the nutrition expert.

“Three- to five-year-olds who are on track with their development, typically develop their vocabulary, basic problem-solving skills (such as sorting objects by shape, size and colour) and start to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At this age, they also develop important social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, and playing.”

She further goes on to say during children’s developmental years, they begin to develop their memory and attention span, which are fundamental for learning and academic success.

Below are some other cognitive milestones parents and caregivers can help establish and be on the lookout for:

  • Sing songs
  • Understand the difference between fantasy and reality
  • Ask questions constantly
  • Like to tell stories
  • Curious about real facts about the world
  • Physical development tracking

In children aged three to five, physical growth is just as significant as cognitive development.

For activities like sprinting, jumping, and climbing, gross motor skills—the capacity to manage big muscles—are essential.

Writing, sketching, and dressing all require the use of fine motor abilities, which involve little muscles.

“By age three, children should have developed the ability to walk and run independently. By age five, they have typically developed more control and coordination in their movements. They begin to learn how to jump and hop, which involves coordinating their movements and landing safely on both feet.”

The role of nutrition

According to UNICEF's Diet Brief, some of the long-term benefits of a sufficient and balanced diet include brain development, healthy skeletal development, educational attainment, and adult productivity.

Higher immunity, a reduced chance of severe diseases, a healthy digestive system, and the body's capacity to carry out its regenerative functions, such as repairing the skin after a fall or regrowing new teeth when the milk teeth fall out, are more obvious manifestations of adequate nutrition.

Reasons why monitoring developmental milestones is critical:

“It helps parents and caregivers identify any potential delays or concerns in a child's physical development early on, which allows for early intervention and support. Monitoring milestones helps track progress and ensures that children are meeting age-appropriate developmental expectations.

“Furthermore, it helps parents and caregivers engage in activities that can foster and support their child's physical development,” said De Beer.