In Piaget’s framework for cognitive development, the shift from the sensorimotor stage to the preoperational stage marks an important juncture in a child’s mental evolution. At the conclusion of the sensorimotor stage, around 24 months of age, children have already begun understanding the fundamentals of object permanence, paving the way for advanced cognitive abilities. As they step into the preoperational stage, which spans from ages 2 to 7, symbolic thought takes centre stage, which allows children to represent their world using symbols, with language emerging as a vital tool for symbolic representation.
Piaget highlighted the significance of this, pointing out how it enables vibrant imaginative play. For instance, a simple blanket can transform into a superhero cape, or a spoon might set sail as a pirate ship in a bowl of soup. Concurrently, language emerges as a pivotal tool, aiding children in expressing these newfound symbolic concepts. However, their understanding remains distinct from adult comprehension, lacking the ability to engage in mature logical reasoning. Instead of relying on conventional wisdom, children in the preoperational stage draw conclusions based on their unique experiences and perceptions of the world.
The preoperational period is divided into two stages:
Symbolic function substage:
The phase between 2 and 4 years is significant in a child’s cognitive journey and is termed the symbolic function substage. This period heralds the advent of symbolic thinking, where young minds learn to mentally envisage objects that are not physically present. However, they still tend to lean on their immediate perceptions to decipher problems.
One of the most noticeable characteristic of this period of development is the child’s enthusiasm for pretend play. A chopstick might be mentally transformed into a magic wand in a child’s world, or a pillow could serve as the castle of a great king. Piaget theorised that this kind of imaginative play acts as a rehearsal space, helping children reinforce new cognitive patterns they are forming. However, this is not only about reflection; children are also expanding their understanding and cognitive horizons as they role-play and simulate different scenarios (1).
These symbolic representations can act as a catalyst, opening up the diverse dimensions of a child’s cognition and actions. A major offshoot of these new cognitive steps is the emergence of language. Relatively quickly the world stops being only about objects and desires but also incorporates meanings, names, and emotions.
A child at this period of development might not simply feel bad; they might express feeling ‘angry’ or ‘sad’. Through language, the intricacy of their play narratives begins to intensify, reflecting a richer understanding of the world around them. Moreover, as they engage more with words and their associated meanings, children’s ability to reason and conceptualize increases, albeit still limited by their egocentric perspective. It is through these cognitive advancements that a child begins to differentiate between their internal thoughts and the external world, offering a glimpse into the complexity of their mental processes (2).
The symbolic nature of their thinking also paves the way for memory development. Recollections of a summer vacation or a festive celebration become stories, shared and revisited with keen interest. Additionally, a noticeable inclination arises towards two-dimensional forms of representation. For instance, a child might become engrossed in a family photo album, and may begin to engage with relatives over video calls, blending past and present narratives (3).
Moving beyond the sensorimotor stage, these youngsters now employ basic mental imagery to think through problems. By the time they begin preschool, they have often learned the skill of internal strategizing, which means they can envision multiple steps of an activity before getting started. Whether this is understanding how to set up a line of dominos in a sequence for a satisfying cascade or navigating the complexities of playground dynamics when two friends want to play on the same swing, children are constantly refining their mental problem-solving toolkit.
Another intriguing aspect is how this capacity for mental representation boosts a child’s ability to self-regulate and execute tasks. A child might remind themselves of the need to finish their dinner before moving onto dessert, juxtaposing immediate desires with broader objectives, something that would not occur in the sensorimotor stage.
The world of a child in this preoperational period is vibrant with acts that utilize their newfound representational skills. They engage in a wide variety of activities, from singing their own versions of popular songs, creating imaginative tales, to poring over the same bedtime story night after night, taking pleasure in every detail. This is a time of exponential growth, where every day presents an opportunity for exploration and learning (4).
While young children do exhibit remarkable progress in symbolic thinking, this stage of cognitive development is not without its challenges. Notably, children face limitations such as egocentrism, perceptual salience, and animism. It is important that parents recognize these behavioural traits not as wilful defiance, but as authentic limitations in a child’s cognitive development. It is crucial for adults to tailor their expectations and manner of communication to align with the developmental stage of their child.
Egocentrism is particularly prominent at this stage. Young children often find it challenging to see situations from another person’s perspective. Instead, they often operate under the assumption that everyone interprets the world as they do. For instance, a little boy choosing a birthday gift for his grandmother may choose a toy truck, believing that since he loves toy trucks, his grandma would too.
Piaget’s research further elucidates this concept: when children still in the symbolic function substage are asked to describe a scene from the perspective of another person, they typically struggle to do this, instead reverting to their own viewpoint. However, by the age of seven, children start becoming more adept at understanding others’ perspectives. This becomes evident when they begin to adjust their language and sentence structure based on the age of the person they are addressing.
The concept of perceptual salience, meanwhile, means children tend to base their reasoning on their immediate perceptions. For example, if a father shaves off a thick beard, a child might initially struggle to recognise him. Even if the child can identify their father’s voice, the immediate sight of a drastically changed appearance can be so overpowering that they react as if they have encountered a complete stranger. In this preoperational phase, children’s reasoning oscillates between the action-based logic of the sensorimotor stage and the more structured reasoning of the concrete operational period, with a significant influence from their own immediate sensory experiences.
Additionally, animism, another common trait observed in children during this period of development, is when human-like characteristics are attributed to inanimate objects. For instance, a child might believe that their toy car is ‘sad’ because it has been left alone in the toy box. Animated television shows, where inanimate objects come to life, resonate particularly well with children in this age group. However, by the time they turn three, most children begin to differentiate between objects that are alive and those that are not.
In essence, as children navigate this intricate phase of cognitive development, it becomes imperative for adults around them to provide guidance, patience, and understanding, paving the way for the next stages of their growth.
Intuitive thought substage
The developmental phase between 4 to 7 years, known as the intuitive thought substage, covers a period when children typically begin to exhibit a unique blend of intuition and curiosity. Unlike their older counterparts, these young minds depend heavily on intuitive thinking, forming judgments without solid evidence.
The inquisitiveness of a child in this age bracket is unparalleled. The world is a puzzle to be solved, and their favourite question tends to be ‘why?’. However, their attempts to make sense of their surroundings come with some naivety. For instance, while they begin to show the early signs of logical thinking, explaining the reasoning behind their thoughts remains a challenge.
This might be why parents often find themselves bombarded with endless ‘why?’ questions. The best approach in such situations is to give concise, straightforward explanations. For instance, when a child asks why they should always wear shoes outside, a simple explanation like “It’s to protect your feet from sharp things” is generally more effective than diving into an elaborate discussion about potential hazards or the importance of foot health.
A crucial cognitive limitation during this stage is ‘centration‘. This means a child’s understanding is dominated by the most striking feature they perceive. For example, imagine a child who has been given a large single cookie and another child given several smaller ones. The first child might believe they have been shortchanged simply because they have fewer individual pieces, even if the total volume of cookies remains the same.
Furthermore, the principle of ‘conservation‘ often eludes children in this phase. This fundamental understanding that certain characteristics, such as mass or volume, stay consistent even if their outward form changes, is yet to be fully grasped. A relatable experiment is when children are shown clay which has been molded into different shapes.
The children might incorrectly believe that a longer roll of clay contains more material than a compacted ball, even if both were molded from the same amount. In Piaget’s classic conservation experiment, a child is shown two glasses with equal amounts of liquid. After transferring the liquid from one glass into a taller, thinner glass, the pre-operational child often believes the taller glass has more liquid due to its height, illustrating their focus on one attribute and failure to conserve (5).
Also, children at the preoperational stage often grapple with broader classification concepts. For instance, when presented with a basket containing red apples and green apples, they might concentrate solely on the differences in shape or color, overlooking the fact that all items in the basket are apples. This reveals their tendency to hone in on distinct details rather than understanding overarching categories. Instead of seeing all the items as a collective group, they draw conclusions based on immediate, individual differences. Furthermore, ‘transductive reasoning’ is a hallmark of this developmental phase.
Children often jump to conclusions based on specific instances, leading to flawed inferences. An example could be a child concluding that all dogs are friendly just because their pet dog is. This contrasts with the more mature ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ reasoning typically found in older children and adults. Over time, as children gain more experiences and their cognitive skills develop further, these generalizations tend to become more refined and nuanced (6).
Lastly, ‘transitive inference‘ is another area where children in this phase typically struggle. Transitive inference is the ability to use basic logic to derive a missing link from given information. So, if an older child knows that “A is faster than B” and “B is faster than C”, they would probably deduce that “A is faster than C”. However, children in the preoperational stage of their development can struggle to make this leap. They may understand each individual relationship but the cognitive flexibility to combine these and arrive at the conclusion that “A is faster than C” is often still maturing.
The preoperational stage, the second phase of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, represents a period of profound growth and exploration for children between the ages of 2 to 7. Characterised by symbolic play, this stage sees children moving into the world of imaginative representation, transforming everyday objects into tools of wonder. While they become equipped with the newfound ability to represent objects and ideas symbolically, their understanding lacks the structural logic found in older children and adults. An obvious example of this stage is dramatic play, showing a child’s ability to think simultaneously on two levels – the imaginative and the realistic.
This duality of thought is an early introduction to metacognition, where children reflect upon and monitor their own cognitive processes. Such skills hold importance in academic environments. Therefore, early education professionals, recognising the potential of dramatic play in fostering cognitive development, often incorporate and even partake in such activities in the classroom.
However, the preoperational stage also presents specific cognitive limitations. Traits like egocentrism, perceptual salience, and animism are inherent aspects of this developmental phase, and it is essential for parents and educators to view them as such. Recognizing and accommodating these cognitive boundaries is fundamental to nurturing a child’s growth, ensuring that they transition smoothly to subsequent stages of cognitive development. With tailored communication and a clear understanding of these limitations, adults can effectively guide children through this transformative period of their lives.
See also: Merrill’s Principles Of Instruction
- Santrock, John W. (2004). Life-Span Development (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill College.
- Dunn, Judy; Hughes, Claire (2001). “”I Got Some Swords And You’re Dead!”: Violent Fantasy, Antisocial Behavior, Friendship, And Moral Sensibility In Young Children”. Child Development. 72 (2): 491–505. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00292
- Piaget, A Child’s Conception of Space, Norton Edition, 1967.
- Rathus, Spencer A. (2006). Childhood: voyages in development. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN 9780495004455
- Berk, L. (2007) Development through the Lifespan. Allyn and Bacon, Boston. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593
- Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget’s theory. In P. Mussen (Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology (4th ed., Vol. 1). New York: Wiley.