The preoperational stage is the second stage in Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage is from ages 2 to 7 years old.
Although there is a lot of individual variation in how quickly children pass through the four stages that Piaget identifies, the sequence of development is invariant.
A child’s thinking shows many interesting characteristics during the first substage of the preoperational stage, but also exhibits significant limitations. As the child gains experience and the brain matures, their thinking processes improve quite a bit, but still have a long way to go.
|Sensorimotor||0-2 years||Child develops object permanence (realizing that objects out of sight still exist), goal-directed action (learning to act intentionally to achieve a goal), and deferred imitation (continuing to imitate others after the event).|
|Preoperational stage||2-7 years||Child develops symbolic thought (using language and signs to represent their thoughts) but remains egocentric.|
|Concrete operational stage||7-12 years||Child develops logical thought and conservation (discovers that changes in appearance do not correspond with changes in weight, volume, etc.)|
|Formal operational stage||12-18 yeras||Adolescent develops inductive and deductive reasoning. They can use abstract thought and general principles to develop increasingly complex hypotheses.|
The Preoperational Stage (ages 2-7 years)
1. Symbolic Function Substage (ages 2-4 years)
This stage is characterized by the rapid development of language skills and symbolic thought, the ability to categorize objects based on similarities, and the limitations of egocentrism.
- Language skills begin to develop rapidly during the preoperational stage. At first, children will easily acquire new vocabulary by listening to others and trying to verbalize their thoughts. This allows them to express themselves more freely and communicate more directly. As the language areas of the brain mature, children will be able to learn phonics and how to read simple CVC words. As they enter first grade, their reading skills will take a leap forward as this is often emphasized in school.
- Symbolic thought is the ability to represent people, objects and events mentally. This leads to children engaging in symbolic play, in which they use an object to signify something else. For example, a shoe becomes a phone or a straw becomes a sword. When a child scribbles or draws stick figures to represent mom and dad, it is an example of symbolic thought. Children will often draw houses, flowers, and the sun because these are things they are familiar with. Because of symbolic thought, they can represent those entities on paper.
- Egocentrism refers to a child’s preoccupation with their internal thinking. Their actions are heavily affected by their own perceptions, thoughts and wants. This is why when they want something, they will just go get it. Although there may be rules regarding when and how that object can be obtained, the child’s maturity level doesn’t allow that much control over their impulses. What they want, they try to get.
- Animism refers to children’s belief that inanimate objects, such as their puppets and teddy bears, are alive and have feelings as people do. This belief begins to change slightly as the child grows older.
- Categorization is the ability to put objects into groups based on a similar characteristic. For example, putting animals that swim in one group and animals that fly into another. This is a fundamental cognitive skill that will continue to evolve as the brain matures and the child accumulates more school experience.
- Transductive reasoning refers to the flawed logic of seeing a connection between events that are not related. A child will often infer and cause-and-effect relationship between two events that occur contiguously, even though there is no direct connection at all.
2. Intuitive Thought Substage (ages 4-7 years)
During the intuitive thought substage, children experience strong growth in their logical thinking skills. They move beyond perceptive thinking and toward intuitive thinking. It is an age of life full of questions as they attempt to understand the logic of the world around them.
- Animism begins to advance slightly during this substage. Starting around the age of 5, children will believe that only objects that move have feelings and act with purpose. As the child moves past the preoperational stage around the age of 7, they eventually understand that only objects that can move independently are alive.
- Centration is the tendency for a child to only focus on one feature of an object. Whichever feature attracts their attention will play a dominant role in their judgement. Usually, the most salient or eye-catching characteristic will get the child’s attention and they will be unable to consider other aspects of that object. This cognitive limitation is related to conservation.
- Conservation is the ability to understand that the mass of an object does not change as a function of its shape. Generally speaking, children will have difficulty with conservation until around the age of 5 years old. There are specific situations in which children can be taught the rules of conservation that will speed-up their understanding.
- Reversibility refers to a child’s ability to mentally reverse the steps of an event they have witnessed. This limitation is the reason children at the beginning of the preoperational stage usually fail to understand the concept of conservation. However, in the latter part of the preoperational stage they are able to reconstruct events and play them in reverse, which is the reason they begin to understand conservation.
Detailed Preoperational Stage Examples
1. Classroom Examples of Symbolic Play
Symbolic play is one of the most charming features of early child development and a common activity in classrooms around the world. Teachers understand the value of symbolic play and make time out in each day’s schedule to allow for its exercise.
Symbolic play emerges during the preoperational stage at around the age of 2 years old. As the child gets older, the complexity of symbolic play increases and becomes more abstract.
Symbolic play serves a very valuable purpose. It exercises a child’s imagination, helps them make sense of the world around them, and can also help them learn how to navigate interpersonal conflicts.
Morris (1998) reveals that Plato wrote about children’s play (paidia), in Laws (643 bce). Educators today recognize the value of play, as did Plato, who stated that:
“play is a medium of activity in which the player’s natural underlying dispositions are revealed…and… (is)…the ideal medium of a child’s paideia; that is, learning is most effective when play is its medium” (p.114).
2. Letter Blocks as a House
One common theme in symbolic play is the home. Children love to engage in pretend house play. Even if they don’t have a doll-house, that’s okay, because they can use just about any object to represent a house.
This is how the young child in the above video is playing. She has placed several wooden letter blocks to make a house. A small wooden pig represents a family member.
She narrates the action as she moves the pig about, up and down the pretend house. You can also notice cartoon animals on the blocks as the little girl moves the pig next to each.
The wooden pig interacts with the cartoon animals as the child vocalizes dialogue she has probably heard her parents speak before.
Her narrations are mimicking those observation and as you can see, she is completely immersed.
This is a classic example of symbolic play; objects being used to represent things the child has seen in their world.
3. Tactile Categorization Lesson Plan
The ability to categorize is fundamental to understanding the world in which we live. In fact, it is the basis of nearly all scientific disciplines. Biologists categorize organisms, sociologists categorize cultures, and psychologists categorize personality types.
Learning how to categorize objects starts at an early age. Kindergarten teachers always develop lessons plans that teach children the basic principles of categorization.
Teaching kids about tactile categorization is a great way to get kids involved because they love to touch and manipulate objects. In this type of lesson, the teacher will lay numerous objects on the table that have different textures.
This can include tissue and pieces of silk fabric for the concept soft; sandpaper and a piece of coarse carpet for rough; and a small block of wood and hard plastic for hard.
Kids then take turns touching each type of object while the teacher narrates the sensations they are feeling to help build their vocabulary. So, as a child is touching the silk or putting it next to their cheek, the teacher will say “soft” repeatedly, maybe adding a tonal inflection to help convey the meaning more clearly.
4. My Teddy Bear is Hungry
Young children love to pretend that their puppets and stuffed animals have feelings. They will often pretend to feed them, put them to bed, or take them to “the hospital”. These actions are examples of what Piaget referred to as animism.
Piaget noted that children 2 and 3 years old often believe that their dolls have feelings. They will treat them just as they would a little brother or sister. Actually, they probably treat them better.
According to Piaget, this is a function of cognitive processes that have not fully matured. As the brain matures, so does a child’s understanding of concepts such as “real/not real”, and “alive/not alive”.
This understanding is also a function of experience, as Piaget clearly accepted the role of both factors in intelligence.
5. It’s Not Afternoon Because…
Children need to have routine in their lives. It helps them feel secure because things are predictable. This creates a sense of stability and helps build trust in the world about them.
Routines can also reveal interesting aspects of cognitive development when those routines are disrupted.
For example, one child may always take a nap after lunch at around 1:00. The teacher or parent refers to this the “afternoon nap”. After repeatedly hearing the term afternoon with the act of taking a nap, the child will perceive a very direct connection between these two events.
This makes perfect sense. The two events are related. However, if the child’s nap does not occur one day but the caregiver refers to the time of day as the afternoon, the child will respond by saying that it can’t be afternoon because they haven’t taken their nap.
The causal connection is spurious, but in the child’s limited understanding, the two events are directly related. This type of flawed reasoning is an example of transductive reasoning.
6. The Transition of Egocentric Language
Although we speak about child development in terms of stages, we should always remind ourselves that there is a gradation in development. The movement from one stage to the next is not smooth and absolute. It oscillates to and fro.
Piaget was able to capture an example of how language development reflects egocentric thinking over a course of a year. He relies on the careful notes of a fellow researcher examining the language of her son at school.
The quote below has been edited slightly, for the full version please see pp. 143-144 of The Language and Thought of the Child (1959).
“Our notes show…that at the beginning of his fourth year the child’s speech shows a greater coefficient of ego-centrism (i.e., it is less socialized in character) when speaking with adults than children of his own age (71.2% against 56.2%).
From the beginning to the end of the year the coefficient of ego-centrism becomes lower with the adult (from 71 to 43%, i.e., a lowering of 28%), whereas when speaking with children not so marked.
The measure of ego-centric language in verbal communication with adults and children changes from 63.7% to 44.7%.”
7. Collaboration in Action
Piaget’s primary research methodology involved making very astute and detailed observation of children in their natural environment. He would often observe children engaged in play and from those observations inferred the associated cognitive processes.
He used this strategy to identify stages of language development as well. In The Language and Thought of the Child (1959), he details conversations between children and was able to identify common characteristics that mark cognitive development.
Based on his observations of Béa (5; 10) and Lev (5; 11), talking to each other, he identifies a stage of language development in the preoperational stage which he termed “Collaboration in Action”.
“In conversation of this type, the subject of the successive remarks, instead of being the activities of the respective speakers, is an activity in which they all share. The speakers collaborate, and talk about what they are doing. Instead of diffusion in relation to one and the same subject…there is convergence” (p. 36).
From Piaget’s perspective, the discourse between the two children demonstrates an advancement in cognitive development. Their play is synchronized and collaborative, not fully egocentric.
8. Centration, Irreversibility, and Conservation
Because of limited cognitive development, very young children are only able to process a limited amount of information. When they look at an object or situation, the most salient characteristic of that object will attract their attention. Their judgments will then be centered on that salient attribute.
Centration can be demonstrated in many ways. For example, arrange two rows of coins that contain the same number and are equally spaced.
Ask the child which row has more coins or if they are both the same. Because the rows are equal lengths, the child will say they are the same.
Then, spread the coins of one row so that the row is longer. Ask the child again which row has more coins or if they are the same.
Because children in the preoperational stage have a tendency to only focus on one aspect of a situation (centration), and because they cannot mentally reverse the spreading of the coins (irreversibility), they will say the longer row has more coins.
The length of the row is the most salient feature of the coins, and that dominates the child’s limited thought processes. Check out the above video that demonstrates the two rows of coins test.
9. Egocentric Play
Egocentrism is a very interesting phenomenon. The ability to see things from the point of view of another person sounds simple enough, but it actually represents advanced cognitive development.
Wecan see very clear examples of egocentrism throughout the preoperational stage.
For example, children that are playing together will often grab toys out of each other’s hands. There is no polite request to borrow.
In most people’s eyes, this looks like selfishness. But, a more accurate explanation is that the child has not yet developed the cognitive capacity to control their impulses.
Additionally, they have also not developed the cognitive capacity to understand that the object is being used by another child and taking it from them will make them upset.
10. The Three Mountains Test
The three mountains test was invented by Piaget to assess egocentrism. The test involves a child looking at a display of three different colored mountains, each with a distinguishing feature, such as a red cross or hut on top.
First, the child is allowed to walk around the display and examine it from different angles.
Then, the child sits down and is shown several small pictures of the mountains and asked which one depicts the view that they can see. After that, a doll is placed at various locations around the display and the child is asked which picture depicts what the doll can see.
Egocentric children will choose a picture that depicts what they can see, not the doll.
The above video shows several children being tested. Younger children (ages 4, 5, and 6) always choose the wrong picture. Older children (ages 7 and 8) however, choose the correct picture.
Jean Piaget developed an incredibly insightful theory of cognitive development. His methodology involved direct observations of children, often his own.
The level of cognitive development in the preoperational stage limits the child’s ability to think and reason in many ways. When children enter this stage, they are exceptionally egocentric, and will see spurious causality between events that occur sequentially.
They believe that inanimate objects have feelings, and are just beginning to categorize objects based on a single attribute.
As they accumulate experience and the cerebral cortex continues maturation, their cognitive skills will gradually advance as they enter the next stage of development, the concrete operational stage.
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