10 Preoperational Stage Examples

➡️ Introduction

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.

➡️ Info Card
preoperational stage examples definition substages
➡️ Video Lesson
➡️ What are Piaget’s Stages of Development?
Piaget Stages of Development

Piaget’s Stages

StageAge RangeDescription
Sensorimotor0-2 yearsChild 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 stage2-7 yearsChild develops symbolic thought (using language and signs to represent their thoughts) but remains egocentric.
Concrete operational stage7-12 yearsChild develops logical thought and conservation (discovers that changes in appearance do not correspond with changes in weight, volume, etc.)
Formal operational stage12-18 yerasAdolescent develops inductive and deductive reasoning. They can use abstract thought and general principles to develop increasingly complex hypotheses.
➡️ The Preoperational Stage and Substages

The Preoperational Stage (ages 2-7 years)

The preoperational stage is the second stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage, which follows the sensorimotor stage and happens approximately between the ages of 2 and 7, involves significant growth in language and imagination but still includes egocentric thinking and an inability to understand more complex ideas.

The two substages of this stage are outlined below:

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.

Preoperational Stage Examples

1. Engaging in Symbolic Play

a child engaging in symbolic play

Children in the preoperational stage use objects to represent other things while playing.

For example, a child might use a stick as a sword or a block as a car (as shown in picture).

This type of play shows their growing ability to think symbolically. It’s a key development in their cognitive abilities, allowing them to explore and understand the world creatively.

2. Egocentrism

an egocentric child

During this stage, children have difficulty seeing things from any perspective other than their own.

For instance, when asked to show a picture to someone else, they might hold it facing themselves, assuming the other person sees what they see.

This is not selfishness but a limited understanding of how others might perceive situations differently. Understanding different perspectives comes with further cognitive development.

3. Language Expansion

a child talking to his mother

Children’s vocabulary expands rapidly during this stage, enabling them to express themselves more clearly and understand others better.

They begin to form simple sentences and can use language to communicate their needs and describe their experiences.

This increase in language skills is crucial for social interactions and learning. However, their understanding of some words and concepts may still be very literal.

4. Animism

a child hugging a tree

Children in the preoperational stage often believe that inanimate objects have feelings, thoughts, and intentions.

For example, a child might believe that a tree is sad because it’s losing its leaves. This shows their developing imagination and their efforts to make sense of the world around them.

Over time, they learn to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects.

5. Centration

two glasses of water

Centration is the tendency to focus on one noticeable aspect of an object or situation and ignore others.

For example, when judging amounts, a child might focus only on the height of the water in a glass rather than considering its width as well.

This can lead to incorrect conclusions about the characteristics of objects. It demonstrates the limited ability to handle more than one piece of information at a time.

6. Inability to Conserve

a child pouring water from one glass to another

Conservation refers to the understanding that certain properties of objects remain the same, even when their outward appearance changes.

In the preoperational stage, children might think that a taller, narrower glass holds more water than a shorter, wider one, even if both contain the same amount.

This shows their struggle with understanding that the transformation of objects doesn’t necessarily affect their quantities. They eventually learn this concept in later stages of cognitive development.

7. Magical Thinking

a child imagining a unicorn

Magical thinking is the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world.

A child might believe that by wishing for rain, they can make it happen.

This thinking reflects their egocentric and magical perceptions of how the world works.

As their thinking matures, they begin to understand the real causes and effects in the environment.

8. Intuitive Thought

a child trying to make a decision

At this stage, children often make decisions based on their perceptions and intuitions rather than logical reasoning.

They ask many questions about the world, seeking to understand how things work. However, their reasoning is often based on what they see or feel rather than logical structures.

Their understanding of causality and logic develops more fully in later stages.

9. Irreversibility

a child looking frustrated

Children in the preoperational stage think that once an action is done, it cannot be undone.

For example, they might be unable to conceptualize that reversing the order of steps in a process could restore the original state.

This limitation in thinking reflects their struggles with understanding processes that involve several stages. They learn the concept of reversibility as their cognitive abilities mature.

10. Classification Skills

a child sorting marbles into colors

In the preoperational stage, children start to sort objects according to various features, such as color or shape.

However, they often focus on one attribute at a time.

For example, they might group all red objects together, regardless of their shape or function.

Their ability to classify objects based on multiple attributes improves as their cognitive processes develop.

Conclusion

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.

➡️ Scholarly References

References

Göncü, A., & Gaskins, S. (2012). Comparing and extending Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s understandings of play: Symbolic play as individual, sociocultural, and educational interpretation. In P. E. Natahn & A. D. Pellegrini (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play (pp. 48-57). Oxford University Press. https://oi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195393002.013.0005

Morris, S. R. (1998). No learning by coercion: Paidia and Paideia in Platonic philosophy. In D. P. Fromberg and D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from Birth to Twelve and Beyond: Contexts, Perspectives, and Meanings (pp. 109–118). New
York: Garland.

Piaget, J. (1952). The Child’s Conception of Number. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Piaget, J. (1956; 1965). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. International Universities Press Inc. New York.

Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child: Selected works vol. 5. Routledge, London.

Piaget, J. (1964).  Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2, 176-186. https://doi.org/doi:10.1002/tea.3660020306

Watanabe, N. (2017). Acquiring Piaget’s conservation concept of numbers, lengths, and liquids as ordinary play. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 7(1). 210-217. https://doi.org/10.5539/jedp.v7n1p210

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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