Preschoolers' thinking includes both mature
and immature qualities and is qualitatively distinct from adult thinking.
They are active participants in their own
development-pursue a continued search for general patterns and rules. There
is a continual interplay between children's developing capacities and the
environment in which they grow.
Continuing limitations in their cognitive
Difficulty integrating multiple pieces of
information = centration.
Difficulty distinguishing between appearance
and reality = appearance-reality problem.
Difficulty managing attentional and memory
processes - have trouble using memory strategies.
Egocentrism - inability to take the
perspective of another, although this is not absolute in young children,
especially when given simple tasks.
General Characteristics of Preschoolers' Thought
Piaget's preoperational period -ages 2 to 7. Children do not use logical operations in reasoning.
Reasoning about Causation Reality is defined by the superficial appearance
of things. They use observations to construct their own understanding
of cause-and-effect relationships. Piaget did not find mature causal reasoning
until well into middle childhood. Other researchers have found that preschoolers
can give good causal explanations for simple, familiar processes, but
they do not yet have an abstract understanding of what constitutes a plausible
cause. They do not yet understand what a good explanation is.
Reasoning about Living and Nonliving Things Animism - a tendency to attribute
life to nonliving things. Piaget noted that young children thought that
anything that moved was alive. Others have found that their thinking is
not as animistic as previously thought but that children do have a problem
distinguishing between the categories of living and nonliving. There is
progression in this understand throughout this age period.
Understanding Quantitative Tools
Concepts of Conservation
Preschoolers' understanding of quantity includes
some surprising inabilities, including a failure to understand rules of
Concepts of Conservation
Concepts of conservation all include
the general idea that the amount of something remains the same (is conserved)
despite changes in form, shape, or appearance Conservation is learned
at different times; mature understanding of them does not emerge until
Some evidence that children's experiences
affect the development of their understanding of various types of conservation.
Piaget believed it depended on physical maturation and experience in
the world, and thus efforts to teach conservation would not be very
successful. Some have found that these concepts can be taught (e.g.,
Bruner), under certain circumstances.
Young children have difficulty with conservation
tasks because of their tendencies to be misled by appearances and to
focus on only one aspect of a stimulus. They move from being nonconservers,
through a transitional period, to a mature understanding of a particular
form of conservation. As children move toward mature conservation, the
justifications they offer in conservation tasks change.
Concepts of Number
An awareness of how many items are present
and how addition, subtraction, and rearrangement affect this number.
In the classic conservation of number
task, preschoolers fail to conserve number because they focus on row
length; performance is better with smaller numbers.
Understanding the effects of addition
and subtraction. Young children have some understanding of processes
of addition and subtraction before they have mastered conservation concepts.
The youngest children note that addition to a set increases number and
subtraction decreases number. This is a primitive rule. Most
4- and 5-year-olds use a qualitative rule, taking into account
any initial difference but not the magnitude (e.g., less than, equal
to, more than). Most 6- to 7-year-olds develop a quantitative rule,
where they take into account the magnitude of the differences between
the initial groups, which allows them to give correct answers.
Learning to count. By the end of the preschool
period, children understand and are able to apply five principles of
counting. These principles are the one-to-one principle, the stable
order principle, the cardinal principle, the abstraction principle,
and the order-irrelevant principle.
Concepts of Measurement
Piaget believed that knowledge of conservation
was needed to understand measurement. Preschoolers make measurement errors
when the appearance of two equal quantities makes them look unequal, but
if there is no misleading perceptual information, they often perform reasonable
measurement activities (the understanding is qualitative).
Preschoolers do not usually display an
understanding that quantities are conserved despite changes in appearance.
Failure to understand conservation does not prevent preschoolers from
learning a substantial amount about counting, measurement, and small
quantities, and about how numbers can be changed through addition and
Reasoning About Classes and Logical Relations
Piaget's research on preschoolers' emerging
logical reasoning focused on three skills:
Classification, grouping by shared
Seriation, ability to arrange things
in logical progression
Transitive inference, the ability
to infer the relationship between two objects by knowing their respective
relationships to a third.
A class is any set of objects or events
that we think of as having certain features in common and therefore as being
the same in certain ways. Children show a primitive form of classification
from infancy, but not until the preschool years do they become able to classify
objects consistently. Centration limits preschoolers' classification skills,
Although preschoolers can find the largest
or smallest stick in a fairly large group, they have trouble placing the
whole set of sticks in order from largest to smallest. Their problems with
seriation are related to the appearance-reality problem and to centration.
Piaget found that children could not solve
transitive inference problems until middle childhood, but more recent
studies have indicated that 4-year-olds can solve them with the right
training. However, they have more trouble learning the relationships
involved than older children do.
Distinguishing between Appearance and Reality At age 3, children are frequently misled
by the surface appearance of a problem; by the time they are 5 or 6, their
view of reality is less dominated by appearance. In natural settings,
however, even 3-year-olds are beginning to make distinctions between appearance
and underlying reality.
Preschoolers' Attention and Memory Abilities
Information-processing theorists describe
the selection, storage, and retrieval of information in terms of the steps
involved in processing (i.e., from the sensory register to short-term,
or working memory, to long-term memory). This approach has
been used to study the development of attention skills (transfer
of information to working memory) and memory skills (processes that
retain information in working memory), as well as to explain the development
of other cognitive skills (e.g., social cognition).
Deploying Attention Although preschoolers can pay attention to
interesting events very well, their attentional system is not yet fully
developed. For example, they use less systematic and organized scanning
strategies than older children do, either scanning too little or too much.
Not until middle childhood do children think of attention as a limited
resource that must be deployed selectively.
Young children are often oblivious to the
memory demands of a situation.
Abilities and Limitations
Preschoolers demonstrate both recognition
(ability to perceive a particular stimulus as familiar) and free
recall (ability to spontaneously pull information out of long-term
memory for current use) in their daily activities. They do best on recognition
tasks, especially for spatial location.
Usually do more poorly on recall tasks
than older children and adults. They have a digit span of 3 to 4 items.
Speed of information processing is slower
in younger children.
Tasks require more memory space for younger
They lack skill at using memory strategies.
Will use obvious strategies at times.
Encouraging improved performance. Vygotsky's
concept of the zone of proximal development provides a perspective for
viewing the memory performance of preschoolers and how it can be improved.
Specifically, if an adult helps by suggesting that a child use a memory
strategy, the child will exhibit a higher level of competence on the
memory task. More knowledgeable children or adults help children make
progress within their zones of proximal development by building on skills
the children already possess.
The field of social cognition deals
with the impact of children's cognitive skills on their social relationships
and the role of social interaction in supporting cognitive development.
Children start to learn how other people think and feel, what their motives
and intentions are, and what they are likely to do. They begin to understand
that other people's perspectives sometimes differ from their own, helping
their communication abilities. Can respond more appropriately in their interactions
Egocentrism in Preschoolers
Piaget believed preschoolers were limited
by egocentrism, the inability to understand others' perspectives.
Preschoolers show perceptual egocentrism
- not differentiating one's own perceptual experience from that of another.
Tested by Piaget with the Three Mountain Task. With less complex tasks children
do not show the extent of egocentrism that Piaget found.
Cognitive egocentrism - assume that
others have the same knowledge, beliefs, and desires that they do (e.g.,
false belief tasks). By age 6, children demonstrate a sharp reduction in
cognitive egocentrism (e.g., choosing appropriate gifts for others).
The Child's Theory of Mind
Preschool children are engaged in constructing
an understanding of the human mind and mental concepts (such as "knowing,"
"wanting," "thinking," "remembering," and "intending") = theory of mind.
Goes beyond empirical knowledge (direct observation) to include theoretical
knowledge (not directly observed).
According to Flavell, children developing
a theory of mind come to understand five postulates or fundamental principles
Minds exist (toddlerhood).
Minds have connections to the physical
world (3- to 4- year-olds).
Minds are separate and different from
the physical world.
Minds can represent objects and events
accurately or inaccurately (5-year-olds). Related to false belief.
Minds accurately interpret reality and
emotional experiences (middle childhood).
Acquire a theory of mind from experiences
in the world, especially social experiences.
Communication and the Decline of Egocentrism
Preschoolers' speech and communication skills
also show evidence of egocentrism and its decline. Egocentric speech is
seen both when children talk to themselves while playing and in collective
Preschoolers also often have difficulty communicating
information to a listener in a nonegocentric way, especially if the task
is abstract or complex (issue of maximum skill vs. typical performance).
Preschoolers do show some evidence, however, of adjusting their speech to
the needs of their listeners under certain circumstances.
Limited Cognitive Resources and Communication
One reason preschoolers have trouble communicating
about an unfamiliar task may be that their available cognitive resources
A knowledge of scripts (abstract representation
of a sequence of actions needed to accomplish some goal) reduces the cognitive
resources that must be used to communicate about commonly repeated routines.
As children's knowledge of scripts increases, their communicative skills
An Overview of Preschool Cognitive Development
Preschoolers have made great advances beyond
toddlers in cognitive development. The advances are:
Emerging understanding of causation, especially
in simple or familiar systems.
Ability to make clear distinctions between
living and nonliving things.
A qualitative understanding of many concepts
related to quantity and an ability to reason about small numbers.
A beginning understanding of classification
and other logical relations.
Gradual development of the ability to distinguish
between appearance and reality.
Expanding attention and memory skills.
Steadily increasing understanding of other's
perspectives and thoughts.
They are still limited in their use and evaluation
of cognitive strategies.