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Chapter 9 Outline


  • 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 abilities include:
    1. Difficulty integrating multiple pieces of information = centration.
    2. Difficulty distinguishing between appearance and reality = appearance-reality problem.
    3. Difficulty managing attentional and memory processes - have trouble using memory strategies.
    4. 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
    1. Concepts of Conservation
      Preschoolers' understanding of quantity includes some surprising inabilities, including a failure to understand rules of conservation.
    2. 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 middle childhood.
      • 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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).
    5. Summing Up
      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 subtraction.
  • Reasoning About Classes and Logical Relations
    1. Piaget's research on preschoolers' emerging logical reasoning focused on three skills:
      • Classification, grouping by shared characteristics
      • 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.
    2. Classification
      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, however.
    3. Seriation
      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.
    4. Transitive Inference
      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.
  • Preschoolers' Memory
    1. Young children are often oblivious to the memory demands of a situation.
    2. 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.
        1. Speed of information processing is slower in younger children.
        2. Tasks require more memory space for younger children.
        3. 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.

Social Cognition
  • 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 with others.
  • Egocentrism in Preschoolers
    1. Piaget believed preschoolers were limited by egocentrism, the inability to understand others' perspectives.
    2. 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.
    3. 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
    1. 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).
    2. 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).
    3. Acquire a theory of mind from experiences in the world, especially social experiences.
  • Communication and the Decline of Egocentrism
    1. 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 monologues.
    2. 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
    1. One reason preschoolers have trouble communicating about an unfamiliar task may be that their available cognitive resources are overtaxed.
    2. 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 also increase.

An Overview of Preschool Cognitive Development
  • Preschoolers have made great advances beyond toddlers in cognitive development. The advances are:
    1. Emerging understanding of causation, especially in simple or familiar systems.
    2. Ability to make clear distinctions between living and nonliving things.
    3. A qualitative understanding of many concepts related to quantity and an ability to reason about small numbers.
    4. A beginning understanding of classification and other logical relations.
    5. Gradual development of the ability to distinguish between appearance and reality.
    6. Expanding attention and memory skills.
    7. Steadily increasing understanding of other's perspectives and thoughts.
  • They are still limited in their use and evaluation of cognitive strategies.

DeHart: Child DevelopmentOnline Learning Center

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