Preschoolers Think Differently - 4 Unique Ways Very Young Children See the World

4 April 2018

Preschoolers Think Differently How Very Young Children Think

According to the pioneering child developmental specialist, Jean Piaget, the age range from 2 years to 7 years is called the preoperational stageThis stage usually begins when children start to talk, around 24 months and lasts approximately until age 7, depending on the child's individual development.  Today I want to explain the 4 key facts about how young children think during their preoperational stage and provide you with easy suggestions to understand and work with their thinking process. Armed with this information about preschooler’s thinking, I think it will be  much easier to understand your little one’s sometimes unusual approach to things:

  1. Now is the beginning of mental operations. Preschoolers in this stage begin to carry out mental actions or operations that require forming and using mental images and symbols. For example, your preschooler is now able to use symbols for objects and people. Pretending a broom is a horse demonstrates your preschooler’s mental ability to use an object to represent something else. Role-playing, another mental activity, also becomes important during the preoperational stage. This is why preschoolers love to dress up and “become” mommy or daddy and many other characters. This fantasy and imaginative play is based on their ability to use mental images and then be able to act out them out. Our Pure Imagination activities are perfect for this stage of mental development. And if you’d like to learn more about this type of play, check out Part 3 of our Children's Creativity series -  Constructive and Dramatic Play.
  2. Preoperational children are egocentric. This is one time in life that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be egocentric. In Piaget’s theory, this is because children of this age are inflexible thinkers. This means that they are not yet able to think about something from more than their own perspective. Because of this, they naturally focus on their own experiences. For example, most preschoolers in this age range think everyone thinks, feels, and sees things as they do. I remember thinking this way as one of my earliest memories. I was about 3 years old, taking a streetcar to my grandmother’s house and thinking that everyone on the car must be going to her house, too! Another classic example is when your little one thinks the moon is following her. Check out our article, Those Remarkable, Terrible Two’s for in-depth information on the mental characteristics of egotism.
  3. Preoperational children aren’t able to think about more than one perspective. In Piaget’s theories, “to conserve” means the ability to think about something from more than one perspective and in more than one way.  Usually until around the age of 5, few children are able to think about different perspectives in weight, volume, quantity, length, mass or number. They will concentrate on one perspective only and not consider others. Piaget classic example of conservation is the glass of milk test. In this test, Piaget measured one cup of milk with the child watching. He poured the milk into a tall, thin glass. He then measured one more cup of milk with the child watching and poured it into a short, wide glass. When he asked which glass had the most milk, the child said there was more milk in the tall glass. Because the preoperational child only focused on one perspective-- size, the taller glass was literally bigger. So it had more milk. While this may seem illogical to an adult, it’s a natural way of thinking for a preschooler. This type of thinking is the reason I was able to get my baby sister to give me her dime, worth 10 cents, in exchange for my nickel, worth only 5 cents. She only saw that the nickel was bigger, while I was old enough to understand that the smaller coin was worth more! And in my Head Start classes, preschoolers often thought that the bigger children were older, focusing only on size, as in Piaget’s milk test. Check out our article, Learning Anywhere Every Day - Math Adventures for fun that fits for your preschooler’s early mental level while growing their early math skills.
  4. Preoperational children have don’t yet have the mental ability to reverse actions. In theoretical terms, this is called “reversing.” This means preschoolers are unable to reverse a sequence of events in their minds. To reverse things mentally involves the basic understanding that objects can change shape but still be the same object. The best way to understand this concept with your preschool preoperational thinker is to consider water. You understand that water can just be water, but that it can also change to ice, and even be steam, and then go back again to water again. In contrast, preoperational thinking is this: Water is water. Ice isn’t water, it's ice. Steam is steam, but it's not water. To understand all these changes in water involves mentally reversing or backtracking these actions. This type of thinking was why my 2-year-old daughter Claire, who liked bananas, refused to eat them mashed. Even telling and showing her they were made by mashing whole bananas didn’t convince her, as her early inability to grasp reverse thinking stood in the way. She just didn’t like mashed bananas, because they were mashed bananas! Our Kitchen Science and Eat It! activities are excellent for this mental age, as they give real life examples of many transformations preschoolers can see and experience directly.

Need more helpful insights and ideas about preschool thinking? Check out our article, Preschool Learning - Prime Time for Brain Development for more tips about your little one’s cognitive development. How did this help you cope with your young one's growing perspective? You can give us your feedback right here.