Kids’ brain development is fascinating, amusing, brilliant and at times, perplexing! Accompanying them on their learning journey, we watch them navigate the world and relationships, explore their surroundings and soak up knowledge like little sponges.
At times however, working out what’s exactly going on; understanding how they see things, can leave us scratching our heads! A wonderful example of this, is an exchange between a Y1 teacher and one of his students. He’d been teaching the class about addition:
Teacher: (holding up two fingers on one hand), how many fingers am I holding up?
Teacher: (Holding up one finger on the other hand), how many fingers am I holding up now?
Teacher: That’s correct. If you have two rabbits and then you got another rabbit, how many rabbits would you have?
Teacher: Let’s try again. You have two rabbits and then you get another rabbit. How many rabbits would you have?
Teacher: (holds up two fingers on one hand and one finger on the other). How many fingers am I holding up now?
Teacher: Good. So….if you have two rabbits and then you got another one, how many rabbits would you have?
The teacher couldn’t work out why the student was getting the rabbit addition wrong. So he does the best thing he can do. He asks her why there are four. She tells him that she already has a rabbit at home, so she’d then have four!
I love this story. It demonstrates so well the need to give children the opportunity to explain their thought processes. If the teacher had not asked her to explain, he may have concluded that she hadn’t grasped addition yet. But in reality, she had gone beyond what he was testing, on several levels!
Sometimes though, we may feel exasperated if our kids don’t understand something or behave in a way that seems inappropriate for their age. Comments such as, ‘you’re too old for that behaviour’, or ‘why can’t you do that?’, can quickly spill forth from our lips! They may however, be behaving in a completely developmentally appropriate way!
If we can get an understanding of our kids’ brain development at different ages, we’ll get a significant leg-up in supporting their learning.
One of the most renowned psychologists referred to in education is Jean Piaget. His theory focused on the different stages of cognitive development a child goes through and stressed that they will progress through the stages at their own individual rate. This is key to remember, particularly in the current climate where there seems to be increasing pressure from other parents, (sometimes leaving parents feeling unnecessarily worried about their kid’s progress), and sometimes the school itself.
Piaget didn’t specify a specific age that a child should reach each stage but gave a range indicating when they are likely to reach it. The stages are:
Stage 1: Sensorimotor (birth – 2 yrs)
Stage 2: Pre-operational (2-7yrs)
Stage 3: Concrete Operational (7-12yrs)
Stage 4: Formal Operational (12-adulthood)
Given that Minds of Wonder is dedicated to preschool and early primary years, let’s look at the Pre-operational stage.
What is the pre-operational stage?
Kids’ brain development at this stage means it’s not able to use logic or combine/separate ideas. Rather, kids acquire experiences about the world around them and move towards the concrete stage; where they’ll be able to use logic in their thinking. The main aspects of this stage are:
They will only think of one aspect of a given situation and ignore the others. An example is Piaget’s liquid test. It showed children two identical glasses filled with the same amount of liquid. The children would agree that the glasses contained the same amount of liquid.
Then the liquid in one glass would be poured into a wider and shorter glass. The children would conclude that there was more liquid in one of the glasses, rather than the amount of liquid had remained unchanged. The experiment shows that they are only able to concentrate on the liquid and not the liquid and the different sizes of the glasses.
This is a familiar one! It refers to thinking that everybody sees things the same way as they do; that everyone has the same point of view. It may come across as selfishness, but in reality, their brain development at this stage means they are unable to see that other people may think differently to them.
An example could be your three-year-old wanting to buy you a toy truck for your birthday. They think you’d enjoy it as much as they do; that you’d have the same point of view about trucks; or going to the new play centre that they love so much!
A well-known test by Piaget is the three mountains experiment. A child is seated on one side of the table and is asked what they can see. Then they are asked what the person sitting opposite them can see. A child at the egocentric stage will reply that the person sitting opposite them can see the same things they can.
When your child enters the start of this stage, they won’t play with their friends, but rather alongside them. Their communication reflects what they are thinking rather than communicating with the other child.
As they progress, their brain development means they will move away from egocentrism and enjoy playing with rather than alongside their friends. The play becomes more of, ‘let’s pretend’ and playing the role of their favourite characters.
Your child is able to make one object represent something else. Your wallet suddenly becomes their phone!
This refers to your child believing that inanimate objects have emotions and feelings. Around the age of 4-5, they think that everything is alive and has a purpose and by the ages of 5-7, that only things that move have a purpose.
Kids at this stage will think that some things in their environment are made by people, such as clouds. Brain development at this stage means they’ll begin asking ‘why?’ to every answer they are given. It may feel they are deliberately testing our patience(!), but they are simply becoming increasingly curious about the world around them. They’re beginning to reason, with a desire to know why things are as they are.
Knowing about your child’s brain development is super helpful and can cause you less stress! Below are seven tips you can use to support your child’s learning at this stage.
Tips to support learning at this stage of brain development
1. Enable exploration and experimentation
Within a safe environment, allow your child to explore and experiment. Encourage them to use all five senses and be their guide rather than do everything for them!
2. Allow them to progress at their own pace
Peer pressure from other parents can be difficult at times but remember that your child’s learning journey is theirs and nobody else’s. Just like they learned to walk and talk, they will also reach other learning milestones.
3. Encourage questions
I can’t stress this one enough! Encouraging your child to ask questions, wherever they happen to be, is crucial to their learning and confidence.
4. Allow them to make age-appropriate mistakes
They’ll learn that it’s through making mistakes that we learn. By not being afraid of failing, they will take age-appropriate risks with their learning and not only adding power to their learning but also build their resilience.
5. Don’t try to speed up their learning
It can sometimes be tempting to fall into this trap. We come under increasing pressure not just from other parents, but also from a rise in testing and starting kids younger and younger in preschool/school. Piaget actually believed that premature teaching could be worse than no teaching at all! He argued that it can lead to a superficial understanding of adult formulas rather than real cognitive understanding.
6. Ask them to explain their thinking
Depending where your child is at this stage, ask them to explain why they feel/think the way they do. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve assumed why my daughter said/did something, only to learn that what was going on in her mind was completely different!
The kind of knowledge outlined in this post certainly helps us as parents to better understand our kids and their brain development. It allows us to comprehend why they do the things they do and also why they’re not doing things! With this kind of knowledge, we can better respond to them and more effectively support their development and learning.
Over to you…
Has this post helped you to better understand some of your child’s behaviour and how they learn? Is there more you would like to know in terms of your child’s brain development? If so, let’s chat in the comments below!