Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.
– Jean Piaget (1896-1980)
Have you ever stopped yourself in your tracks as you remember that your preschooler doesn’t actually think like an adult? Of course, we know this, even if we momentarily ‘forget’ it at times. But how exactly is their thinking different from ours and what takes place in order for them to eventually think like an adult?
Maybe the best place to look for answers to this is with the founding father of cognitive development in children: the renowned Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980).
Who was Jean Piaget?
Piaget was the first psychologist to carry out a comprehensive study into how children think, i.e. their cognitive development. During his early work, he became curious with children’s reasoning for their incorrect answers that required logical thinking. It was his belief that the incorrect answers demonstrated a significant difference between how children and adults think.
Piaget travelled to various countries and found that the interest for many educators was focused on how they can accelerate children’s development, (particularly so in the USA). His belief however, was that, trying to speed up children’s progress could be worse than no teaching at all, because it results in a, superficial acceptance of adult formulas rather than true cognitive understanding (May and Kundert, 1997).
It would appear that this desire to speed up our children’s development hasn’t changed significantly since Piaget’s travels. Our struggle to find a preschool, (see post 1), that wasn’t in some way or another trying to achieve this, seemed to reflect this continuing desire. If a child is progressing well and in tandem with their immediate peers, then we can all breathe. If however, they are ‘behind’ their peers, parents often feel that something is wrong with their child.
What is Piaget’s theory?
Piaget’s theory focuses on the various stages of cognitive development a child goes through. He stated that all children go through these stages of development, and that no stage can be missed out. Children however, will progress through the stages at their own individual rate.
Significantly, Piaget didn’t assign a specific age that a child should reach each stage, but gave an age 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)
As this blog’s focus is 2-7 year olds, I will concentrate on the pre-operational stage. If you are interested in the other stages however, you can read more by clicking on the reference links at the end of the post.
What is the pre-operational stage?
According to Piaget, children at this stage, cannot use logic or transform, combine or separate ideas (Mc Leod, S.A. 2015). They are acquiring experiences about the world around them and moving towards the concrete stage where they will be able to use logic in their thinking. The main aspects of this stage are:
The child tends to be able to only think of one aspect of a given situation at a time and will ignore the others.
An example of this is Piaget’s liquid test. The test 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 then conclude that there was more liquid in one of the glasses, rather than the amount of liquid had remained unchanged. They were only able to concentrate on the liquid and not the liquid and the different sizes of the glasses.
The Youtube video below shows an example of this kind of experiment in action:
Egocentrism refers to the way that children at this stage think that everybody sees everything the same way as they do (that everybody has the same point of view as them). Sometimes it may come across to an adult as selfishness. It is however, an inability to see that other people may think differently to them; that they have a different point of view.
An example could be your three year-old wanting to buy you a toy truck for your birthday. They are not being selfish, but thinking that you would enjoy it as much as they would. In other words, you would have the same point of view about it as they do.
A well known test by Piaget is the three mountain problem. In this experiment a child is seated on one side of the table and is asked what s/he 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 that they can.
The Youtube video below shows an example of this kind of experiment in action:
Piaget argued that children’s thinking is not egocentric by the age of 7. However, Martin Hughes (1975), claims that children are no longer egocentric by the age of 4.
As children enter the start of this stage, they don’t play with their friends, but rather alongside them. Their communication reflects what they are thinking rather than communicating with the other child.
Then as they progress through the stage, they move away from egocentrism and enjoy playing with rather than alongside their friends. The play is now more of, ‘let’s pretend’ and playing the role of their favourite characters.
This stage can sometimes be difficult for the child to navigate as they are now not only relating to their friends but also having to start to negotiate rules as well as consider the feelings and opinions of others.
Here the child is able to make one object represent something else. Your wallet suddenly becomes their phone!
Animism relates to children believing that inanimate objects have emotions and feelings: that, the world of nature is alive, conscious and has a purpose (Mc Leod, S.A 2015). Around the age of 4-5, the child thinks that everything is alive and has a purpose and by the ages of 5-7, that only things that move have a purpose.
Artificialism refers to children thinking that some things in their environment are made by people, such as clouds.
The child often…projects the whole of his verbal thoughts into things. He sees mountains built by men, rivers as dug out with spades, the sun and moon as following us on our walks.
– Jean Piaget
It is at this stage that they also begin asking ‘why?’ to every answer they are given. Although it may feel that they are deliberately testing our patience at times, they are simply becoming increasingly curious about the world around them. They are beginning to reason, with a desire to know why things are as they are. Piaget named this as the, ‘intuitive substage’. Children are now beginning to realise that they have a large amount of knowledge but they don’t know how they acquired it.
The pre-operational stage also sees a maturity in their use of language and their memory and imagination continue to develop. The way they think at this stage, is, based on intuition and still not completely logical. they cannot yet grasp more complex concepts as cause and effect, time and comparison (www.webmd.com).
I think Piaget’s theory, which has been widely acknowledged within the field of education, can give parents some reassurances as they apply it to their own children. Some key points for this would be that children do develop at their own rate and that any attempt to speed up this development serves no benefit and could be detrimental. It also offers us an intriguing insight into how our children think/how their minds are working. With this knowledge, we are able to better understand them and maybe why they do the things they do!
Join me for the next post where I will take a deeper look at Piaget’s theory in explaining how children make sense of the world around them.
If you have any experiences/comments that you would like to share based on this post, then I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.
McLeod, S.A (2015) Preoperational Stage. Retrieved from www.simplepyschology.org/preoperational.html
Thanks for reminding us that children need the space to develop and move naturally through the different stages of development. It seems that all too often today children are viewed as being competitors in a race, and that success is measured by those who can do things first. We can do great harm as parents by becoming sucked into this narrative and not allowing our children time to work out meanings for themselves.
Thank you for sharing Piaget’s approach. I loved that you provided examples which helped me to see how his theory works in practice. However, I would also like to learn about other theories that have been put forward by education experts, to compare and learn why you think that Piaget’s is still so valid today. It seems to me that even though we have such accepted theories, like Piaget’s, education today still seems to be taking the opposite approach. I would like to learn more about why the opposite approach is so popular and what effects this kind of education has on children.