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How Preschoolers Think

How Preschoolers Think

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Updated on May 17, 2010

Preschoolers can come up with some pretty wacky ideas, but according to the experts that's all part of growing up. It's important as a parent to know what a child is capable of understanding, so that you can form reasonable expectations. Every child  grows at his own rate, but  there are physical changes that make mental leaps possible.

Jean Piaget, the psychologist credited with forming the theory of cognitive development in the late 1920s, created a list of what kids at each stage are capable of, and what they are not quite ready to do yet. Here's what he found for preschoolers:

  • A preschooler can speak in complex sentences. But his thought process won't always seem logical to outsiders. For example he may say, “If an apple is red, then a green fruit is not an apple.”
  • Once a preschooler has come to a conclusion, it is difficult to reverse his thinking. Preschoolers are not yet capable of easily going backwards through each step to see if it makes sense. They do not yet completely  understand cause and effect.
  • Preschoolers are egocentric, they believe everyone sees the world as they sees it.
  • Preschoolers often pay attention to one aspect of an event and ignore other details. For example, if a child goes to a birthday party he might give a detailed description of the cake, but not any of the party games.
  • Preschoolers believe inanimate objects are alive. It's perfectly common for a preschooler to believe a stuffed bear has feelings.
  • It's challenging for a preschooler to gauge amounts. She won't know that if you put the same amount of pennies in a big jar or in a small jar,the amount of pennies are still equal.

So, what are preschoolers capable of learning? For that, we turn to 1950s psychologist Benjamin Bloom. He led a team of researchers to create a cognitive learning guide which points to how different ages process new information. The guide shows at what stage your child understands a concept. Each level is based on the one in front of it, similar to a staircase. The levels of learning are:

  • Level 1: Knowledge. This is when your child has already been taught the concept and just needs to remember it. This is the level used to retell a story.
  • Level 2: Comprehension. Your child understands what the concept means. She can tell you the main point of the story.
  • Level 3: Application. At this point your child can come up with examples of how the concept can be used. She can draw lessons from the story and determine how they can be utilized in real life.
  • Level 4: Analysis. Your child can break down each idea and think of it in ways that weren't introduced. At this level your child can figure out what something does. For example, your child might think about the details of different lessons in the story and how they form a main point.
  • Level 5: Synthesis. At this stage your child will be able to apply the concept to new situations. For example, when he's faced with a challenge, he recalls the lesson from the story and acts according to its moral.
  • Level 6: Evaluation. At this point your child judges what she's been taught and thinks over the pros and cons to decides whether it's a good or bad idea. For example, a child might judge the story and decide if they liked it and if the lesson’s useful. If not, she might draw an alternate conclusion, based on another story she read which she preferred.

Most preschoolers will be comfortable in the areas of knowledge, comprehension, and application, but not quite at the stage of levels 4-6. That's perfectly normal.

When you introduce your child to a new concept, keep the stages in mind and ask questions. Listen to the response and use it to guide the child to the next plateau. For example, if you know that your son can analyze the problem but not quite synthesize it, help him collect the facts. Guide him towards coming up with a theory. With your help, he can learn to weigh the information and draw conclusions from it. Help him progress faster by asking a question that requires evaluation, such as what he would have done if he faced the situation in the story. This encourages him to decide if the character’s actions were good or bad.

All of the guidelines in the world are only that... guidelines. Each child develops at her own perfect pace. So keep the expectations in mind but take them with a grain of salt. Then sit back with your child and enjoy the ride.

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