General Characteristics of the School-Age Child
Three general characteristics—corresponding to trends in the areas of intellectual, social, and personality development—capture the essence of the period of middle childhood.
From an intellectual standpoint, the major development is that the child's thinking is becoming more orderly, more structured, and more logical. Therefore, the school-age child at play will be more realistic and more rule-oriented than was the preschooler. Play will thus reflect a developing need for order.
The school-age child is more socially involved with age-mates than ever before, and the peer group provides support that formerly was offered only within the family. Acceptance by one's peers is of great importance to children in this age group, and their play reflects a sometimes overwhelming need to belong.
Finally, in the realm of personality development a major challenge to the emerging self-concepts of school-age children is to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, that they have talents, skills, and abilities that they can be proud of. In their play, there is reflected this need for industry.
The Emergence of Logical Thinking: A Need for Order
Even as early as the beginning of the second year of life, children are able to represent the world mentally to themselves. They are starting to use symbols in that they can let objects represent one another and can let words stand for objects, people, or events. Therefore, as was pointed out in Chapter 3, they can now begin to engage in make-believe play. In a sense, the preschooler's intelligence consists of mental activity, as compared to the sensory and motor intelligence of the younger infant (Flavell, 1985; Piaget, 1983; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).
Preschoolers are limited, however, in that their mental representations of reality are not regulated by a consistent system of thought. They are easily distracted. When solving problems, they often focus on irrelevant aspects of the materials they are working with, while they ignore information that is highly relevant. They are influenced too easily by appearances and too often fail to attend to substance. A preschool child may conclude, for example, that a tall, thin glass of water contains more liquid than a wide bowl even if the child has watched beforehand the liquid being measured in exactly equal amounts into both containers. The tall glass looks bigger and so it must hold more liquid—never mind the fact that the taller glass is also wider.
Children of five or six are entering a new stage in the development of thinking, what Piaget (1963, 1983) referred to as the stage of concrete operations. Now the child's mental representations of reality are organized into an overall system of related representations. The result is that thinking takes on a more logical, more orderly appearance. When asked to sort objects into groups, for example, the child in concrete operations sorts with reference to the logically defining properties of the objects. Thus, a collection of geometric forms might be sorted according to size, color, shape, or the number of straight lines they contain. By contrast, the preschool child would have sorted the geometric shapes perceptually rather than logically and arranged them into what Piaget referred to as graphic collections, which are pleasing perceptual arrays: The preschooler may have arranged the shapes into a circle to make a necklace or into a straight line to make a choo-choo train (Inhelder & Piaget, 1964).
The emergence of a logical system to govern one's thinking allows children to perceive the universe as an orderly place. In addition to acquiring the ability to classify materials logically, the child develops an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, a mature understanding of the concepts of time and space, and an ability to reason by induction, which involves the postulation of general principles on the basis of particular observed instances.
Now, because the child's thinking is patterned and orderly, the universe assumes the patterns of the child's mind. As will be seen, children's play during the years of middle and later childhood reflects the transition from the stage of prelogical thinking to that of concrete operations, in the sense that play becomes increasingly realistic and increasingly characterized by a need for order.
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