Cognitive Development (page 2)
Jean Piaget, a pioneer in the field of the cognitive development of children, developed a theory that views children as actively constructing knowledge through their constant exploration and manipulation of their world. His theory describes the ways in which children mentally represent their world and manipulate a symbol system at various ages and stages. His theory is based on detailed observations of his own children. He described the growth of cognitive development as proceeding from simple reflexive activity in infancy to complex abstract and logical thinking in adolescence.
Piaget's descriptions of cognitive development in infancy focus on the ways in which inborn reflexes, such as sucking, grasping, visual tracking, and turning toward a sound become more goal directed and refined over the first year of life. Initially, an infant's cognitive responses are purely sensiormotor and have little coordination or intention. Observe a 2-to-3-month-old who is lying on his or her back, watching a rattle suspended in the air by a parent. The baby usually looks at the rattle and will visually follow it from side to side. She may reach out her hands and try to grab the rattle, but may swipe at it. She may kick her legs and wave her arms more to try to get it, but she may not be able to grab it unless the adult puts it right in her hand. Now look at this child at 4 to 5 months. She can probably grab that rattle, bring it to her mouth, explore it, and maybe even shift it from hand to hand. This rapid development is due to both an inner drive to manipulate and master the world (White, 1960) and the availability of a responsive, consistent, trustworthy, and stimulating world. It is this kind of interaction between the child and his or her environment that, according to Piaget, allows a child to construct the knowledge of his or her world. When older infants demonstrate reactions to the world that are no longer purely reflexive, it is clear that their behavior is goal oriented and involves an awareness of past events.
As children reach the age of 18 to 24 months, they begin to show the ability to use mental representation in many ways. They begin to engage in simple symbolic play, usually of domestic mimicry such as pretending to feed a baby doll and put it to bed. They show that they can use simple trial and error to solve simple problems. Observe a 2-year-old completing a three-piece form puzzle. After she has completed it, an adult can turn it so that the forms are not lined up with the holes. Most likely, the child can see this and will adapt the fitting of the forms to the changed position of the board. Children of this age also engage in something that Piaget called deferred imitation. The example often cited is that of children who imitate a tantrum they may have witnessed another child having in day care. This kind of behavior indicates that children of this age have the capacity to store mental images.
Children move out of the sensiormotor stage into the preoperational stage of cognitive development (Piaget, 1952) around the age of 2. This phase of cognitive development lasts until about 6 or 7 years of age and is the phase of focus of this book. Children of this age can engage in symbolic thought but it is very inflexible. They can engage in elaborate symbolic play enacting complicated storylines, but they are often inflexible in the roles they assign: "No, David, you cannot wear the dress because boys don't wear dresses." or "No, you can't be the baby in the game because you don't have a baby at your house." Children are also very egocentric in their thinking. They know that things happen for reasons, but those reasons often have a very egocentric quality. For example, a child may say, "It's time for you to get off the swing now." This indicates that this child has a concept of turn-taking and that a turn on a swing is measured by the passing of time. However, when the child on the swing asks why, the child responds, "Because I want you to," and this indicates that although the child understands turn-taking, the reason he thinks it is his turn is very egocentric. Children in the preoperational stage of cognitive development have precausal ideas about causality. For instance, they say something such as, "It's raining because the grass needs water." They may also attribute animate qualities to inanimate objects. Consider 4-year-old Robert, when asked to describe his house drawing. "My house looks just like any kind of house. The color of it is kind of gray. It never falls down because it's too strong. It's strong enough to stay still." Children of this age often become confused between symbols and the objects they represent. Young children may become afraid of toy animals that look real and ferocious and will often avoid playing with them. They may approach the toy animal in a cautious way that looks like they think the toy animal will bite them. Thus, children in the preoperational phase of cognitive development will often appear frightened of something that is harmless. It is important for adults to understand these limitations in young children's thinking, especially if they are going to be helpful in talking with them about fears. In order to talk with a child and to get that child to talk back, an adult must be able to understand a situation from that child's point of view.
Finally, young children are able to focus on only one dimension at a time. They cannot conserve number, mass, and other variables. Their thinking is also not reversible. Therefore, they often are not able to understand and accept simple concepts, for example, that a child can be angry with a friend but still remain friends with that child. We often hear young children say to one another after they have had an argument, "I'm not your friend anymore and you cannot come to my birthday party." Adults certainly cannot change the way young children think, but they can introduce enough disequilibria in the child's thinking to encourage the use of more flexibility. It does not help for an adult to say, "That's not nice. Of course you will still be friends and she will come to your birthday party." Rather, it is more useful to begin to help the child to see more than one way to react when she is angry with her friend. An adult may say, "Oh, you are angry at her right now because she would not share her beenie babies with you. You really did have a good time with her earlier this morning. I'm sure you will feel better about it later, but right now you are angry and don't feel like being with her. It is better to tell her that you are angry at her because she did not share than to say she cannot come to your birthday party." These are just some comments to make. Certainly, one would not make all of these comments to a child at any one time.
Thus, it is important to understand the qualities of preoperational thinking in order to be able to talk with a young child in a meaningful way, and in order to encourage a child's verbalizations. It is important to talk with a child in a manner that is not condescending and that communicates to the child, "I am listening and I am interested in what you have to tell me." Children readily pick out adults who talk with them and not at them and know which ones will listen to them.
© ______ 2002, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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