Cognitive Development in Preschoolers
One of the most important cognitive shifts in the preschool years that occurs between three- to four-year-olds is the development of symbolic thought. Symbolic thought is the ability to mentally or symbolically represent concrete objects, actions, and events (Piaget, 1952). The most obvious sign of the development of symbolic thought in four-year-olds is the significant increase in their use of make-believe play, which becomes more elaborate as they grow. “Do you like my horse?” Sam asks as he rides around his classroom on a makeshift broom. “He’s really fast and loves it when I brush his hair.”
Three-year-olds and some young four-year-olds are considered pre-operational thinkers, which means that they rely solely on the concrete appearance of objects rather than ideas, they focus on only one relationship at a time, and they often see things from only one point of view—their own (Piaget, 1969). Three-year-old Eric looks at a row of six cups that are spaced about three inches apart. Below the row of cups is a second row of cups with the same number as the row above; however, they are spaced one inch apart. When asked which row has more cups, he says that the top row has more because it is longer. Eric makes his decision based on how long the row appears, the physical feature of the line, and doesn’t attend to the absolute number of cups in the row. When his mom counts the number of cups in each row, Eric still says that the longer row has more cups. Clearly, Eric’s thinking is based on what he sees and understands. To a three-year-old, longer means more. When Eric’s mom aligns the cups in the top row with the cups in the bottom row, and they look to be the same length, Eric says that there is the same number of cups. Again, Eric’s decision making is dependent on the appearance of the cups. According to Piaget, Eric does not have conservation of number and will develop this cognitive skill by the time he is five years old.
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