Cognitive Development in Preschoolers

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

The same is true for three- and young four-year-olds’ understanding of conservation of quantity. Eric is shown two cups; one cup is tall and thin and the second cup is short and wide. Both hold the same amount of juice. Eric’s mom pours juice from the tall, thin cup into the short, wider cup showing him that the same amount of juice fits into both glasses. When asked what glass of juice he wants, Eric replies, “I want this,” pointing to the tall glass, “because I am really thirsty and I want more juice.” Eric, who just turned four, attends to the most salient feature of the cup—its height. At this age, children are concrete thinkers and solve problems based on physical features.

Three-year-olds have good memories for things in their immediate experiences. However, they have not developed effective strategies for recalling information over longer periods of time. Therefore, structure and routines are important in three-year-olds’ lives. This allows them to anticipate and predict what they will be doing and what is expected of them. However, children’s wonder at this age for things that they have repeatedly experienced is related to their under developed memories. Three-year-olds can repeatedly watch the same puppet or read the same book 40 times and still show the same delight as they did the first time they were engaged in these activities.

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