Cognitive Development in Preschoolers (page 2)
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.
Four- and five-year-olds experience important changes in cognitive growth. In general, four- and five-year-olds are beginning to problem solve, think about cause-and-effect relationships, and express these ideas to others. As four- and five-year-olds’ cognition matures, they begin to make the distinction between private thoughts and public expressions.
Four-year-olds are actively manipulating their environment and constructing meaning from their world. At this age, children are very egocentric in their thinking. Egocentrism is the tendency to be more aware of their own point of view than that of others (Piaget, 1952). This explains why four-year-olds have difficulty understanding how the world looks to other people. It is difficult for them to understand why others are not happy when they are happy, sad when they are sad, and hungry when they are hungry. A four-year-old gave her teacher her favorite teddy bear because the teacher said that she was not feeling good. The teddy bear made the four-year-old feel better when she was sick, so the same must be true for her teacher. Because four-year-olds think egocentrically, it is best to present information that is hands-on and is relevant to their own experiences.
Four-year-olds’ thinking and reasoning are concrete, and they typically reason from the particular to the particular as opposed to the particular to the general. (Siegler, 1997). Four-year-old Seth reasons that his dog is friendly, so the dog he passes on his way to school must be friendly, too. Seth likes chocolate, so everyone in his family must like chocolate. At this age, children presume a causal relationship if two events are closely associated in time or in some other way. Bryan sees his teacher at school when he arrives in the morning and leaves her there when he returns home in the afternoon. He reasons that his teacher must live at school.
Concept development is another important aspect of the cognitive development of four-year-olds. They are organizing information into concepts (e.g., chair or animal) based on attributes that define an object or an idea. However, at four years of age, the categories that the concepts are based on are derived from the appearance or the action of the object. Seth calls a small goat that he is allowed to pet at the zoo a “dog.” In his mind, the goat fits all the criteria needed to be a dog: small, furry, and having four legs (Gelman, 1999).
Similarly, when four-year-olds classify objects into categories, they tend to focus on one aspect of the object and ignore the other features. Mary is trying to tell her mother that she does not want fruit for a snack; she wants an apple. She is having difficulty understanding that an apple is a part of the larger category of fruit. Because four-year-olds are beginning to understand part/whole and hierarchical relationships, they have difficulty grasping that objects can be in more than one class. Also at this age, when children are asked to sort objects into specific categories, they are beginning to sort objects on the basis of one attribute (Gelman, 1999). When asked to sort the blocks into groups, Nathan started to put all the blue blocks in one pile and the red blocks in another. At one point, he had put a circular red block in the blue pile because the last block he picked up was circular, and that one was placed in the blue pile. For a moment, Nathan needed to think about what feature of the block he was focusing on for sorting. He confused the shape with the color and soon corrected himself. This ability to focus on one attribute of an object to classify is developing in four-year-olds.
Time is a concept that four-year-olds have difficulty comprehending (Piaget, 1969). Four-year-olds view time as events occurring immediately or taking a very long time. Anyone who has ever told a four-year-old that he or she will be taking a field trip in a week knows that the child will ask every day if he or she is going on the trip that day.
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