Annie poses in front of the mirror in the dramatic play area. “Look at me; I look like a princess, and my daddy calls me princess, too.” Three-, four-, and five-year-olds are developing a sense of self. Self-concept is the mental picture we have developed about ourselves. They are beginning to understand things about themselves that are unique to them. They can recognize themselves in mirrors and in pictures. They are learning things about themselves and beginning to compare themselves to others. “Sally has the same hair color as I do, but Nancy has more of a yellow color,” says Andrea. “Majia’s skin is darker than mine,” says Dora. At this age, children want to explore the characteristics that make them special. At three, children can correctly answer the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” They understand that boys and girls are different. When describing a classmate, they can always identify if the child is a boy or a girl. Four- and five-year-olds also understand that gender is constant. If you are a boy today, you will be a boy tomorrow.
At four and five years of age, children still have difficulty understanding what their “whole self” includes (Siegler, 1997). Playing hide-and-seek, Steven crouches behind a tree. His head is covered, and he cannot see David, who is counting to 20 before he searches for his friends. However, Steven’s entire body is sticking out from behind the tree. His other friend, Leo, is hiding his eyes behind a narrow pole from the swing set. Because Leo cannot see David, he assumes that David cannot see him. At this age, children’s concept of their physical self can be limited to what they can and cannot directly see.
Classroom environments can support the healthy and positive development of a child’s concept of self (McClellan & Katz, 1997). Activities that encourage body self-awareness help young children understand how their bodies move and work. Art activities that allow children to draw pictures of partners and themselves help children conceptualize their own image as well as those of others. Photos of children next to their artwork or displayed on a bulletin board help reinforce children’s images of themselves. Providing a full-length mirror in the classroom where children can watch themselves play or see how they look in their dress-up clothes facilitates the development of the concept of self. Games such as “Simon Says” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” help develop children’s perceptions of their bodies. Have the children document their growth in a diary over the course of the year. Weigh and measure them, have them trace their shoe and their hand, and have them draw a picture of themselves. Repeat this activity again at the end of the year to see the changes in each child.
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