Preschoolers provide remarkable examples of how children play an active role in their own cognitive development, especially in their attempts to understand, explain, organize, manipulate, construct, and predict. Young children also see patterns in objects and events of the world and then attempt to organize those patterns to explain the world.
At the same time, preschoolers have cognitive limitations. Children have trouble controlling their own attention and memory functions, confuse superficial appearances with reality, and focus on a single aspect of an experience at a time. Across cultures, young children tend to make these same kinds of immature cognitive errors.
Piaget referred to the cognitive development occurring between ages 2 and 7 as the preoperational stage. In this stage, children increase their use of language and other symbols, their imitation of adult behaviors, and their play. Young children develop a fascination with words—both good and bad language. Children also play games of make‐believe: using an empty box as a car, playing family with siblings, and nurturing imaginary friendships.
Piaget also described the preoperational stage in terms of what children cannot do. Piaget used the term operational to refer to reversible abilities that children had not yet developed. By reversible, Piaget referred to mental or physical actions that can go back and forth—meaning that they can occur in more than one way, or direction. Adding (3 + 3 = 6) and subtracting (6 − 3 = 3) are examples of reversible actions. Children at this stage, according to Piaget, make use of magical thinking based on their own sensory and perceptual abilities and are easily misled. Children engage in magical thinking, for instance, while speaking with their parents on the telephone and then asking for a gift, expecting it to arrive via the telephone.
Piaget believed that preschoolers' cognitive abilities are limited by egocentrism—the inability to distinguish between their own point of view and the point of view of others. The capacity to be egocentric is apparent at all stages of cognitive development, but egocentricity is particularly evident during the preschool years. Young children eventually overcome this early form of egocentrism when learning that others have differing views, feelings, and desires. Then children may interpret others' motives and use those interpretations to communicate mutually—and therefore more effectively—with others. Preschoolers eventually learn to adjust their vocal pitches, tones, and speeds to match those of the listener. Because mutual communication requires effort and preschoolers are still egocentric, children may lapse into egocentric (nonmutual) speech during times of frustration. In other words, children (and adults) may regress to earlier behavioral patterns when their cognitive resources are stressed and overwhelmed.
Piaget indicated that young children have not mastered classification, or the ability to group according to features. Neither have they mastered serial ordering, or the ability to group according to logical progression. While possibly inherent in young children, these abilities are not fully realized until later.
Piaget also believed that young children cannot comprehend conservation, or the concept that physical properties remain constant even as appearance and form change. Young children have trouble understanding that the same amount of liquid poured into containers of different shapes remains the same. A preoperational child will tell you that a handful of pennies is more money than a single five‐dollar bill. According to Piaget, when children develop the cognitive capacity to conserve (around age 7), children move into the next stage of development, concrete operations.
Current research implies that children are not as suggestible, operational, magical, or egocentric as Piaget surmised. In studying children's use of symbols and representational thinking, for example, researcher Renee Baillargeon found that preschoolers as young as 2 1/2 are able to employ reversible mental thinking. Baillargeon's research involved the following experiment: Two objects—a large red pillow and a miniature red pillow—are hidden in a large room and a miniature replica of the room, respectively; shown where the miniature pillow is hiding in the miniature room, a child locates the corresponding large pillow in the large room. Baillargeon suggested that such abilities are indicative of symbolic thought, in which objects represent not only themselves but also other objects as well.
In contrast to Piaget's theories of childhood egocentrism, similar studies indicate that children can and do relate to the frame of reference of others. Two‐ and three‐year‐olds, for instance, have been shown to modify their speech in an effort to communicate more clearly with younger children. Researcher John Flavell suggested that preschoolers progress through two stages of empathy, or sharing perspectives. At the first level, around ages 2 through 3, the child understands that others have their own experiences. At the second level, around ages 4 through 5, the child interprets others' experiences, including their thoughts and feelings. This shifting in perspective is indicative of cognitive changes: At the first level, the child focuses on appearances; at the second level, on reality as they understand it. Hence, young children develop social cognition, or an understanding of their social world, however immature that understanding may be.
Typical 5‐year‐olds are interested in how their minds and the minds of others work. Children eventually form a theory of mind, an awareness and understanding of others' states of mind and accompanying actions. Children can then predict how others will think and react, particularly based on their own experiences in the world.
Current research of 2‐ to 5‐year‐olds clearly demonstrates that Piaget incorrectly assumed that preoperational children are only literally minded. In fact, these children can think logically, project themselves into others' situations, and interpret their surroundings. So while the cognitive qualities of Piaget's preoperational stage may apply to some or even many children, these qualities do not apply to all children.
Memory is the ability to encode, retain, and recall information over time. Children must learn to encode objects, people, and places and later be able to recall them from long‐term memory.
Young children do not remember as well as older children and adults. Furthermore, these children are better at recognition than at recall memory tasks. Researchers suspect several possible causes for this development. One explanation is that preschoolers may be lacking in certain aspects of brain development necessary for mature memory skills. Another explanation is that preschoolers do not have the same number and kinds of experiences to draw upon as adults when processing information. Another reason is that young children lack selective attention, meaning they are more easily distracted. Still another explanation is that children lack the same quality and quantity of effective mnemonic strategies as adults.
Preschoolers, nonetheless, demonstrate an intense interest in learning. What a child may lack in skills is made up for in initiative. Children have an inherent curiosity about the world, which prompts a need to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Some young children may become frustrated when learning does not come about as quickly or remembering as efficiently as older children. When learning situations are structured so that children may succeed—setting reasonably attainable goals and providing guidance and support—children can be exceptionally mature in their ability to process information.
Language skills also continue to improve during early childhood. Language is an outgrowth of a child's ability to use symbols. Thus, as their brains develop and acquire the capacity for representational thinking, children also acquire and refine language skills.
Some researchers, like Roger Brown, have measured language development by the average number of words in a child's sentences. The more words a child uses in sentences, the more sophisticated the child's language development. Brown suggested that language develops in sequential stages: utterances, phrases with inflections, simple sentences, and complex sentences. Basic syntax, according to Brown, is not fully realized until about age 10.
Preschoolers learn many new words. Parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and the media provide opportunities for preschoolers to increase their vocabulary. Consequently, the acquisition of language occurs within a social and cultural context. Socializing agents provide more than just words and their meanings, however. These agents teach children how to think and act in socially acceptable ways. Children learn about society as they learn about language. Society's values, norms, folkways (informal rules of acceptable behavior), and mores (formal rules of acceptable behavior) are transmitted by how parents and others demonstrate the use of words.
Around the world and in the United States, some young children are bilingual, or able to speak more than one language. These children learn two languages simultaneously, usually as a result of growing up with bilingual parents who speak both languages at home. Many of these bilingual children may fluently speak both languages by age 4. Some ethnic children learn to speak a dialect, or variations of a language, before they learn to speak standard English. A debate rages today over whether or not ethnic dialects should be considered equal in value to conventional languages.
For example, some educators believe dialects such as Ebonics (Black English) and Spanglish (Spanish English) should be taught in American classrooms alongside traditional English. According to these educators, encouraging dialects improves a child's self‐esteem, increases a child's chances of understanding classroom material, and celebrates multicultural diversity. Other educators, however, worry that Ebonics and Spanglish put children at risk of not mastering standard English, which in turn puts them at a disadvantage in preparing for college and the workforce.