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Psychologist Jean Piaget formed much of the theory of childhood development that we still use today.

Here, we’ll examine Piaget’s preoperational stage of development, from ages two to four, and the changes in thinking that happen during this time.

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Early Childhood

Aisha is a happy, healthy four-year-old. Like many children her age, she’s really curious about the world around her.

She’s always trying to figure out how things work and how she can impact the world around her.For example, she recently realized that if she throws a baseball onto the floor, it doesn’t bounce. But her mom’s tennis ball, which is the same size as a baseball, bounces when it’s thrown onto the floor. She’s exploring how these things that look the same can act so differently.Aisha is displaying many of the hallmarks of early childhood, which lasts from age two to age six or seven. During that time, children have many new developments in the way that they think. They explore the world and begin to understand things that they couldn’t understand as babies.

Psychologist Jean Piaget named the period of early childhood as the preoperational stage. He identified several key ideas that are present in the thinking of children in the preoperational stage of development. Let’s look closer at the preoperational stage and some of the ways that children in that stage think.


Remember Aisha? She’s exploring many things in her world. She has figured out that a baseball doesn’t bounce, even though a tennis ball does.

When she holds a baseball and a tennis ball in each hand, she can tell the difference between the two. One is heavier and has less give than the other.But what would happen if she was given a baseball that is painted to look like a tennis ball? She might assume that it would bounce.

She can’t quite figure out that the weight and springiness of the ball is what allows it to bounce, not its appearance.Piaget named this stage of development the preoperational stage because children are not able to perform mental operations, or mental problem-solving activities. For example, if shown two short sticks, a child in the preoperational stage cannot imagine what they would look like if they were put end-to-end. She actually has to put them end-to-end to realize that they’d look like a long stick. She can’t do the mental manipulation required to solve that problem.As a child moves through the preoperational stage, she will begin to learn how to perform mental operations. For example, Aisha might begin to figure out that something other than appearance determines whether a ball will bounce or not.

Symbolic Thought

Another key component that develops during the preoperational stage is that of symbolic thought. Before I explain what that is, let’s go back to Aisha for a moment. Her grandmother lives far away, so she sometimes sends videos of herself talking to Aisha so that Aisha knows that her grandmother loves her.When she was a baby, Aisha didn’t understand that the video of Aisha’s grandmother was not the same as the flesh-and-blood version of her grandmother. If her grandmother was in the room when the video was playing, Aisha would get very confused.But now, Aisha is starting to understand that the video is not actually her grandmother.

Symbolic thought is the ability to use symbols to represent things. Just as the video represents her grandmother, Aisha is able to recognize that sometimes symbols can represent things.A key benefit to symbolic thought is language development. Think about a child who is two years old and at the beginning of the preoperational stage.

Their language abilities are very limited. They might be able to speak, but they can’t read or write. By the time they are seven and at the end of the preoperational stage, though, they’ve learned not only to speak but to read and write.The ability to read and write is directly dependent upon symbolic thought. A child has to understand that letters symbolize sounds, that words symbolize things or actions, and that sentences symbolize idea units. Written language is symbolic in nature, and so children who do not have symbolic thought are not able to recognize that written language means something.


Aisha, like most kids her age, doesn’t really understand that people can see things differently from her. Sometimes this can pose problems. The other day, for example, when she and her sister were watching television, Aisha stood directly between her sister and the television.

Her sister, of course, got upset. But Aisha wasn’t trying to be mean; she just assumed that because she could see the television, everyone could. It never occurred to her that people had other perspectives from hers.

The move away from egocentrism is another key component of the preoperational stage of development. Egocentrism is the inability to understand how others see things.Piaget performed a classic experiment to see when children lose their egocentrism and begin to understand that others experience things differently than they do. In his experiment, he took children from the preoperational stage of development and sat them at a table with a model of three different mountains of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. They put a doll in a different position from the child, like across the table from him.

Then the child was shown a series of photos of the mountains from different sides of the table. The child was asked to pick the picture of what the doll saw. At the beginning of the preoperational stage, children usually picked the picture of what they saw from their position at the table. But by the time they were six or seven, they would pick other photos; they understood that the doll wouldn’t see things the same way that they would.

Lesson Summary

Early childhood is the period of time from age two to age seven. Jean Piaget named this period the preoperational stage of development. During the preoperational stage of development, a child develops several skills, including the ability to perform simple mental operations, the development of symbolic thought, which can lead to being able to read and write, and a move away from egocentrism.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify the ages of children in the preoperational stage of development
  • Remember the skills that are developed during the preoperational stage
  • Reference research that supports the ages during which children move away from egocentrism

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