Cognitive Development and the Preoperational Stage

Middle childhood cognitive development
During the play years, children are actively learning although they may struggle with things like egocentrism and reversibility. JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

While cognitive development may not be as dramatic in middle childhood as it is in early childhood, there is still a great deal of intellectual growth taking place during this critical period.

From the ages of five to six, children are still in the period of cognitive development Jean Piaget referred to as the preoperational stage. At this age, kids are able to think symbolically about people and objects in their environment; that is, they use words, pictures, gestures, or actions to represent things, behaviors, or ideas.

Because kids can think symbolically, they are also able to communicate about the present, describe the past, and imagine what they think will happen in the future.

While there is an astonishing amount of mental development happening during this period, there are still some notable things that most kids this age are unable to do. Anyone who has ever spent much time with kids this age probably realizes that while children at the preoperational stage are learning at a rapid pace, they often struggle with things like seeing things from another person's point of view and understanding that things can be reversed or changed.

How Kids Think During the Years of Middle Childhood

While this period of cognitive development involves major leaps in symbolic thinking, kids this age still struggle to logically. They tend to focus only on only one aspect of a problem or situation rather than looking at the big picture.

They also tend to view things from their own point of view and have a difficult time imagining the situation from another person's perspective, an idea that Piaget referred to as egocentrism.

Kids this age also have a tendency to believe that things are irreversible. A child who dislikes tomatoes might start to cry when he sees that his hamburger has a big slice of tomato on it, not realizing that solving the problem simply involves taking the dreaded tomato off the burger.

Kids Are Also Active Learners

It's important to remember that children are not just sitting back passively taking in facts about the world around them. They are actively seeking out information and finding new ways to piece this knowledge together. Think of children as little scientists, constantly asking new questions and looking for new solutions.

Not only are kids learning from their textbooks at school, they are also constantly learning new things from parents, friends, teachers, and other people that play a role in their social world. Observational learning plays a tremendous role in how children learn at this point in development. Kids learn how to play new games by observing and following the examples of their classmates. They discover how to write new letters by watching their teacher write letters on the chalkboard.

In some cases, these learned behaviors are not always a positive thing. Kids might see other children engage in violent play at recess and emulate these actions at home with their siblings.

How Can Parents Support Cognitive Development in Young Children

Parents often wonder what they can do to help their child learn, but chances are you are already helping your child learn new skills and gain knowledge about the world each and every day. By modeling behaviors, answering questions, and guiding your child through new experiences, you are helping her acquire new cognitive skills without ever even thinking about the "teaching" process itself.

You can ensure that this guided learning process is effective by presenting new challenges for learning on a regular basis and offering assistance with tasks that may still be too difficult for a child to perform on her own. Offering direct instruction and encouragement can help your child achieve their goals and gain the confidence she needs to try new things.

This process mirrors what psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to as the zone of proximal development. This zone refers to the range of things that a child can accomplish with assistance, but is not yet able to fully perform independently. As the child becomes increasingly skilled, parents and caregivers can introduce new challenges that continue to move this zone progressively forward.

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