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Understanding Cognitive Development- The Preoperational Stage

Posted on Sep 14, 2016 3:32:21 PM by healtheo360

Understanding Cognitive Development- The Preoperational Stage: As part two of our cognitive development series, we will discuss the second stage of Piaget’s theory: the preoperational stage.

The Preoperational Stage

 The preoperational stage commonly begins around the age of 2 and lasts until the age of 7. While children are unable to think logically during this phase, some of the more significant achievements are the development of language and imagination.

Piaget focused mostly on the limitations of a child’s cognitive growth during this stage. According to an article published by Simply Psychology, there are several important features of the preoperational stage:


  • Conservation
  • Egocentrism
  • Play
  • Symbolic Representation
  • Pretend (or Symbolic) Play
  • Animism
  • Artificialism
  • Irreversibility

In this article, we will discuss each of these features and how they impact a child’s cognitive growth.





 Conservation refers to a child’s tendency to focus only on one aspect of a situation rather than all relative variables. Piaget administered several experiments to demonstrate a child’s understanding of conservation. In one of the more common experiments, children were presented with two identical glasses, both of which contained the same amount of water. Water from one glass was then poured into a more tall and narrow glass. When asked which glass contained more water, the majority of children noted that the taller glass contained more. Piaget found that any understanding of conservation was limited in children under the age of 5.



 Egocentrism refers to a child’s inability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. During the preoperational stage, children generally believe that others view situations from the same point-of-view as their own. A common experiment used to demonstrate egocentrism is known as the “Three Mountains Task.” In this experiment, children were presented with three model mountains, all of which had different features. When asked to choose an image that represented the scene from their point-of-view, most children were able to do so with little difficulty. However, when asked to choose an image that showed what someone else would have seen from a different viewpoint, most children chose the same image they saw from their own perspective. Piaget concluded that children between the ages of 2 and 7 have difficulty considering viewpoints other than their own.



 Toward the beginning of this stage, children engage in parallel play, meaning they play in the company of other children but not with other children. This attitude relates back to egocentrism, as children are only concerned with their own actions. When engaging in speech, a child’s sole purpose is to vocalize their inner thoughts rather than communicate with others.


Symbolic Representation

 During this stage, a child has the ability to make a word or an object stand for something else.


Pretend (or Symbolic) Play

 A child’s imaginative thought grows significantly during the preoperational stage. Children often assume the roles of people they are not, such as a firefighter or policewoman. It is not uncommon for a child to create an imaginary playmate during this stage as well.



Animism refers to a child’s belief that inanimate objects (i.e. toys) possess human feelings and emotions. According to Piaget, animism has four distinct stages, the final two of which continue past the preoperational stage:


  • Age 4 – 5: children believe almost everything is alive and has a purpose
  • Age 5 – 7: children believe only objects that move have a purpose
  • Ages 7 – 9: children believe only objects that move spontaneously have a purpose
  • Ages 9 – 12: children understand that only plants and animals are alive



 Closely related to animism, artificialism refers to a child’s belief that natural phenomena are manmade creations. For example, a child may believe the sun or clouds were created by beings.



Irreversibility refers to a child’s inability to understand that actions may be undone and/or returned to their original state. Consider they experiment with the two glasses of water. A child does not understand that by pouring water from the tall, narrow glass back into it’s original glass, they can prove that both glasses contain the same amount of liquid.



Keep an eye out for our follow up articles, as we will be discussing the remaining two stages of Piaget’s theory.



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