Something that often catches parents off guard is that fact that young children not only know less than adults, they think differently. Consequently, it is often frustrating and even alarming when their little one is clearly thinking but not thinking clearly.
Infants and toddlers are not really mental creatures, so mothers and fathers typically do not expect much from them intellectually. But preschoolers are obviously capable of using their heads and it can be mystifying when those heads are not used effectively.
What is important to recognize is that this period of life is referred to as the pre-operational or pre-logical stage of cognitive development. The mental machinery available to the child at this point is very crude and has many limitations. A good example would be centration which is the tendency to focus on one aspect of a problem and ignore other relevant features. As a result, the preschooler simply is not equipped to deal with multi-dimensional problems.
You can demonstrate this by showing a four-year-old two glasses of milk – a tall, thin glass and a short, wide glass. Ask her which has more. It is likely she will pick the tall, thin glass because “higher is more than lower.” Now this is a smart kid. If you talk to her, you find out that she knows very well that “wider is more than thinner.” But in order to get the question right, to realize that they have the same amount, she would have to factor in height and width at the same time. And the pre-operational mind does not have the implements necessary to do that. It can consider height or it can consider weight, but it can’t consider both simultaneously.
So the next time your preschooler appears as if she is being “silly” or even “stupid” because she is not solving a problem as quickly, easily, and effectively as you, don’t worry. She probably is doing the best she can with what she has at the point in development, and she will steadily acquire more sophisticated mental tools as time goes by.
Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.