Cognitive Development in 3-5 Year Olds

The preschool period is a time of rapid growth along a number of developmental measures, especially children's thinking abilities, or cognition.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Cognitive Development in 3-5 Year Olds

The preschool period is a time of rapid growth along a number of developmental measures, not the least of which is children’s thinking abilities, or cognition. Across this time period, children learn to use symbolic thought, the hallmarks of which are language and symbol use, along with more advanced pretend play. Children this age show centration of thought, meaning their focus is limited to one aspect of a situation or object. Memory abilities come online and children show their own ways of categorizing, reasoning, and problem solving.

Memory is the ability to acquire, store, and recall information or experiences across time. It is not until age 3 that children can reliably do this, although they remain better at recognition than recall, and they do not show the ability to spontaneously use mnemonic strategies to assist remembering for a number of years. Preschoolers use language to encode and compare information for later retrieval; thus, talking about events increases children’s memory of them. Want to work on phonics and memory at the same time? Check out this fun Clifford game.

Memories are more easily recalled when the child is a participant as opposed to an observer, or when something makes a significant impression. Children’s ability to create mental images of people or events also facilitates memory. Help your child learn to create and maintain images with these fun puzzles.

Children tend to use routines to define understanding of events, and to recall sequence, but preschoolers’ sense of time is very general (e.g., they may use the word “yesterday” to mean a month ago). Want to develop your child’s sequencing skills? Try this interactive game. As a result of their relatively weak memory skills, they can repeatedly hear the same story over and over, and delight in each retelling as if it were the first time.

Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky believed cognition advanced through social interactions and problem solving. Vygotsky’s work demonstrates that with the support of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) (adult or more skilled peer), children’s ability shows marked increase, as long as the interactions were not too advanced for the child’s present level of skill. He believed the right level of challenge would be in the child’s “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD),” which would be optimized by scaffolding (support and guidance that the MKO would provide without taking over).

Vygotsky also noticed that, as children were moving towards independence with challenging tasks, they would talk to themselves. Termed private speech, this self-talk is highly prevalent in children ages 3-7. Thereafter, it mutates into inner speech or internal thought, although it is likely to resurface at challenging or confusing tasks. According to Vygotsky, children’s use of language in this way is the foundation of their executive function skills, including attention, memorization, planning, impulse control, etc.

Preschool Thinking
Preschoolers are firmly in the stage Piaget called the preoperational (pre-logical) period (from 2-7). While current researchers question if preschoolers are as illogical as Piaget posited, anyone who has spent time with them knows they think differently than adults! Notably, they are not able to reverse actions (e.g., understand that if 3+3=6, then 6-3=3, or worrying that if they break a bone, it cannot be fixed). In addition, they are unable to conserve (to recognize that objects that change in form do not change in amount). In his famous penny conservation experiment, Piaget demonstrated that until about the age of 6, children would say that the spread out row of pennies had more than the row with the (equal number) of more squished together pennies, even if they themselves counted each row. Piaget explains this contradiction by stating that children’s logic in this time period is ruled by perceptions as opposed to reasoning.

The idea of perceptually-based centration expands beyond conservation to the preschoolers’ larger world view. In general, children this age are egocentric; they cannot spontaneously and independently vary from their own perspective. For example, children may say that grass grows so that they do not get hurt when they fall or because they like chocolate, everyone must. As an extension, they believe that everyone shares the same viewpoint as them, so of course they should get the cookies if they think that, everybody does. As a component of egocentric thought, preschoolers show animism, the belief that nature and objects are alive with human-like characteristics (e.g., when your child says that the ground made them fall). The ability to decenter is one of the hallmarks of the completion of the preoperational stage.

Children’s illogical thinking extends across various domains. For example, in their classification abilities, they cannot yet understand that one object can be classified multiple ways. For example, children may say there are more girls than children in a co-ed class, or that they don’t want fruit for snack, they want a pear. In the same way, they will often over-generalize their category labels. For example, a child may call all animals with four legs “dogs,” or all people with gray hair “grandma.”

In addition, preschoolers often rely on transductive reasoning, whereby they believe the similarities between two objects or the sequence of events provides evidence of cause and effect. For example, if a child sees their teacher at school in the morning and again when they leave, they may believe their teacher must live there. Similarly, if their friend is Italian and eats pasta, they may believe that eating pasta will make someone Italian. In these examples, we see the way preschoolers’ thoughts are dominated by their perceptions. As an extension, preschoolers demonstrate magical thinking, whereby they believe that if they wish for something, they have the power to make it happen, including accidentally wishing harm on a sibling, or being the cause of their parent’s divorce. Try Flabby Physics for some fun ways to develop your child’s sense of cause and effect.

Symbol Use
The time from 3-5 is the heart of symbol development in young children. Use of symbols entails the ability to use one thing to represent another, for example to have the letters ‘dog’ represent an actual dog, have a drawing/map stand for a location, or to have a checker represent a cookie in a game. Preschoolers learn to mentally use and represent tangible objects through images, words, and drawings. Encourage your child’s drawing skills with these free fun apps: GlowFree or DoodleBuddy. While children cannot yet manipulate these symbols, or represent abstract ideas, the ability to use symbols rather than engage in simple motor play is a defining characteristic of the preschool period.

In fact, imaginative play is related to cognitive growth and achievement. For example, preschoolers who engage in more complex pretend play demonstrate advanced general intellectual development and are seen as more socially competent by their teachers. Children who create imaginary friends, who previously would have been red-flagged as at risk for maladjustment, demonstrate more advanced mental representations and more sociability with their peers than those who do not.

While there is no denying the unique perspective that preschoolers view the world with, there are contexts and domains within which these very young children do in fact think logically. The key to this “hidden ability” is the amount of knowledge or experience the child has in the particular domain or area of study. Importantly, the way this knowledge is acquired—through investment, engagement, exploration, and discovery—is the means by which preschoolers advance in their thinking and reasoning skills. 

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