The time between 6 and 8 is one of tremendous cognitive change for children. They move from being preschoolers into middle childhood, from a life dominated by fantasy to one that is beginning to be governed by logic and reason. They start to see themselves as more autonomous individuals, capable of basic independent problem solving. As they begin to take note of the “right” way to do things, they invest more time and energy into completing tasks in the expected manner. However, like the preschoolers they were, they continue to prefer structured activities over open-ended ventures, and they continue to need consistent direction from adults.
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Children at age 6 are in the latter phases of Piaget’s preoperational period, the time during which children learn to use language. The end of the preoperational period is marked by the child’s intuitive grasp of logical concepts in limited, tangible arenas, while continuing to be dominated by perceptions in other arenas. For example, before a child turns 7 he can usually conserve numbers — understanding that two rows of (the same number of) pennies will remain equal, even if one is spread out to be visually longer than the other. However, this same child will not be able to conserve mass, and thus will be mistaken in his perception that the fatter ball has more than the rolled out “hot dog,” even if shown at the outset that both are equal.
Another hallmark of completion of the preoperational stage (around age 7) is the ability to manipulate symbolic elements, such as having control over written language and symbolic play. Completing this stage means that children are now able to mentally manipulate information and begin to take another person’s point of view or infer what another person is thinking, spontaneously and independently. The full development of these abilities will take several more years. The end of the preoperational period marks the decline (although not the obliteration) of a child’s egocentricism (his belief that what he thinks and feels is felt by everyone else as well). The ability to (begin to) take another person’s perspective means that children understand in a new way that other people think differently than they do, that other people may literally and figuratively “see” things differently. As a result, they can begin to role play and take on multiple personas (e.g., act out being Mommy in a realistic but fanciful manner). Support your child’s perspective taking ability with these fun games: A Monster Ate My Homework app for iPad or online optical illusions puzzles.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, children this age still remain magical in their thinking. Their lingering egocentrism often comes out in their convoluted stories and ambiguous references (e.g., “He’s the one that she’s after,” without including enough specific references that the listener can clearly identify the characters/events). Six- and seven-year olds still display what Piaget called animism, the belief that inanimate objects or animals think and feel like humans. While some of this thinking actually fuels creativity, supporting the development of your child’s schema (her foundation knowledge) around animals and habitats is a wonderful way to advance her thinking and understanding of the world. One way you can do both is to allow your child to apply factual thinking to his imagination, where your child uses logic and schema to determine what the animal needs, separate and independent from what humans might need.
At about the age of 7, children enter what Piaget termed the concrete operational period, which lasts until they are about 12 years old. It is during this time that children gain better understanding of and facility with mental operations (e.g., can think about how to approach a problem and consider various outcomes). In the very early stages of this phase, 7 year olds show the beginnings of logical reasonings (e.g., justifying their thinking) and are just learning to organize thoughts cohesively. Their logical thoughts remain limited to actual physical objects and they lack the ability to manage abstract reasoning or hypothetical considerations.
Cognitive development, like all aspects of development, does not happen in a vacuum; each “domain” influences the others. One place this is brilliantly seen is through the work of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian researcher from the early part of the 20th century. Vygotsky’s theories emphasize the imperative role of social interaction and cultural context in cognitive development. According to his work, children’s interactions with knowledgeable others can foster advancements in thinking and learning that would not be possible in the same timeframe without it. Thus, 6- and 7-year olds, because of the increased number of structured social interactions in formal schooling, are prime candidates to benefit from Vygotsky’s contextualized learning.
Additional cognitive skills that develop across this age are the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, to describe similarities between two objects, and to apply creative thinking to problem solving. Increased memory, attention span, and greater impulse control come online as well. Want to challenge your child’s skills? Try this memory game. These new skills, combined with the onset of more complex thinking, allow children to demonstrate persistence and resilience when working on a project. They are able to use their knowledge of routines to plan ahead, and begin to engage in higher level questioning (e.g., “If everything is either a solid, liquid, or gas, what is quicksand?”). One wonderful way to support these skills is the game of chess. To help your child learn this versatile game, they can play against the computer or other children around the world in a secure environment online.
Children’s metacognition also begins to develop across this age — their ability to know what they need to do to better, learn or understand (e.g., reread a passage, ask a question). They also begin to understand the permanent nature of items. For example, at 6, many children believe you can turn a cat into a skunk by painting a white stripe down its back. By 8, they understand that there is an unchangeable essence to items that is unaffected by physical alterations. At 6, a child may solve a math problem without realizing that the answer is immutable each time you encounter it. So 5+6 will always equal 11 and thus is a fact that can be learned and stored, as opposed to needing to be re-solved each time the problem is encountered. This ability to hold and manipulate the understanding of an object or a problem’s essence is one of the skills that defines this period as distinct from the preschool years.