By the time your child is eight years old, he has firmly entered middle childhood. No longer a wide-eyed novice, he has a great many skills that he will continue to build on to expand his mental abilities in dramatic ways for the next several years. Named by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, the concrete operational period (as it is called) is the stage during which children begin applying logic and reasoning to concrete events. For example, recognizing that a person can feel tired even if it is not nighttime or understanding that just because it is night does not mean a person has to be tired.
Children will also question concrete incongruities, such as being shown a video where a cat results from breeding two dogs. Concrete operational children begin using and manipulating symbols representationally with confidence (e.g., understanding that the symbol ‘+’ means to add together, while ‘x’ means to multiply). No longer dependent on manipulating objects in order to learn about them, children in this period demonstrate tremendous growth, both in and out of school. While still lacking the ability to fully understand abstract or hypothetical concepts (e.g., how a person who is a ‘minority’ can be in a situation where she would be the ‘majority’), 8- to 10- year-olds are gaining a better understanding of a broad range of here-and-now mental activities.
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Over the course of the concrete operational period (age 7-11), children master the ability to conserve. This ability means that they understand that certain properties of an object will remain the same, even if outward qualities change. For instance, by age 8, children understand that if there are two rows of five pennies, but one is spread so that the pennies are further apart, both rows still have the same total number of pennies. Ask a 4-year old or 5-year-old the same question and she will tell you the spread out row has more.
By 6 or 7, children can conserve both number (pennies, above) and liquid (knowing that a tall thin cup and short fat cup hold equal amounts). However, it is not until firmly within the concrete operational period that the same child will be able to conserve mass (knowing that if you break a clay ball into many parts, the weight is the same). Next comes the ability to conserve area (knowing that 4 Cheezits next to each other take up the same amount of area as four Cheezits spread around the placemat). Last to come online is the conservation of volume. In fact, many children do not understand that a clay ball reshaped and placed in water will not change the volume of water displaced until they are 11 or 12.
Over the course of the concrete operational period, children also begin to reason more accurately. For example, if (during the penny conservation task) they miscount the spread out row of pennies to be more than the other row, they will realize they made a mistake in counting. This realization is in contrast to believing that one row has more simply because it is spread out. Along with this ability comes an understanding of identity — that if nothing is added or taken away, or if only superficial aspects of a situation are changed, the inherent identity remains the same. For example, an 8-year-old understands that painting a white stripe on a black cat does not turn it into a skunk. Similarly, this same child can understand reversibility — that certain operations can reverse or negate the effects of others. For example, combining together a number of smaller clay balls will reverse the effects of breaking apart one larger one.
Concrete operations is a time when the brain goes through a number of significant changes. Information travels with greater speed through the nervous system and different parts of the brain begin to work in coordination with one another in new combinations. One result is that children this age begin to make logical arguments. Thus, it is not uncommon for your 8- or 9-year old to say, “Didn’t I read extra long last week? That means this week I can watch a movie instead of read.” Problem solving strategies also increase across this age. Now, children are able to use more than one strategy at a time, they can rehearse or preview actions better, and they are more accurate in their choice of strategy.
Similarly, children are able to understand that specific members of a set are also members of the more general set. Thus they can correctly answer the question: “Are there more dogs or black dogs?” because they realize that one set can include another. Try the Cablink app to help your child explore set membership. Seriation also comes online during concrete operations. Now, instead of using a haphazard method to organize items or information, children have the ability to use consistent criteria to order items.
Decentration is another hallmark of this stage. Thus, your child can now more successfully take another’s point of view and can consider more than one dimension simultaneously, as long as the considerations remain concrete. He can more effectively communicate about objects that the listener cannot see, and can think about how others perceive him. A fun way to foster perspective taking skills is with optical illusions. In addition, your child can understand more complex actions, such as when a person feels one way but acts another. These skills can also be seen in increased attention abilities. That is, children this age begin to understand that you can look at one thing (e.g., a picture) and yet be thinking about something else. Watch this video, which demonstrates how looking for (paying attention to) one thing limits your ability to look for (pay attention to) something else. As a result, they learn that they can shift and focus their attention with greater control than previously.
In summary, between 8 and 10 years old, children learn to mentally combine, separate, order, and transform objects and actions. They learn to conserve mass and area, with many also learning to conserve volume. Their ability to apply logic and reason increases, as does their ability to focus attention. They can consider multiple perspectives and apply various thought-out strategies. And while they continue to struggle with understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts, children this age can apply mental operations to concrete problems, objects, and events.