3 to 4 It Makes Sense to Me! by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Three-year-old Scott insists that his tall pile of blocks contains more than Rochelle's flat train of blocks, even after his teacher helps him count each group. Scott is still using observation to tell him that his "big" pile has more. It will take more such teacher-- assisted experiences and a developmental leap for Scott to realize that his initial perception was incorrect.

Preschoolers at the preoperational stage of development use their perceptions of the environment, along with bits of information gathered during their past experiences, to understand their world. They base their understanding on what they see rather than on logic. They need to go through many illogical thinking processes before they can even begin to make logical sense of their world.

Learning Through Trial and Error

In providing your children with opportunities to learn through play, bear in mind the following characteristics of their thinking:


Judging by appearances. When the form or appearance of a material changes, it's difficult for preschoolers to understand that quantities remain the same (or are "conserved"). For instance, during snack time, Janelle dumps her box of animal crackers on the table. Latisa looks into her own tightly filled box of crackers, then pouts and asks why Janelle has more crackers. She doesn't logically understand that if Janelle's crackers were placed back in the box, the quantities would look and be the same.

Looking at one thing at a time. Because it's hard for preschoolers to focus on more than their own singular perception, they tend to sort objects by one characteristic, rather than by two. If given some small blocks of different sizes, colors, and shapes, for example, young threes might decide to sort them by lining them up by size and calling them a "parade." However, older threes and fours might organize them by two attributes (color at first, then later by shape or size as well).

Not knowing numbers. Preschoolers are also quite illogical when it comes to number concepts. As Charlie pours buckets of water and recites by rote, "four, five, six," his counting may not correspond at all to the amounts he is pouring. Again, it's through concrete experiences that he will come to understand the meaning of numbers and counting.

What You Can Do

Allow for different learning styles. Some children like to jump right in and mess around. Provide these children with lots of open-ended materials to explore. Other children are more comfortable watching an activity and asking questions. Make sure there's plenty of time for them to discuss what's happening.

Stimulate children's curiosity and thinking skills. Offer a range of intriguing manipulatives. For example, ask children to compare colored rods by size and string beads to create patterns. Point out cause-and-effect relationships. As they add an egg to flour during cooking experiments, ask, "What might happen next?" Use open-ended questions to support estimating and predicting.

Offer thinking challenges throughout the day. As children put away blocks and books during cleanup time, encourage them to classify objects. Invite them to compare quantities while playing in their classroom grocery store.

5 to 6 Measure it this way! by Ellen Booth Church

"Mrs. Mills, did you know this table is eight books long and the bookcase is nine? I'm seven books long, and Nathan is six. How many books long are you? Maybe 10!"

In this kindergarten, a hands-on experience like this one naturally leads to the development of abstract-thinking and processing skills. These 5- and 6-year-olds were experimenting with using books as a unit of measure. As they freely and open endedly explored the concept of nonstandard measurement, they began to understand the application of theory and the potential for its use. They observed similarities and differences between the objects they were measuring. And although the books they used to measure with were far from standard size, the children were making the abstract connection between the object being measured and the tool they were using.

During this stage, children are developing the ability to hold information in their minds and then use it to make comparisons. The process of making these comparisons is an important step in abstract thinking. For instance, in the fall this class had used apples as a nonstandard unit of measure and remembered that their teacher was more apples long than they were. They didn't remember how much longer, but they did realize that 10 books is more than seven-applying the concept then and later-which is really abstract thinking at work!

It Just Makes Sense!

Developmentally, 5- and 6-year-olds are straddling the fence between concrete and abstract experiences. They're not ready to learn everything from pencil and paper and rote tasks but are able to see the connection between concrete experiences and abstract representation. Counting how many books long and representing that information on a chart or graph with stickers or tally marks is a key skill-- recording a concrete experience in a pictorial or symbolic way. This is the beginning of tabulating, writing, and even future note taking.

Because their recordings are based on personal hands-- on experiences, 5- and 6-year-olds are also able to refer back to their charts and "read" what they found out. Their simple symbols and pictures are akin to the alphabet and reading. Studies have found that when kindergartners create their own abstract symbolic recordings, they move into reading with greater ease and understanding.

What You Can Do

Classrooms alive with learning are filled with action and open-ended questions. Provide opportunities for children to work with concrete materials. If children have experimented with filling different-size containers with water, encourage them to try again with sand, counters, and crayons.

Invite children to compare hands-on experiences. Charts, graphs, and field books can provide a bridge between the concrete and abstract.

Encourage children to make predictions based on previous experiences. Record children's predictions. ECT