Watch a group of 3- and 4-year-olds eating and you'll see a variety of very strong likes and dislikes. Jane, who is 3 1/2, almost never likes what she is served. Given pasta with sauce, she'll demand that she have exactly two meatballs with it or that the sauce be on the side. Tanya, who is 4, eats a particular food in streaks. For up to three weeks she'll eat only applesauce, for example. Then, one day, she'll refuse to eat this once favorite food.
For these preschoolers, food offers an opportunity to assert their power and control. It is also a means of expressing, to themselves and the world, who they are. Preschoolers are trying new things and experimenting and are slowly discovering their own preferences. When they come upon something that they like or dislike, they tend to embrace or dismiss it wholeheartedly. This explains Jane's insistence on using only the color purple in her artwork!
A Personal Matter
Preschoolers' likes and dislikes are greatly influenced by their temperament and personal learning styles. They are beginning to discover what they're good at, what they gain enjoyment from, and what they find challenging and frustrating. A visual learned for example, may discover that she excels at solving puzzles. Being able to do the jigsaw puzzle on her own brings her great pleasure, and she'll soon announce that she likes doing puzzles. On the other hand, an auditory learner who can recall song after song may have trouble doing puzzles and decide that he dislikes them.
Coming to Conclusions
Many preschoolers dislike certain things because they have had a bad experience and are afraid of them. With growing understanding of cause-and-effect relationships and a boundless imagination, preschoolers can draw general conclusions from specific instances.
Sometimes these conclusions are illogical. Senita, a 3-year-old, was told, "It's dangerous to walk in front of a car. It may run over you." Now she dislikes all cars because she thinks they may hurt her and cries whenever she has to ride in one.
Sometimes children's conclusions are logical and cause them to form healthy fears. Colin, for example, was once stung by a bee. Since bees fly fast and buzz loudly, he thinks they have great power. While his fear is out of proportion, it helps to protect him from being stung again.
While most of a preschooler's preferences are individual and personal, with few exceptions 3-year-olds like to play with language. Silly words ("bippity, bobbity, boo"), new words ("secret"), and rhyming words ("hello yellow!") all bring great pleasure to threes. Listening to stories and singing songs are also high on threes' lists of likes. Books that have playful text and silly rhymes are almost sure to be a hit.
What You Can Do
It can be tiresome when a child insists on wearing only green shirts or sitting only in the blue chair. It's important to be caring, understanding, and - above all - patient. Here are some ways to assist children in exploring their likes and dislikes:
Help children modify the environment to fit their preferences. Personal learning styles have an impact on the environments children feel comfortable in. For example, some children will work best near the window where it's bright, while others prefer dimmer light.
Help children choose from what is available. If a child can't have his favorite food for a snack, for example, guide him to pick the snack option he likes the most.
Support children's feelings. It's important to let children know that you understand their feelings and that you appreciate their preferences. For instance, you might say, "I know you really love dinosaurs, and we will play with the dinosaur models tomorrow, but now we are going to read about trains."
5 to 6 "I Want It 'Cause It's My Favorite Color!" by Ellen Booth Church
Development Ages & Stages
Mention a football team or a particular color and you'll quickly find out the strength of some kindergartners' likes and dislikes. While they've outgrown the rigid preferences of 2-year-olds, fives and sixes are still very particular about what they like and dislike. The major developmental difference that occurs is kindergartners' growing ability to analyze and express opinions.
Able to Articulate
Five- and 6-year-olds are making major leaps in the development of language, reasoning, and deduction. As part of this growth, the process of liking and disliking matures from an emotional response to higher-order thinking in which children use the skills of observation, comparison, and evaluation. Whereas younger children will offer a simple yes or no when asked if they like something, kindergartners will explain why and how they like or dislike it.
At this age, children are not only able to express their preferences but can also discuss and compare their likes and dislikes. As they talk and think about their preferences, kindergartners learn to express themselves and listen to others. Most important, they learn that we all have our own likes and dislikes.
Of course, these discussions can be problematic. Passionate opinions can clash, and feelings can get hurt. However, this is an important learning experience for children - part of having preferences is being able to express them and to accept other people's. These conflicts offer children a good opportunity to apply problem-solving skills and learn to discuss ideas openly and without judgment.
What You Can Do
Discussing children's likes and dislikes helps them express and understand their preferences. Here are some suggestions to try:
Make sharing preferences a regular part of group discussions. Help children learn to share their preferences by asking them what they like and what they dislike about the activities, storybooks, songs, and other things that you experience together.
Guide children to explain their likes and dislikes. When a discussion of favorite football teams, places to visit, or storybooks comes up, ask children to share why they prefer one over another Develop compare-and-contrast charts listing the different attributes children mention.
Vote on favorite foods, colors, or books. Quantifying preferences with charts, graphs, surveys, or tally sheets provides the children with concrete visual representations of their preferences (and important lessons in symbol systems).
This article originally appeared in the November, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.