The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development

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The preoperational stage is the second stage in Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This stage begins around age 2, as children start to talk, and lasts until approximately age 7.

During this stage, children begin to engage in symbolic play and learn to manipulate symbols. However, Piaget noted that they do not yet understand concrete logic.

preoperational stage of cognitive development
 Illustration by Hugo Lin. © Verywell, 2018.

Characteristics of the Preoperational Stage

The preoperational stage occurs roughly between the ages 2 and 7. Language development is one of the hallmarks of this period.

Piaget noted that children at the beginning of this stage do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism.

During the preoperational stage, children also become increasingly adept at using symbols, as evidenced by the increase in playing and pretending. For example, a child is able to use an object to represent something else, such as pretending a broom is a horse.

Role-playing also becomes important at this age. Children often play the roles of "mommy," "daddy," "doctor," and many other characters.

Timeline of the Preoperational Stage

Two substages occur during the preoperational period of development:

  • Symbolic function (ages 2 to 4): Children develop mental representations of objects in the world around them during this substage. This includes representations of objects that are not currently present. Perceptions play an essential part in a child's ability to solve problems during this developmental period.
  • Intuitive thought (ages 4 to 7): Children begin to rely more on logic than just perception alone in this substage. Their ability to solve problems is more logical, but they may not be capable of explaining how they think or why they think that way. 

Egocentrism in the Preoperational Stage

Piaget used several creative and clever techniques to study the mental abilities of children. One of the famous techniques to demonstrate egocentrism is known as the "Three Mountain Task." In this task:

  1. Children are shown a three-dimensional display of a mountain scene.
  2. Kids are asked to choose a picture showing the scene they observed. Most children are able to do this with little difficulty.
  3. Next, children are asked to select a picture showing what someone else would have observed when looking at the mountain from a different viewpoint.

Invariably, children almost always choose the scene showing their own view of the mountain scene. According to Piaget, children experience this difficulty because they cannot take on another person's perspective.

Other researchers have also conducted similar experiments. In one study, children were shown a room in a small dollhouse. Children could see in the dollhouse that a toy was hidden behind a piece of furniture.

Children were then taken into a full-size room that was an exact replica of the dollhouse. Very young children did not understand to look behind the couch to find the toy, while slightly older children immediately searched for the toy.

Developmental psychologists refer to the ability to understand that other people have different perspectives, thoughts, feelings, and mental states as theory of mind.

Conservation in the Preoperational Stage

Another well-known experiment involves demonstrating a child's understanding of conservation. In one conservation experiment, equal amounts of liquid are poured into two identical containers.

The liquid in one container is then poured into a differently shaped cup, such as a tall and thin cup or a short and wide cup. Children are then asked which cup holds the most liquid. Despite seeing that the liquid amounts were equal, children almost always choose the cup that appears fuller.

Piaget conducted several similar experiments on the conservation of number, length, mass, weight, volume, and quantity. He found that few children showed any understanding of conservation prior to the age of five.

Criticisms and Modern Views

While influential, Piaget's theories are not without criticisms. Some of these center on:

  • The ages at which skills emerge: Other researchers have also found that kids can overcome egocentrism as early as age four, which is earlier than Piaget believed. 
  • The focus on inability vs. ability: As you might have noticed, much of Piaget's focus at this stage of development focused on what children could not yet do.

The concepts of egocentrism and conservation are centered on abilities that children have not yet developed; they lack the understanding that things look different to other people and that objects can change in appearance while maintaining the same properties.

Skills Often Emerge Earlier Than Piaget Suggested

However, not everyone agrees with Piaget's assessment of children's abilities. Researcher Martin Hughes, for example, argued that the reason that children failed at the three mountains task was simply that they did not understand it.

In one experiment, Hughes demonstrated that children as young as age 4 were able to understand situations from multiple points of view, suggesting that children become less egocentric at an earlier age than Piaget believed.

How children engage with the environment may also play a part in their ability to understand the world around them. Researchers have found, for example, that children tend to struggle more with understanding the principle of conservation when they are passive observers.

Kids who actively manipulate materials can better recognize that quantity remains the same even when split up or placed in different containers.

When to Be Concerned

Several important cognitive milestones emerge during the preoperational stage of development. Some of these include:

  • Age 2 to 3: Kids begin to engage in pretend play, can follow simple directions, and can sort objects into different categories. 
  • Age 3 to 4: Kids develop more refined schemas, or categories of information, that they use to sort and understand objects. They also understand past vs. present, have a longer attention span, group similar objects, and seek answers to their questions about the world.
  • Age 4 to 5: Children's cognitive skills become more refined and they are better able to imitate the actions of adults. 
  • Age 6 to 7: Kids develop a better understanding of time and more advanced language skills.

Understanding such milestones can help you better assess whether or not your child's development is on track. However, it is essential to recognize that all children develop at different rates. 

If your child is not meeting one or more milestones after the age such skills typically emerge, it may be cause for concern.

Talk to your child's doctor if you are worried that your child is not achieving milestones that typically happen during the preoperational stage. They can assess your child's abilities to determine if your child needs additional assistance or intervention.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.