Pre-operational phase: characteristics of this development phase according to Piaget

In his theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget divided the growth of cognitive abilities in childhood into four stages: sensorimotor, preoperative, concrete operations and formal operations.

Then we will focus on the preoperative phase, the second of them, Which highlights aspects such as a very egocentric vision, beginnings of symbolic thought and the belief that every object is alive.

    What is the preoperative phase?

    The preoperative stage is a stage in Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, succeeding the sensorimotor stage and preceding that of concrete operations and formal operations. This stage occurs between 2 and 6 years old and its name is due to the fact that, when Piaget conceptualized it, he believed that children of these ages were not able to perform abstract mental operations, Be greatly influenced by their way of thinking by the way they perceive immediate things.

    The preoperative phase presents a certain number of successes with regard to the sensorimotor. Among the most important is the fact that, as one would expect, cognitive abilities have been developed to such an extent that the child possesses abilities such as the use of internal images, the manipulation of diagrams, the use of language and the use of symbols, which will be fundamental. in the development of self-awareness.

    The main milestone of this step is provide the child with greater representative knowledge, Improve their ability to communicate and learn. They start to use persuasive tools to get what they want, like toys or candy. However, by not fully understanding the logic, they are still not able to manipulate the information in such a way as to ensure that their desire is satisfied or that they see the rest of the people from their point of view.

    As the child grows, he experiences changes in the way he understands and grasp ideas, while expressing them better. In other words, he builds experiences on what is going on around him and gradually forms a more coherent and logical thought. Outraged, they start to understand that something can represent something else i.e. they start to use symbols, Have objects momentarily transform into something else (for example, a spoon is an airplane).

    It is called preoperative because the child is not yet able to use logic in such a way that it transforms, combines or separates ideas effectively. He does not understand concrete logic, so he is not able to mentally manipulate information and take the point of view of others.

    At the preoperative stage, there are two sub-stages.

    1. Symbolic and preconceptual sub-step (2 to 4 years)

    The child uses concrete images to understand the world, but does not yet acquire abstract or generalizable ideas. Words have a meaning based on their experience, not on what has been said to them without having given them a real example to represent them.

    It uses preconceptions, which are closely related to their sensory experience, which is why it is so important for 2-4 year olds to interact a lot with nature to expand their world.

    2.intuitive or conceptual sub-state (4-7 years)

    The child’s mind is dominated by immediate perception. Intuition plays a key role at this stage since it implies the interiorization of perceptions in the form of representative images which prolong sensorimotor patterns without rational coordination. In other words, the child, on the basis of what has been seen, intuitively dares to generalize what he already knows.

      Characteristics of this stage

      Jean Piaget attributed several characteristics to children in the preoperative phase.


      Concentration is a child’s tendency to focus on one aspect of an object or situation at a time. In other words, children who are at this stage find it difficult to think of more than one trait and to consider them all simultaneously.

      The reverse situation, that is, being able to turn their attention to another aspect, both of the same situation or object and of another, is decentralization and sooner or later they acquire it.

      also, their ability to decentralize varies depending on the type of situation. It is easier for them to change the center of attention in non-social situations than in those that are.

      2. Self-centeredness

      Children’s thinking and communication at this stage is usually self-centered. By egocentricity we mean that their way of seeing and describing things revolves around their experience, i.e. they are egocentric.

      Thus, preoperative children assume that what they see, hear and feel is also seen, felt and felt by others.

      3. Game

      If 2-7 year olds play, their way of doing it is parallel. In other words, they play often and several children can even do so in the same room. However, they do not interact, each is engrossed in their own things and rarely plays collectively.

      While it is normal for parents to try to motivate their children to play with other children, the truth is that according to Piaget, the normal thing at this age is to play without sharing or bonding with other children of the same age. This is said to be due to the fact that children do not yet understand the ability to speak or the rules governing it.

      4. Symbolic representation

      Symbolic representation is the ability to perform an action, either through words or using objects, to represent something different. Language is the pinnacle of symbolic representation since, thanks to phonemes and graphemes, we are able to represent objects, ideas and actions.

      Still important, Piaget considers that it is not language that facilitates cognitive development, but that there is rather an inverse relationship. In other words, it would be the normative cognitive development itself that would promote the development of language and its use as a symbolic representation.

      5. Symbolic game

      Linked to the ability to represent symbolically, pre-operational children are able to play something they are not, such as superheroes, firefighters, doctors … In other words, they can symbolically represent the to be of others.

      They are also able to do this with objects, like grabbing a broom and making a horse out of it. Objectively, it is clear that this is a broom, and the child understands it, but also, with the intention of having fun, turns it into a spirit in the animal and pretends to climb on it. It is also at this age that children can invent an imaginary friend.

      In the symbolic game of children, they advance in their knowledge of how the world works. How are the people, objects and actions that they can perform. Thus, they construct increasingly sophisticated representations of the world from their experiences. As symbolic play increases, egocentric vision decreases.

      6. Animism

      Animism is the belief that inanimate objects, such as toys, pencils, cars, or any other, have human feelings and intentions. In other words, according to Piaget, the child in the preoperative stage considers that the natural world is alive, conscious and has a purpose.

      In this functionality, Piaget detected four steps:

      The first goes from 4 to 5 years, being one in which the child believes that almost everything has life and has a purpose.

      During the second stage, between the ages of 5 and 7, he considers only moving objects as alive and assigns them a purpose.

      The third, between 7 and 9 years old, the child does not consider living objects that move spontaneously.

      The last stage is from 9 and 12 years old, and based on what he has learned both from his home environment and from school the child understands that only plants and animals have life.


      Artificialism is the fact that preoperative children think that aspects of the environment such as clouds, stars, animals or any other are created by people. It’s a very normal characteristic at these ages, a mixture of not yet knowing how the world works and your interest in the natural world.

      8. Irreversibility

      Irreversibility is the fact that preoperative children are unable to reverse the directionality of a sequence of events at their starting point. That is, after performing a series of actions, for example with pieces of lego or any other type of similar toy, children could not do the reverse to get back to the same point they were at the beginning.

      The Three Mountains Experience

      Piaget wanted to verify at what age children still had an egocentric perspective of reality. Therefore, together with psychologist Bärbel Inhelder in 1956, he applied the Three Mountain Experiment, which involves presenting children with a model in which there are three mountains. In one summit there is snow, in another there is a hut at the top and in the third there is a cross above everything.

      The premise of Piaget and Inhelder was that if the child has a self-centered perspective, he will assume that others see the same perspective that he has mountains. On the other hand, if the child has overcome egocentricity, he will be able to understand that others do not have to see exactly the same thing as him, and will be able to indicate what they see. Thus, the main goal of Piaget and Inhelder was to see from what age children could divert their attention and indicate what others could see.

      The method was simple. The experimented child was shown the model and told he could turn around and chat a bit about what he saw. After a while, the child was grabbed and forced to sit on a chair in order to have a static view of the model. Then a doll was taken and placed in different positions on the table.

      At this point, the child received several photographs of the mountains, taken from different positions. The task was for the child to indicate which photograph showed the same perspective as that of the wrist. Thus, if the child pointed to the photograph that corresponded to his own vision, the child was still egocentric. On the other hand, if he was indicating what his wrist was seeing and was right, then that was a sign that he had overcome his egocentric vision.

      After conducting the experiment, Piaget and Inhelder found that 4-year-olds almost always had egocentric vision, as they pointed to the image that represented what they themselves saw and showed no sign of consciousness that the doll saw you something different. It was from the age of 6 that we began to see children able to understand that what the doll saw was different, even if they were rarely right. Those who were right were almost always children between the ages of 7 and 8.

      Criticism of Piaget: the problem of police dolls

      But despite the discoveries of Piaget and Inhelder in 1956, Martin Hughes argued in 1975 that this experience made no sense for children because it was difficult for them to understand.. It was too complicated for children of those ages to have to look at their own visual perspective with those shown in the photographs and pretend to guess what the wrist was seeing.

      Based on this, Hughes designed a task easier for children to understand. He showed the children a model that included two walls that crossed each other perpendicularly, forming a Greek cross at four corners. For the experiment, he also used three dolls, two of which were policemen and one of the thieves.

      First, a police doll is placed in different positions, and the children have been asked to select this same doll. The goal was to make sure that the child understood what was asked of him, because at such a young age the problem may not be with self-centered vision, but not fully understanding the language. Spoken. In case the child made any mistakes, the task was explained to him again and he started over. Interestingly, few people made mistakes in the first few tries.

      Once it was verified that the children understood the experience, the experience itself began. Hughes presented a second police puppet, placed at the end of two walls. The child was asked to take the thief’s doll and hide it from the two policemen, that is, he had to consider two different points of view.

      The sample that Hughes worked with ranged from 3 to 5 years and about 90% were able to give correct answers. Based on that, Hughes designed a more complex situation, with more walls and a third cop, and even 90% of the 4-year-olds were successful. With that Hughes showed that children had surpassed their egocentric outlook at just 4 years oldBeing able to take the other’s point of view sooner than Piaget had assured with his experience of the three mountains.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Borke, H. (1975). The Piaget Mountains revisited: changes in the egocentric landscape. Developmental Psychology, 11 (2), 240.
      • Piaget, J. (1929). The concept of the child’s world. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
      • Piaget, J. (1951). Egocentric thinking and sociocentric thinking. J. Piaget, Sociological Studies, 270-286.
      • Piaget, J. and Cook, MT (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, New York: International University Press.
      • Piaget, J. and Inhelder, B. (1956). Children’s conception of space. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
      • Hughes, M. (1975). Self-centeredness in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Edinburgh.
      • Tamis-LeMonda, CS and Bornstein, MH (1996). Variations of exploratory, non-symbolic and symbolic children’s play: a multidimensional explanatory framework. Advances in Children’s Research, 10, 37-78.

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