As a teacher, it’s essential to clearly understand the progression of cognitive development expected from children at appropriate ages.

This benchmark, along with each student’s personal needs and any potential difficulties or unforeseen circumstances that may impact them, should indicate where your students should be with their development. This knowledge plays a crucial role in ensuring each student’s cognitive development is going as planned and receiving an effective and appropriate education for their needs and level. Having an explicit knowledge of this will also help you, as their teacher, see any disparities in their understanding and produce the most effective learning plans possible adaptable to the needs of the class.

This article will look at one part of cognitive development, particularly the preoperational stage. We will provide an insightful look into what this means, its characteristics, how it operates with the other stages of cognitive development, and any techniques you could use as an educator to measure a student’s mental ability.

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What is the preoperational stage?

The preoperational stage is a development phase in which kids learn to present things in their minds. In this stage, they start to engage in symbolic play and will learn to manipulate symbols. It should be noted that at this stage, they do not yet comprehend concrete logic, so it shouldn’t be expected of them nor perceived as them falling behind.

To fully understand the preoperational stage, we should investigate the 3 other stages. The 4 stages are what makeup Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This is useful for teachers as it gives a clear timeline of where your students should be reaching in their development to stay on track and continue their progression following their peers.

Piaget’s stages of development

This theory is named after psychologist and development biologist Jean Piaget who would record the intellectual development and abilities of infants, children, and teens. Piaget designed the four stages of development to understand early childhood development’s neurological science. The stages of development are part of a theory designed to understand the phases of average intellectual development. This studies the development from infancy through adulthood to gain a complete perspective. This includes thought, judgment, and knowledge.

Below is an explanation of Piaget’s four stages of intellectual development:

  1. Sensorimotor stage – birth through ages 18/24 months. According to Piaget, this is the stage where infants are only aware of what is right in front of them. They focus on what they see and do, and any physical interactions with their immediate environment. This is why they are known to be experimental at this stage, such as shaking, throwing things, and putting them in their mouths. This is because they don’t know how things work yet.
  2. Preoperational stage – toddlerhood (18/24 months) to early childhood, aged 7. This is where children can think of things symbolically. It is based on intuition and still not entirely logical. Their language becomes more mature, and they develop memory and imagination
  3. Concrete operational stage – ages 7 – 11. Show logical and concrete reasons. Their thinking becomes less focused on themselves and increasingly aware of external events. At this stage, they realize their thoughts and feelings may not be the same as someone else’s.
  4. Formal operational stage – adolescence through adulthood. Are now able to use symbols related to abstract concepts. They can systematically think about things, create and develop theories, and consider possibilities. This can also apply to relationships as they should be able to ponder abstract relationships and concepts such as justice.

Things to remember about Piaget’s theory

Below are certain things you should keep in mind regarding Piaget’s beliefs:

  • He acknowledged that some children might pass through stages at different ages to others and differ from the averages noted above.
  • He also said some children might simultaneously show more than one stage characteristics.
  • He insisted that cognitive development follows the above sequence; stages can’t be skipped; each stage is marked by new intellectual abilities and a more complex understanding of the world.
  • His theory broke ground as he discovered that children’s brains work differently than adults.

Some experts disagree with his theory of stages as they see development as more continuous and that his idea doesn’t consider how external factors such as culture and social environment may impact a child’s development.

Central characteristics of the preoperational stage

You can look for specific characteristics in your students that will indicate that this is their cognitive development stage. These are stated below:

  • Language development is one of the milestones of this period.
  • They become adept at using symbols which are increased by using imaginary play. E.g., A child can use an object to represent something else.
  • Role-playing becomes essential.
  • They do not yet comprehend concrete logic and can’t mentally manipulate information.
  • They cannot assume the point of view of other people and only see a matter through their perception – he called this egocentrism.

Techniques that can be used to study the mental abilities of kids

Piaget used specific techniques to study the mental ability of kids, and with knowledge of them, you could use them to understand your students’ abilities.


You can understand egocentrism in the way that Piaget defined it by exploring it through your student. Show them an image of a scene, for example, a mountain scene. Have the child select an image that shows the scene they have viewed. Then have them select an image that shows what someone else may have seen from a different vantage point. You should see that they almost always pick the same one. This shows that your students can only comprehend their viewpoints and understandings at this stage. They cannot see past that to somebody else.


This technique will show you what your students know about conservation. Show your students two containers of the same display containing liquid of the same amount. Then pour them into two different cups, shaped noticeably differently. Then ask them if any of the new cups have more liquid in them. Piaget argues that at this stage, they tend to say one has more liquid despite seeing it beforehand due to how it appears to them now.

We hope that through this article, you can correctly evaluate and assist your students who may be in the preoperational stage of their cognitive development to cement the skills they have learned and to improve further, develop and introduce new ones that will help them in the future.