The SPICE of early childhood education, Part 3

Rachel Zeng, Guest Writer

With the pressure-cooker that our children are put through in schools, parents can certainly benefit from having a better understanding of their children’s development.  We provide here the third in a series of articles written by Ms Rachel Zeng towards equipping parents and care-givers with more effective skills in helping their charges cope with the stresses of early childhood education in Singapore. 

Intellectual development, also known as cognitive development, is the development of mental abilities. Children learn gradually to solve problems and understand concepts as well as absorb new and more complex information. There are many known theories on this area and here in this write up, I would like to focus on the theory developed by Jean Piaget (1896–1980).

Theory of cognitive development

This theory, first developed by Swiss biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget, suggested that there are four stages to a child’s cognitive development. 

The first stage which starts from birth to approximately two years of age, focuses mainly on the child’s construction of his understanding of the world. Piaget termed this as the sensorimotor stage. During this stage, the child’s knowledge of his surroundings and the world is limited to his sensory perceptions as well as motor activities. In other words, the child discovers and learns by way of hearing, touching, seeing and feeling.

One of the most important discoveries during the early days of this stage of development is the concept of object permanence. This refers to the awareness that an object continues to exist even when it is out of view. From my experience with very young children, I have observed that this concept is gradually developed through play. For example, a toddler will throw an object and then set out to find it.

Many parents reprimand their young ones for such acts but in my opinion, turning this into a game will help children more than by prohibiting them from such play.

When the child has developed an understanding of object permanence, the emergence of “direct groping” will begin to take place. In other words, the child will perform motor experiments on objects, using hands, arms and legs to see what will happen (e.g., moving a brick from point A to point B or pressing buttons).  

The next stage is the pre-operational stage which occurs generally between the ages of two to six. At this point of development, the child has yet to develop a concrete understanding of logic, and is unable to manipulate information mentally. At this stage children are still unable to relate to the opinions of others. This is what is referred to as egocentrism. Most adults see this as selfishness and start panicking about whether or not their child will grow up to become a selfish person but, rest assured, this is normal development.

In order to help a child move out of this sense of egocentrism, one has to be patient and keep on explaining and reinforce the concept of sharing and empathy. Role playing helps a lot in this regard as it will help to strengthen a child’s sense of empathy by putting them in the shoes of others.

Also at this stage, a child develops the use of symbols. This can be seen during pretend play whereby a child might use objects such as a brick, a chair or even a cardboard box and imagine those objects as trains, cars, a treasure box or what not. This helps with language and creative development which  occur rapidly during this stage of development. 

The third stage of development occurs between the ages of six to around eleven and is called the concrete operational stage. During this period, the child develops a better understanding of mental operations and he begins to think in logical sequences and in association with personal experiences. But while the child is able to think logically, he might still have difficulties understanding hypothetical or abstract concepts. 

The milestones achieved during this stage of development includes the ability to understand number values, to classify objects accordingly, to solve multiple aspects of a problem using the method of trial and error and the elimination of egocentrism. 

The formal operational stage is the last stage of development in the theory developed by Piaget. It occurs between the ages of 11 to 15 and carries on into adulthood. During this time, the development of abstract thought, reasoning, systematic planning and the ability to solve a problem by the application of knowledge occurs. 

Encouraging intellectual development

Here are some suggestions for parents to help encourage intellectual or cognitive development in their child (sensorimotor and pre-operational stage)

Sensorimotor stage:

1. Expose your child to all sorts of textures by the use of books that allow feel and touch experiences and toys with varying surface textures.

2. Allow sensorial experiences such as letting your child hold or play with ice cubes and seeing it melt to liquid form. 

3. Provide and allow your child to play and experiment with building blocks of varying sizes.

4. Provide a mirror that your child can peer freely into. Children at this age/ stage of development are always curious about their reflections.

5. Play all sorts of music from classical to children’s songs. Provide musical instruments for them to play along. It might turn out to be noisy but your child is learning in the process.

6. Expose your child to books and toys with strong colours.

7. Try not to use baby talk but speak to your child in proper sentences instead.

Pre-operational stage:

1. Read to your child and provide picture books with simple sentences. 

2. Engage your child in conversations and discussions on simple topics such as “How do you feel about this?” or “What do you like?”. Be encouraging and do not stop the child from saying ‘nonsense’ or directly correcting grammatical errors. Do so by replying or responding with the correct grammar and sentence structure. 

3. Make time for drawing, painting and scribbling. You can play a piece of music and encourage the child to scribble to the rhythm and beat or just simply draw according to how the music makes him feel. Always encourage a child to describe his drawings or paintings.

4. Allow for role play, for example, the child might decide to be a chef and starts cooking dishes with building blocks or plastic vegetables, placing them on plates and serving to you. Play along and bring it further by making paper currencies with your child so that you can use it to pay the chef. 

5. Sing songs and rhymes with your child.

6. Create games such as treasure hunt. Treasure hunt is good for learning about numbers. Hide number cards everywhere in the room (on the tables, under the chairs) and get your child to look for it. Then go through the number order once the numbers are found. Limit this to 5 numbers initially and then increasing as the knowledge of numbers increases. 

7. Sensorial activities such as water play, sand play and even cooking and baking should be carried out with your child’s participation as such activities help to develop knowledge and logic. 

This early childhood education series by Rachel Zeng,

a pre-school educator,
is to help parents better understand the development of their children and to provide the kind of care that is needed to bring up healthy and well-adjusted youngsters.

Read more on the SPICE of early childhood education:

What is early childhood education

Part 1:
Social development

Part 2:
Physical development

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