Based on research and observation of children, Jean Piaget established his theory on the four stages of child development many years ago, but his ground-breaking ideas continue to influence educators today. Most preschool programs are designed to focus on what Piaget called the "pre-operational stage" of development, which children experience between the ages of 2 and 7.
Characteristics of Piaget's Pre-Operational Stage
Preschoolers at Piaget's pre-operational stage of development have trouble distinguishing between what's real and what's not. They are developing language skills and can form mental images, but they have an egocentric view of the world. For example, if wading in the ocean, they'll believe the waves are rolling towards them to greet them specifically. They also have difficulty seeing things from anyone else's point of view. They can think logically and might be able to follow a sequence of steps, such as taking a marble out of a round box and placing it into a square box, but they cannot think in reverse.
Because children during this pre-operational stage don't easily tell the difference between real and not real, most preschoolers love to engage in make believe. Preschool classrooms usually have a dress-up box to help encourage this kind of play and provide opportunities for the students to interact with each other. Because their vocabulary is developing during this stage, they are able to mimic their teachers and parents while playing school or house. This helps them learn what is and what is not considered appropriate or socially acceptable.
Most good preschools, aware of Piaget's theory, are based on discovery learning, in which the children are encouraged to explore and experiment. A good teacher will observe them while they engage in various activities and will ask them questions to help them describe what they are doing and why they are doing it. This helps them further develop their language skills that are developing during this pre-operational stage.
Preschools usually provide a variety of activity centers to help children develop skills that emerge during the pre-operational stage. Collections of buttons, colored blocks or kitchen utensils provide opportunities for sorting by color, size and shape, developing logical reasoning. Opportunities to arrange objects from larger to smaller are also helpful. Cooking and planting seeds help preschoolers see how things are transformed. Pre-operational stage kids need practice with lacing and then unlacing shoes, building a tower of blocks then knocking them down and closing and opening buttons to practice reverse action.