School Age Child

The School Age Child

Part III: Developmental Perspectives of Cognition and Play

By Bernice Callahan

Board Member, Founder of the California Parenting Institute, and Former School Teacher

Thought processes undergo dramatic changes as the child moves from the intuitive thinking of the preschool years to the logical operations of the school-age years.  The school age child gains new knowledge and develops more efficient problem-solving ability and greater flexibility of thinking.  According to the theories of Piaget, the 6-year old and 7-year-old remain in the intuitive thought stage characteristic of the older preschool child.  By age 8 years, the child moves into the stage of concrete operations, followed by the stage of formal operations at around 12 years.

In the intuitive thought stage (6 to 7 years), thinking is based on immediate perceptions of the environment and the child’s own viewpoint.  Thinking is still characterized by egocentrism, animism, and centration. At 6 and 7 years old, children cannot understand another’s viewpoint, form hypotheses, or deal with abstract concepts.  The child in the intuitive thought stage has difficulty forming categories and often solves problems by random guessing.

 By age 7 or 8 years, the child enters the stage of concrete operations. Children learn that their point of view is not the only one as they encounter different interpretation of reality and begin to differentiate their own viewpoints from those of peers and adults.  This newly developed freedom from egocentrism enables children to think more flexibly and to learn about the environment more accurately.  Problem solving becomes more efficient and reliable as the child learns how to form hypotheses.  The use of symbolism becomes more sophisticated, and children now can manipulate symbols for things in the way that they once manipulated the things themselves.  The child learns the alphabet and how to read.  Attention span increases.

Children in the concrete operations stage grasp the concept of reversibility.  They can mentally retrace a process, a skill necessary for understanding mathematical problems.  The child can take a toy apart and put it back together or walk to school and find the way back home without getting lost.  Reversibility also enables a child to anticipate the results of actions—a valuable tool for problem solving.

Gradually, the school-age child masters the concept of conservation.  The child learns that certain properties of objects do not change simply because their order, form, or appearance has changed.  For example, the child who has mastered conservation of mass recognizes that a lump of clay that has been pounded flat is still the same amount of clay as when it was rolled into a ball.  The child understands conservation of weight when able to correctly answer the classic nonsense question, “Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of rocks?” This concept doesn’t develop all at once. The simpler conservations, such as number and mass, are understood first, and more complex conservations are mastered later. This is why children must have many, many experiences with materials they can physically handle.

Older school-age children are able to classify objects according to characteristics they share, to place things in a logical order, and to recall similarities and differences.  This ability is reflected in the school-age child’s interest in collections.  Children love to collect and classify stamps, stickers, sports cards, shells, dolls, rocks, or anything imaginable. They understand relationships such as larger and smaller, lighter and darker.  They can comprehend class inclusion—the concept that objects can belong to more than one classification. For example, a man can be a brother, father, and son at the same time.  They move away from magical thinking as they discover that there are logical, physical explanations for most phenomena.

Children in the concrete operations stage have a delightful sense of humor.  Around the age of 8 years, increased mastery of language and the beginning of logic enable children to appreciate a play on words.  Riddle and joke books make ideal gifts for school-age children.

To summarize, the toddler fills and empties containers, begins dramatic play, has increased use of motor skills, enjoys feeling different textures, enjoys manipulating small objects such as toy people, cars and animals, explores the home environment, imitates orders, likes to be read to and to look at books. For preschoolers, dramatic play is prominent. They like to run, jump, hop, and in general, increase motor skills. They like to build and create things, whether it is sand castles or mud pies.  Play is simple and imaginative. Collections begin.  School age children play with more organization and direction. They lose some spontaneity but increase in creativity. They become aware of rules when playing games and begin to compete. Collections increase, as do construction, guessing games, and complicated puzzles. 

All of us committed to establishing the Children’s Museum of the North Bay appreciate the tremendous importance of allowing young children hours, days and years of  touching, pulling apart, climbing on, banging, filling, dumping, looking at, listening to, putting on and building. Join us in this endeavor in every way you can.