PreOperational Stage

When a child reaches age 2, their minds start to develop at a rapid pace. It seems like they are learning something new every minute, and they are continuing to build on the things that they have learned in the past. At this age, psychologist Jean Piaget has theorized that they entered a new stage in cognitive development: the Preoperational Stage.

Here, we’ll talk about what happens during the Preoperational Stage and the most important milestones that children hit during this stage.

piaget's stages of cognitive development

What Is the PreOperational Stage?

The Preoperational Stage is also known as the early childhood stage. It lasts between 2-6 years old. Some of the highlights of the Preoperational Stage include:

  • Developing symbolic play and thought
  • Developing language
  • Understanding conservation and empathy


During the first few years of their life, children build a lot of schemas to help them understand the world. But simply building individual schemas can’t always tackle complex problems. We need to combine or integrate different schemas in order to assess the world around us. Children start to develop this ability during the Preoperational Stage.

As they start to combine different schemas, they begin to understand Conservation. I’m not talking about conservation in an ecological sense. I’m talking about how some properties are conserved even as an object undergoes a physical transformation. Piaget used “The Cup Test” to explain when and how children develop this schema.

In The Cup Test, children are shown two identical glasses filled with the same amount of water. The child can understand that there is the same amount of water in both glasses. Then, the researcher presents two different glasses (one tall and skinny, another short and wide) with the same amount of water in both glasses. If the child has not developed the idea of Conservation, they are likely to guess that the taller glass contains more water.

The child can understand that a taller glass can fit more water than a shorter glass. They understand that a wider glass can fit more water than a skinnier glass. But they are not able to integrate the two schema and assess how to determine the right amount of water in both glasses.

Other examples of conservation include a ball of clay that has been smashed or a row of symbols that has been stretched out. Without the principles of Conservation, the child cannot fathom that the researcher has not added more clay to the pile or symbols to the line.

Pretend Play

Playing “pretend” is a big part of learning throughout the Preoperational Stage. Children may begin to role play as their parent, a teacher, a princess, etc. They may pretend that a broomstick is a horse or that a cardboard box is a turtle shell.

Pretend play is built off of “symbolic play.” During the preoperational stage, children begin to grasp the meaning of symbols. These symbols include the alphabet or characters that represent sounds and words. By age 6, the child should begin to read by interpreting the symbols they see on a page, a stop sign, etc.

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Symbolic thought and symbolic play represent some of the more advanced developments that occur during the Preoperational stage.


Children learn how to play pretend during the Preoperational Stage, but they ironically have a hard time seeing things from other people’s points of view. Piaget theorized that children were still very egocentric during the Preoperational stage. This means they are unable to empathize or see things from another person’s point of view. When a parent tells a child that they have to share a cookie so that their brother can eat, the idea that the brother may also want a cookie may go over the child’s head.

Piaget assessed this development through the Three Mountains Task. The task involves a doll and a model of three very different mountains. After a period of letting the child observe the model from all sides, the doll is placed in front of the model. Piaget asked children to choose the view from which the doll can see the mountains.

This task was meant to ask children to place themselves in the doll’s shoes. From this test, Piaget theorized that children were egocentric up until the age of 7. At this point (as they enter the Concrete Operational Stage,) the child can begin to see things from other people’s perspectives.

Policeman Doll Study

Throughout this series on cognitive development, we will reference a lot of Piaget’s work. But he does not have the final say on cognitive development. Piaget is often criticized for only focusing on a child’s limitations during the Preoperational stage of development. They can’t empathize, they can’t understand conservation, etc.

Another critique of Piaget’s work centers on the Three Mountains Tasks. This experiment was conducted in 1956. In 1975, Mark Hughes created a different experiment that he believed would more accurately assess when children grew out of egocentrism.

His critique of the Three Mountains Task was basically that it was confusing for children to understand. While the children were able to look at the 3D model, they had to choose from a photograph that may or may not have shown the doll’s point of view. He aimed to simplify the experiment and make it more consistent.

children looking at different levels of sand

He created the “Policeman Doll Study.” In this task, children were given a model with two intersecting walls and a policeman doll. The policeman was placed behind one of the walls. Hughes asked the child to place the doll in an area that would shield the doll from the policeman. Children were also instructed more thoroughly during this experiment in case they made mistakes.

But the children, even the children who were younger than the age of 7, were very successful with this task. Even when a second policeman doll was introduced, they were still relatively successful.

From this experiment, Hughes was able to conclude that children grew out of egocentrism by the time they reached the age of 4 or 5.

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The Turntable Task

Another study in 1975 confirmed these results. Instead of giving the child a stationary model, The Turntable Task implemented just that - a turntable. Participants were given one model that was still and another one that they could turn around. After the participants had some time to look at the model from different angles, they were given a doll who looked at the model from a specific vantage point. Researchers then asked the children to spin the model on the turntable until their vantage point matched the doll’s.

The results were similar to the Policeman Doll study - children who were four (and even three) were able to successfully complete the task.


What does the evolution of the Theory of Cognitive Development say about psychology? That it’s not perfect on the first try. While Piaget is still regarded as one of the most influential psychologists in the world of cognitive development, psychologists have still found ways to change up his experiments and paint a more accurate picture of how children develop.

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