Preoperational Stage

Published on March 11th, 2020

Updated on January 2nd, 2024

Preoperational Stage

The preoperational stage is the second stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Piaget’s work as a psychologist centered around the development of children. His theory of cognitive development has had a major impact on the field of child psychology.

Jean Piaget developed the 4 stages of cognitive development. He indicated that toddlers enter the preoperational stage at age 2. According to his theory, this stage lasts until the child is about 7 years old.

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Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget

The following are the 4 stages of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (0 to 2 years old)
  2. Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years old)
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years old)
  4. Formal Operational Stage (11years and older)

His theory supported the idea that in order to successfully move on to the next stage of development, a child must develop the ability to challenge what they had previously learned about the world. In this challenge, the child’s cognitive abilities are exercised. They grow, strengthen, and flex to become more dynamic. In this development, the child learns reasoning and problem-solving skills.

In the preoperational stage, a child is not yet able to reason or understand logic, but they can understand symbols. As the child develops their understanding of symbols, their language skills grow stronger. They also begin to engage in different kinds of play. The child’s memory and imagination develop as well, which helps them to engage in imaginative play.

Key Concepts of The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget performed in depth research on cognitive function during each stage of cognitive development. Through his research, he found key concepts that affected a child’s functioning for each stage. In the preoperational stage, the key concepts included:


In the preoperational stage, a child’s thought process is egocentric. This means that they cannot understand another person’s point of view. Egocentric thinking causes the child to believe that the thoughts, wants, needs and feelings of others are the same as theirs.

A child in the preoperational stage will not see outside of their own perspective unless they are prompted to do so. This prompt must be accompanied by an award in order for the child to think outside of their own egocentric thought patterns.

Parallel Play

Younger children in the preoperational stage do not yet engage in cooperative play. Cooperative play is when two children play the same game cooperatively together.

Parallel play is often observed in this stage of development. Parallel play is when two children will play in the same room, and sometimes with the same bunch of toys, but play independently of each other. It can be observed that children will mimic each other’s forms of play, but their play structure remain independent to each child.

This observed trend is linked to egocentrism. Two children in the early phases of the preoperational stage will play in the same room. They will interact with each other and speak with each other, but will play with different toys and have different forms of play.

Example: Two children can be playing in the same room, but facing away from each other and playing with different toys. One may be playing with blocks while the other plays with toy trains. During their play, each will be focused on and talking about their own toys to each other. They may not realize that each are talking about their own games, as their focus is on talking about what they are playing.


A prime example of egocentrism is when a child exhibits animism. Animism is a term that is used to refer to the act of giving life-like qualities to inanimate objects. Animism reflects egocentric thinking. This is because the child believes that toys, dolls, and everyday items are alive because they are alive themselves.

Animism will be at its peak strength as a child enters the preoperational stage. During the course of the stage, animism qualities will fade, as a child develops a more concrete understanding of the meaning of life.

Example: A child may insist on keeping the lights on for her toys, who are all afraid of the dark. The child believes their toys are afraid of the dark because they themselves are afraid of the dark.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is a main form of play during the preoperational stage. During imaginative play, it is common to observe a child using symbolism. This may be evident as a child uses a marker and pretends it is a sword or magic wand. With imaginative play, a child often takes a toy or item and pretends it is something else.

The beginning of imaginative play marks a process of cognitive development. At this time, a child learns how to make previous schemas more dynamic. They apply what they have learned previously into their play. Through imaginative play they learn more about what is happening in their minds. Their cognitive development expands. It becomes more dynamic as their thought processes and perspectives change.

Schema: Schemas begin to develop during infancy, in the sensorimotor stage. They are a method of interpreting and understanding information. Schemas are created to create meaning behind symbols and objects. As a child progresses into the preoperational stage, their schemas become solidified in their conscious thought.


Toward the end of the sensorimotor stage, a child tends to display understanding of symbols. This tends to develop between the ages of 18 and 24 months. During this time, the child develops an understanding for symbols for objects and situations.

Example: A child may have a pet cat in the home. They learn that the brown, four-legged, furry creature is a cat. Later on, when on a walk with mom, they see the neighbor’s black cat, they are able to identify it as ‘cat’. The child has created the symbol for cat. At this stage of development, the child has not yet developed the ability to discern different creatures with the same features. This may result in all four-legged furry creatures to be ‘cat’. This may include dogs, hamsters, and squirrels as well.

Their understanding for symbols extends into the preoperational stage. It can be displayed during imaginative play. In the preoperational stage, the child will learn how to differentiate between different objects with similar characteristics. This results in the child learning that ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ both are furry and have four legs, but understanding that they are different types of creatures.

Symbolism will be exhibited during imaginative play. You may see a child may use similar characteristics and apply it to different objects during imaginative play.

Example: A child may take a pencil and pretend it is a magic wand.

Problem Solving

Imaginative play marks a major milestone. It is the point at which a child begins to learn how to problem solve. During imaginative play, a child activates the imaginative part of the mind. It also incorporates reasoning into play. While playing, children imagine different scenarios and situations. In these imaginative scenarios, the child learns how to incorporate logic into different combinations of solutions. This is mostly illustrated while working through imaginary challenges during play.

In this example, the child demonstrates the use of schema, symbolism and problem solving. They find a box to solve the problem: “I don’t have a crib for my baby”. They imagine that the shoebox is a crib because it is a space with 4 walls where the baby can be placed in and taken out easily.


Centration is a term used to explain the phenomena that Piaget found in most children in the preoperational stage. That phenomena is a child’s tendency to only focus on one detail of a given situation.

A child in the preoperational stage will neglect, ignore, or fail to realize other factors. They will focus on one central factor, when problem solving. Centration marks the beginning of using logic to answer questions and problem solve. It can be most easily illustrated when faced with a task that involves conservation.

Children in the preoperational stage can only make judgements based on one level of comparison. They will choose the most prominent form of classification. Then, they will make a judgement solely by using the information from that classification.


A child in the preoperational stage can not yet understand measurements, time or logic. Relative measurements are not yet comprehensible in the preoperational stage. Such relative measurements may include:

The understanding of conservation is not yet developed in the preoperational stage. This discovery was made after several observational experiments the Piaget performed. In these experiments, children between the ages of 2 and 7 were asked about the conservation of mass.

Piaget’s Conservation Tasks

Among Piaget’s most influential studies was the study of how children in the preoperational stage understand the concept of conservation. In these studies, he would present the children with two variables of equal measure. These variables were manipulated to look different in some way. The child was observed to determine if they could understand that even though the two variables were different in presentation, that they were the same in content.

Example: The child is presented with two glasses of water: one tall and thin, the other short and wide. The child watches as the same amount of water is measured into two measuring cups. The water from the measuring cups is then transferred equally into each glass.

Jean Piaget's Conservation Tasks: Conservation Of Volume

Even though the child saw the equal amounts of water poured into each glass, they understood that the taller glass has more water. The tall, thin glass had a higher level of water than the wide, short glass. This is what caused the child to believe that the taller glass held more water.

Piaget observed children failing conservation tasks through the preoperational stage. Toward the end of the preoperational stage, he did see incidents of children passing the tasks. These children were able to observe equal quantities when properties changed, but were not able to explain why.

Example: Children approaching the close of the preoperational stage would be able to understand that the two glasses of water are holding the same amount of liquid. They could determine that even though the water line is higher in one cup than the other, the amount of water in each glass is the same. The children were not able to explain why this is so, but they were able to understand that it is so.

According to Piaget’s theory, the ability to use logic to justify explanations for the water amounts being the same develop in the concrete operational stage. The ability to understand concepts, like reversibility, inductive logic and deductive logic begin to develop in the concrete operational stage.

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