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Early Childhood Cognitive Development: Intuitive Thought

Angela Oswalt, MSW

The next sub-stage in Piaget's Preoperational cognitive development stage is the Intuitive Thought sub-stage, which spans ages 4-7 years. Children in this substage of development learn by asking questions such as, "Why?" and "How come?" Piaget labeled this "intuitive thought" because he believed that children at this stage tend to be so certain of their knowledge and understanding that they are unaware of how they gained this knowledge in the first place (i.e., knowing by intuition).

girl on slidePiaget also suggested that Intuitive Thinking children show a style of thinking he called "Centration". These children typically hone in on one characteristic of someone or something, and base their decisions or judgment on that one characteristic (rather than considering multiple characteristics). For example, a 4 yr. old who was asked to put blocks into groups might focus his or her attention on the color of the blocks instead of the shape or the material from which they are constructed. De-centering, combined with the concept of conservation (described above) are prerequisites to more sophisticated logical thinking abilities.

Children in the Intuitive Thought substage also show many advances in cognitive skills. For example, young children shift from depending on magical beliefs to using rational beliefs to explain situations or events that they haven't encountered before. Very young children may explain that a new house "grew out of the ground," while older children understand that human beings put boards, bricks, and other materials together to build it.

Another large gain during this sub-stage is the ability to comprehend dual relationships. Children now understand that something can be both an object itself as well as a symbol for something else. For example, a stuffed toy dog is a fun, furry toy as well as a representation of living and toy dogs in general.

Once again, some critics suggest that Piaget's ideas about children are not entirely correct. Newer research raises questions about whether or not young children in this stage understand how they know what they know. However, current researchers do agree that children are seemingly sponges for soaking up new information during this period from all around their environment.

Even though several of Piaget's ideas have been "retooled" based on more contemporary research, his theories are still highly influential in the fields of developmental and educational psychology. His pioneering ideas provide researchers, clinicians, teachers, and parents with a framework for further understanding children's cognitive development.


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