Children are immersed in a highly social world from the moment they are born. This social world includes not only people such as parents, siblings, teachers and classmates, but also objects and values that are part of their culture. All of these things provide a context for a child’s cognitive growth and development.

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During the ages of 3 to 5, preschoolers’ thinking skills are undergoing tremendous change. Their ability to use representational thought and symbols to stand for objects, people and events, which began in toddlerhood, is becoming even more complex. Preschoolers also begin to use logic to think about how and why things work in the world around them. Despite huge cognitive gains in the preschool years, however, they are not little adults and still display many cognitive limitations. As part of their social environment, teachers play an important role in preschoolers’ cognitive development. By understanding their advances and limitations in thinking, teachers can best support preschoolers in their cognitive growth.

One way for teachers to engage preschoolers’ thinking skills is through reading quality children’s books that promote aspects of cognition such as reasoning and problem solving, symbolic play, metacognitive knowledge, memory and social cognition. Outlined below are teaching methods, book recommendations and activities that can be used to encourage cognitive development in each of these areas.

Reasoning and Problem Solving

In the preschool years, children attempt to explain how things work and why things occur. While their explanations can often seem far-fetched to adults, their stream of how and why questions display a real desire to reason and solve problems about the causes of events.

To hone in on the natural curiosity of 3- to 5-year-olds, teachers should pose thought-provoking questions as they read aloud to their students. For example, Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is a perfect opportunity to ask children how and why animals or people might change. Teachers should try to help children understand the natural causes of phenomena to push their cognitive development beyond merely seeing superficial changes in the appearance of things, a cognitive limitation often displayed at this age.

Another technique that teachers can use to promote reasoning and problem solving is to use children’s books as an introduction to a problem-solving activity. For instance, after reading such books as Byron Barton’s “Building a House,” “Houses and Homes Around the World” by Ann Morris or “How a House is Built” by Gail Gibbons, teachers could present students with “building materials” such as craft sticks, glue, paper and straws and ask them to figure out how to build a house of their own using only what is given to them.

Symbolic Play

One of the hallmarks of preschoolers’ thinking is the ability to engage in symbolic representation. A block may become a telephone, or a box may become a car. Preschoolers, unlike toddlers, begin to show an understanding of the difference between what is real and what is not.

Make-believe play should be encouraged by teachers in the preschool years. Since children often identify with characters in books, reading stories that show children or other characters engaging in symbolic play is a good method to inspire children to participate in pretend play in new or unique ways.

“Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon” by Patty Lovell is a great book to stimulate preschoolers’ imaginations. The main character, Molly Lou, doesn’t need fancy toys or television to have fun: instead, she makes dolls out of twigs and looks for pictures in the clouds! “Not A Box” and “Not A Stick” by Antoinette Portis are two books that show fun ways to pretend with simple objects. After reading these stories, teachers can present students with their own box or stick and see what creative ways they play with them on their own.

Metacognitive Knowledge

Metacognition refers to thinking about one’s own thinking. The ability to explicitly monitor their one’s own learning, or to use mnemonic strategies is rudimentary in young children. For example, preschoolers understand that it is easier to remember a small list of items than a longer one, but would not spontaneously use a rehearsal strategy to remember the list. It is not until beyond the preschool years that children acquire knowledge of strategies that affect their own memory and learning.

Teachers can encourage children to reflect on their own thinking and learning by allowing time for a post-book activity. For example, following the reading of “The Berenstain Bears’ Dollars and Sense,” a book in which Brother Bear and Sister Bear learn about saving and spending money, teachers might ask children to draw a picture about a time when they learned something new. Teachers can also ask each student to name one thing that they learned from the book. Writing students’ responses on a whiteboard can help children understand the individuality of their thinking and learning.

Memory

Preschoolers’ memories are affected by their prior knowledge. Child at this age remember new concepts and ideas more easily when they already have a wealth of knowledge about the subject at hand than when they know little about the topic. Children ages 3 to 5 will also better remember new concepts if they are put into a meaningful context, or if they are learned through hands-on experiences.

Some things that teachers can do while reading aloud to help aid students’ memory formation are to:

  1. Make connections from the story to the children’s everyday lives or personal experiences. For example, while reading “The Big Red Barn” by Margaret Wise Brown, teachers should ask students to recall and discuss a time when they might have visited a farm.
  2. Ask questions that require children to recall an earlier part of the story. What occurred at the beginning of the story?
  3. Repeat important concepts. Children learn through repetition, so hearing new information more than once will help them learn and remember it.

Teachers might also read books on a particular topic prior to introducing new concepts related to it. For example, if the class is doing a fall activity involving the dissection of a pumpkin, teachers might first read a book such as “Pumpkin Pumpkin” by Jeanne Titherington to teach the parts of the pumpkin and its life cycle. This story will give the children a knowledge base so that as they complete the hands-on pumpkin activity, their new learning and experiences will be organized into their current understanding of pumpkins.

Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to thinking about others and social situations. As children gain new cognitive skills, their understanding of how the social world works grows. By the preschool years children begin to understand the mind as an entity of thought and are therefore better able to grasp why others behave or feel the way that they do. While preschoolers do begin to show “theory of mind,” as this ability is often referred to, they are limited in their ability to understand the perspectives of others; however, this “egocentric thought” declines throughout the preschool years as children’s communicative abilities begin to increase.

Reading children’s books about feelings and how they relate to thoughts and behaviors is a great way for teachers to promote social cognition. Examples include “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst and “Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy” by Bob Sornson, Ph.D.

Advances in cognitive development during the preschool years allow children to communicate, play and logic in ways that were not possible in toddlerhood. With careful planning and knowledge of cognitive development during the preschool years, teachers can promote cognitive growth through everyday activities such as story time. Enhancing a child’s thinking can be as easy as opening up a book and using these methods and ideas!