The second stage of cognitive development is called the preoperational stage and it extends from 18 months to 24 months of age. The most notable development at this age is the acquisition of language and the ability to communicate with other people and other children. Through the use of words, the child is now able to provide meaningful representations of objects, such that a broom can become a horse or a circle can be a truck tire. Since the child is now more able to walk and experience his/her environment, the child can manipulate objects and inspect the colors, shapes and function of the object.
A two year old child who is given a ball to play with would not make it bounce since he/she does not know that a ball can bounce, more often, the child will roll, throw and sit on the ball to discover what the ball is and how it can be played with. The child at three years old can be fairly conversant and has acquired enough vocabulary to communicate effectively with other people, in the same way, the child learns from adults and his/her environment what certain words mean and how to use it. For example, a child is now able to understand the meaning of “no” and will use it more often than other words to exert their own will and desires.
Parent who tell their child “no” when the child wants to have a cookie, would use the same word to refuse eating their food during dinnertime. The child is now also able to tell the difference between objects such as color and shape but does not have the ability to conserve mass, volume, or size. For example, a child may like eating apples and he/she has been used to eating apples cut in small bite sizes, if he/she is given a whole apple, he/she cannot distinguish that the apple is the same as the one he/she likes to eat.
Moreover, during this stage, the child relies on visual information so much that they are fascinated with anything that is moving, colorful and stimulating to their eyes. It is expected that a child would be more excited over a red toy truck than a brown toy truck; hence, most toys and educational activity toys are brightly colored. The child in this stage cannot ascertain that two objects of the same weight and volume but have different shapes are similar. Up to about age 6, most children would say that an oval is bigger than a circle, that a pound of berries is more plenty than a pound of apples.
Piaget said that this is because children at this stage cannot focus on two or more aspects of the object at once. Children can only focus at one aspect of the object, for example shape, and color which are more readily accessible to their visual perception. It is not surprising therefore, that children at this stage would always prefer the bigger chocolate bar, the longer candy cane, and the thicker sandwich. Further, the child at this stage may have already started learning their alphabet, counting, or singing nursery songs like Twinkle-twinkle little star.
Nevertheless, the child cannot be able to arrange objects from smallest to biggest in its true sense or to arrange objects from one to ten, because they do not have the ability to conserve size, weight, and mass. The emotional and social development of the child at the second stage of cognitive development also coincides with Piaget’s conception of the development of moral judgment in children. Since a child’s brain and cognitive ability is limited, it also has a limited capacity to understand morality.
Thus, what the child conceives to be moral or good is based on that limited cognitive processing. Piaget had underscored the importance of play in a child’s growth and development, to him; it is the most appropriate avenue wherein a child develops cognitive abilities, social and emotional skills, as well as moral judgments. Piaget said that in the preoperational stage, a child engages in symbolic play, where he/she plays independently but imitates other children or plays with toys that are shared with other children; however, there is no interaction between the children (Gruber & Voneche, 1993).
The child then makes his/her own set of rules in playing and does not serve any purpose but for the child’s own sense of regularity. For example, a child would play with the toy truck by running it over the walls, and then in another time, the same child invents another rule to govern his/her play. This set of rules are normal and gives the child a sense of ownership to the toy or object. As the child reaches 5 or 6 years of age, the child is now more cognizant of the rules that are exerted by authority figures such as parents and teachers.
The child believes that this set of rules is absolute and that he/she must obey it at all costs. For example, a 5-year-old child would not eat if he/she cannot wash his/her hands because his/her mother said that children must wash hands before eating. Piaget called this moral realism, wherein the child confuses moral and physical laws, such that they fear disobeying or breaking the rule because it would result to extreme punishment (Gruber & Voneche, 1993).
Moreover, in the same way that children at the preoperational stage cannot distinguish size and shape accurately, they also tend to judge behaviors based on the consequences rather than on the intentions of the behavior (Gruber & Voneche, 1993). For example, children at this stage would say that a child who steals cookies from the cookie jar is worse than the child who breaks the cookie jar even if the first child was hungry and the second child was having a tantrum. Children at this stage often do things they want to but will respond appropriately and can be controlled when given a set of rules to follow.
Children at this stage enjoy following rules and not breaking them, making them more ready for learning in formal classroom settings. Most preschools accept children as early as 4 years old, but since the child at 4 year sold had not yet attained moral realism, it would be difficult to teach them anything that requires a set of rules or procedures to follow. Reference Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2005. Gruber, Howard and Jacques Voneche. The Essential Piaget. New York : Basic Books, 1993.