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Characteristics of Thinking
By Sandra Crosser Ph. D.

Three-year-old Klaire called me on the telephone. “Grandma, look what I got!”


Amy, age five, was painting her original wood sculpture. The teacher passed by and commented, “Amy, I think you might like that better if you put on another coat.”  Accepting the teacher’s suggestion, Amy went to the lockers, selected a coat, and put it on as she returned to the painting area to find out if the teacher was right.


As adults, we smile and cherish stories of cute, immature thoughts and acts, but as professional educators, we need to understand why children make the thinking errors they do. We need to be able to determine whether or not an error is typical of a normally developing youngster. If the behavior is within the normal range, we can develop their experiences and adjust the curriculum to fit the child. If their behavior is outside the normal range, we can then arrange for further analysis and any necessary intervention. The more a teacher understands about normal child development, the better able he will be to make range distinctions. Let’s focus on the 3-5 age group; look at a few of the common characteristics of thinking we can expect in typically developing preschoolers, as well as some common activities which help preschoolers build their background of experiences in order to move on to the next developmental level.



Preschoolers tend to believe that they are the center of the universe. “Things happen because of me!” Preschoolers explain the world in egocentric terms. It snowed so I could build a snowman. The leaves fell to the ground so I could jump in them. Mom and Dad are fighting, so I must have done something wrong. I need all of the blocks, so I should not have to share. To facilitate development, the preschool teacher could:


1. Point out the cause and effect relationships in the day-to-day world. Look at the clouds before and after the rain. Make rain with steam and a cold cookie sheet.

2. Combine ingredients to make play dough. What happens when we add water? Flour?

3. Mix paints to form new colors.

4. Provide open-ended materials for play; block play, water play, and sand play provide opportunities for children to see and revisit cause and effect relationships as they manipulate materials.

5. Read realistic stories to children involving causes and effects.  Discuss why events in the story happened as they did.

6. Read interesting nonfiction accounts of natural events, discussing cause and effect relationships.



Preschoolers focus on one aspect of a problem or situation, generally the most obvious or most active aspect that is the center of attention. For example, action heroes on television attract the child while the fighting is going on; children are drawn to the fast movement. When the action slows, their attention fades. As a preschooler watches TV, he may spend periods of time playing or dividing his attention until the high action draws him back to the show once again. Because of the interrupted attention, any moral of the story may be entirely lost on the child. Focus is on the salient, more exciting, active segments. To facilitate development the preschool teacher could:


1. Draw the child’s attention to less salient aspects of a problem. For example, if the block building is unsteady, ask questions about the foundation and the stacking techniques.

2.  Encourage the child to observe and compare observations with others. For example, set up a butterfly house for children to observe the development and growth of butterflies. Provide magnifiers and record observations.

3. As problems are encountered in the classroom, call class meetings to discuss the problems. Examine more than one factor that may cause the problem. Talk about multiple solutions. Ask the “What else…?” question often.


Inability to Conserve

The three- to four-year-old age group has difficulty understanding that an amount remains the same unless we take away from or add to it. If we roll a ball of play dough into a snake shape, the typical preschooler will believe that the amount of play dough has actually changed. The child’s thinking is limited by her perceptions. If it looks like more, it must be more.


Here is another example of the inability to conserve: If the child deems it unfair that he has one cookie while I have two cookies, he may be satisfied that we have equal amounts if I simply break his cookie into two pieces. We both have two. That makes it even. This problem is complicated by the typically additional characteristic of being unable to mentally reverse what has happened. If one can mentally reverse, or imagine the dough back in the ball shape or the halves of the cookie back together again, then one can conserve. It is not until about age five that children begin to be able to conserve. To facilitate development the preschool teacher could:


1.  Encourage children to problem-solve ways to share limited materials.

2.  Provide puzzles to take apart and put back together.

3.  Use puppets to present conservation problems for the children to help solve. For example, two puppets could be having a problem deciding how to share play dough that is in several different shapes.

4.  Provide counters for free play (bears, dinosaurs, little people).

5.  Provide equipment for pouring water, rice, beans, packing peanuts, sand, etc.


Animistic Thinking

When we say that the car was sad when we sold it, or the house missed us when we were gone, we are engaging in animistic thinking – attributing will and desire to nonliving objects. Keisha may believe that her teddy bear loves her and wants to be covered before he can go to sleep. Maria may suggest that the moon followed her home or the swing made her fall off. This use of animism is due to confusion over what is real and what is pretend. To facilitate development the preschool teacher could:


1.  Play “Is it real? Is it pretend?” with small groups of children,  using appropriate pictures or photos.

2.  Provide opportunities for dramatic play and dress up. Casually talk about pretending during this playtime.

3.  After reading an appropriate story, ask children to determine whether or not instances of animism could be true.


Supernatural Fears

Because the preschooler generally experiences some confusion distinguishing between reality and fantasy, fear can come into play. Typically the preschooler will experience fears related to the dark, i.e., nighttime fears. Monsters, boogiemen, and shadowy figures are frightening, nebulous creatures with magical powers. However, just a few more years of normal life experiences permits them to make better distinctions between reality and fantasy. According to the course of normal development, fears will change about age six or seven, when children begin to be afraid of more concrete and realistic events such as storms or fires. To facilitate development the preschool teacher could:


1.  After reading an appropriate story, ask children to determine whether or not supernatural characters are real or pretend. How do we know?

2.  Classify objects as either real or pretend.

3.  Pretend to be supernatural characters and talk about how you are just pretending.



When the child is three-years-old, she may have some difficulty classifying objects by a shared attribute such as similar color, shape, size, or function. By around age four, however, we see an increased ability to classify by one attribute; the child may be asked to put together the things that belong together and actually determine a classification system. It is not until the child is approximately five-years-old that he will be able to change the scheme and classify the same objects in yet another way. To facilitate development the preschool teacher could:


1.  Provide loads of objects for sorting (buttons, colored paper clips of different sizes, blocks, little people, doll house furniture, doll shoes, jewelry, coins).

2.  Encourage children to put away dramatic play housekeeping dishes during clean up time. Forks go with forks, knives have a separate space, spoons have their own slot, bowls go together, etc.

3.  Have children sort play food by categories (fruit, vegetable) or by whether it goes in the refrigerator or cupboard.

4.  Have children engage in dramatic play involving a store where items need to be classified together (grocery store, bakery, shoe store, post office, etc.).


Difficulty Identifying Transitions

Preschoolers attend to the first and last items in events; it is more difficult for them to identify what happened between the start and the finish. Think of walking on a beach and making tracks in the sand where we stepped; the tracks make it easier for us to follow the path we took. In the same way, we find it easier to remember the first and last items in a list. To facilitate development, the preschool teacher could:


1. Encourage finger-painting (paint, pudding, shaving cream).

2. Introduce tracing in trays of sand.

3.  Involve the children in creating tracks on the sidewalk after stepping in a pan of water.

4.  Provide chalk and markers for drawing.

5.  Set up paint and brushes at an easel.

6.  Place buckets of plain water and wide brushes outside to “paint” the fence, sidewalk, outside walls, playground equipment, then watch the water evaporate.



As we examine these characteristics of thought evidenced by normal three’s and four’s, we come to the conclusion that logic plays little role in thinking at this developmental level. Preschoolers explain the world to themselves as best they can, and with little experience and limited rational thought, errors are common. Part of the challenge and a great deal of the fun involved in being a preschool teacher comes with finding how to facilitate cognitive development skills that allow children to interpret their experiences in ever more sophisticated ways.



Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH. Read more about research in early childhood in her new book, What Do We Know About Early Childhood Education: Research Based Practice published by Delmar Learning, 2005.