“Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.” -Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist and epistemologist known for his pioneering work in child development. His theory of cognitive development has greatly influenced the field of educating young children. He is sometimes called “The Father of Early Childhood”. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1975 when he was the keynote speaker at a conference in Ellenville, New York.  His work has been the foundation of my work and writing in Early Childhood and the Kinderpillar Programs.


In his work he has divided the development into 4 Stages.

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: Approximately 0 – 2
    Infants gain their earliest understanding of the immediate world through their senses and through their own actions, beginning with simple reflexes, such as sucking and grasping.
  2. Preoperational Stage: Approximately 2 – 6
    Young children can use symbols for objects, such as numbers to express quantity and words such as mama, doggie, hat and ball to represent real people and objects. They need to have real objects to manipulate and explore freely.
  3. Concrete Operations: Approximately 6 – 11
    School-age children can perform concrete mental operations with symbols-using numbers to add or subtract and organizing objects by their qualities, such as size or color.
  4. Formal Operations: Approximately 11 – adult
    Normally developing early adolescents are able to think and reason abstractly, to solve theoretical problems, and answer hypothetical questions.

As you can see, the children we work with in the Kinderpillar programs mostly are in the Preoperational Stage of Development. We use this information to help us create activities that support their growth and understanding.

 The “Art” of Working with your Preoperational Child

The “art” of working with your Preoperational Child is in making their experiences hands-on and concrete.  We use visual, mechanical and tactile props to help children’s construction of understanding.  It is important to remember that children need to explore the nature of things through trial and error.

  • Be sure you have stimulating objects for children to interact with. The preschool basics of sand, water and blocks are a wonderful place to start. Children will try the same action over and over again until they reach their own level of understanding. Stand back and observe you will learn a great deal about their thinking in the process.
  • Introduce unusual materials to the play to encourage more explorations.  Remember, one of the main questions in the mind of a Preoperational Child is: What will happen if…..?.
  • You can add items to the sand or water that have holes in them. How can you use these?  Later ask, How can you keep material from pouring out?
  • Change the variable by adding aluminum foil and flashlights to play with blocks. How can you use these with the blocks?
  • Always allow plenty of “messing around time” for children to truly explore the materials and ideas at their own speed.
  • Invite children to talk about the changes they notice when manipulating objects.
  • Keep activities “here and now”. At this egocentric stage it is difficult for children to understand about worlds far from their own experiences.
  • Invite children to learn more about the world by expanding their experiences through field studies and trips. Learn about the immediate school area, the neighborhood, the town expanding the children’s world view outward in ever widening circle of experience.

The Concrete Operational Child also needs hands-on activities.

Some of the older Kinderpillar students are transitioning into the Concrete Operational Stage. They still need many hands-on experiences with real materials. This is NOT the time to bring out the workbooks and dittos.  The difference at this next stage is that children can use materials that encourage them to reason logically. Particularly interesting to them is natural and manufactured materials they can organize classify and order.

Here are a few ways we do this in Kinderpillar: do this by

  • We provide beautiful stones, shells, and leaves to organize, seriate in a variety of different ways.
  • The key question to ask in facilitating their logical thinking is: “How can you organize these a different way? -Or- How many ways can you order these?”
  • We set up activities that invite children to estimate, predict and infer. We might ask: How many apples long is the rug area?  If the area of the rug is 20 apples then how many apples will we need to measure the entire room?  Will me need more or less apples?

I am grateful that I got the opportunity to meet this great man when he was 78 years old and full of life and wisdom. His work continues to inspire me in all that I do in the field of Early Childhood. My favorite quote from Jean Piaget is: “Play is the work of childhood.”