When your precocious 7-year-old refuses to go horse riding because it makes them sneeze, stop and think. Have they made a connection that you missed? Cancel the class and celebrate! Your child is showing you that they’ve reached a new developmental stage: They can make a logical link between disparate events.
According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development (thinking and reasoning) that we move through as we grow into adults. This third stage is called the concrete operational stage.
Wondering what happens in this stage? Hint: Concrete means physical things and operational means a logical way of operating or thinking. Putting it all together, your child is beginning to think logically and rationally, but they tend to be limited to thinking about physical objects.
In the next developmental stage, your child will grasp also abstract thought, and you’ll be able to philosophize together.
The concrete operational stage usually starts when your child hits 7 years old and lasts till they reach 11. Think of it as a transitional stage between the two earlier stages of development (sensorimotor and preoperational stages) and the fourth stage (formal operational stage).
Other researchers questioned Piaget’s timeline. They showed that children as young as 6 and even 4 years old, are able to carry out the cognitive tasks that characterize this stage (or at least some characteristics of this stage.) So don’t be surprised when your 4-year-old points out something logical that you didn’t think of first.
So what’s in store for you both over the next 4 years? Here’s a list of the main characteristics of this pivotal stage of development. Just for fun, we’ve listed them in alphabetic order. (Hey, this is all about logical thought!)
There are two parts to classification. One is sorting things into categories. Your child already groups flowers and animals into two separate categories.
At this stage, they can go one step further. They understand that there are sub-classes within a group, like yellow and red flowers or animals that fly and animals that swim.
This is understanding that something can stay the same in quantity even though it looks different. That ball of play dough is the same amount whether you squash it flat or roll it into a ball.
This is tied to conservation. Your child needs to figure out decentration so that they can conserve correctly. It’s all about concentrating on several factors at the same time.
A row of five paper clips is a row of five paper clips, no matter how far apart you space them. At this stage your child realizes this because they can manipulate number and length at the same time.
This involves an understanding that actions can be reversed. Sort of like mental gymnastics. Here, your child can figure out that your car is an Audi, an Audi is a car and a car is a vehicle.
It’s all about mentally sorting a group of things into some sort of order. Now your child can sort from the tallest to the shortest, or the thinnest to the widest.
This is the characteristic that you’ve been waiting for! Your child is no longer egocentric and fully focused on themselves. They’re able to understand that Mom has her own thoughts, feelings, and timetable.
Yes, Mom wants to leave the park now. Not after those last five rounds on the slide.
Let’s make the characteristics of this stage easy to understand.
You pour a tall cup of soda into a shorter cup. Does your child peacefully accept the shorter cup? Probably. At this stage they’ve figured out the amount in the first cup doesn’t change just because the new cup is shorter than the first. You got it: this is about conservation.
Classification and decentralization
But when they reach the concrete operational stage, they’re able to decenter and focus on two things at once: number and class. Now, they’ll realize that there is a class and a sub-class and be able to answer, “More flowers.” Your child is using the mechanics of both classification and decentralization.
When you’re not feeling well and are resting on the couch with your eyes closed, does your child bring you your favorite blanket? At the concrete operational stage, they’re able to move beyond what they want and think about what someone else needs.
Ready for action? Now that you know how your child’s thinking is changing, here’s a list of fun activities that you can do together to strengthen these cognitive abilities.
Learn at the dinner table
Take a small carton of milk and pour it into a tall, narrow glass. Take a second carton of milk and pour it into a short glass. Ask your child which glass contains more.
Compare candy bars
Move on to candy bars for dessert. You get one too! (This is hard work and you deserve a treat.) Break one candy bar into pieces, spread them out a little, and ask your child to choose between the two candy bars — one broken and one intact. The visual prop makes it easier to learn that the candy bars are the same. It’s about conservation.
Build with blocks
Lego pieces can also teach conservation. Build a large tower. And then let your child break it up. (Yes, the Legos may skitter under the couch.) Now ask them, “Were there were more pieces in the built tower or in the scattered mass?”
Math can be fun! Bake chocolate chip cookies and use the measuring cups to give your child a good sense of fractions. Talk about which ingredient represents the biggest amount. Have your child list them in order. And then be brave and double the recipe for extra practice. As your child gets more proficient, move on to word problems. This helps them develop their abstract thinking.
Got more time? Take your child’s favorite story and type it up. Then cut the story into paragraphs. Together, you can put the story into sequence. Take this a step further and encourage your child to become one of the characters. What do they do next? What do they feel? What do they wear to a fancy dress party?
Play in the tub
If you’re a science fan, have your child float different objects in the bathtub to see which sink and which float. Your child won’t have trouble recalling the different steps in the experiment. So encourage them to move beyond this and consider things in reverse. Can they tell you which step was last? And which step came before that? All the way to the first step?
Plan a party
Ask your child to help you plan a surprise party for Grandma (or another loved one). They’ll have to think of Grandma’s favorite foods and even what kind of a present Grandma would want. It’s all about moving beyond their own egocentric circle. And bring out the chocolate chip cookies you baked. If you doubled the recipe, you’ll have plenty.
You can be oh-so proud of your kid for reaching these developmental stages. But keep in mind that your child’s thinking is still pretty rigid. It’s perfectly normal to still have trouble with abstract concepts. They’ll reach these milestones at their own pace and you’ll be there to cheer them further on.