Understanding Learning and Thinking in Preschoolers

By Kristin Stanberry

It’s rewarding to watch your preschooler grow taller, become more independent, and develop a unique personality. But how can you tell if he or she is developing age-appropriate learning and thinking skills?

It is amazing to watch young children as they learn about their world and develop new skills. As a parent and as your child’s first teacher, there is no one better able to observe this unfolding process and gather important information about how well she is developing the learning and thinking skills appropriate for a 3- to 4-year-old child. The guidelines that follow will help you understand what your child should be doing and learning – and how you can support her development.

Is your child developing age-appropriate learning and thinking skills?

It’s helpful to know what learning and thinking skills your child should be developing by age 3 or 4. Review the following list and note how your child is doing in each area.

Thinking — My child...

  • Is starting to recognize cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Understands words that relate one idea to another. (For example: if, why, when.)
  • Understands number and space concepts. (For example: more, less, bigger, in, under, behind.)
  • Thinks literally (and takes statements and questions at face value).
  • Is starting to develop logical thinking (and understands connections and consequences).
  • Grasps the concepts of past, present, and future.
  • Can follow a simple, three-part command.
  • Attempts to solve simple problems rather than rushing to ask for help.
  • Engages in fantasy play with dolls, people, and animals.

Learning — My child...

  • Can match two pictures that are alike.
  • Can put three pictures in a logical order.
  • Can recognize things that go together. (For example: a spoon and a fork.)
  • Can recognize, match, and name a circle, square, and triangle.
  • Can recognize, match, and name at least five colors.
  • Can repeat a simple pattern. (For example: step, step, hop – step, step, hop.)
  • Can complete simple puzzles.

Encouraging learning and thinking at home

Now that you understand some of the learning and thinking skills your young child should have, you can reinforce those skills and provide meaningful and effective opportunities to practice. Make sure to have fun as you blend these teachable moments into everyday activities. Here are some activities to try:

  • Let your child help you sort laundry, matching clothes by person, color or size.
  • Play “shapes” and “sizes” games with your child. Use coins, cookie cutters, and other household objects.
  • Have simple puzzles available for your child to play with.
  • Have your child arrange pictures in a sequence, such as photos of her at different ages (e.g., baby, toddler, preschooler).
  • Play games that require your child to match objects that are the same or different.
  • Encourage pretend play, and give your child props and space in which to enter her imaginary world. If you join in, ask questions, but let her direct the play.
  • When your child encounters a problem, have her help devise a possible solution.

Note: If your child has a regular babysitter or daycare provider, be sure to pass these tips along to the caregiver.

Promoting learning and thinking skills at preschool

The time your child spends in preschool will provide her with opportunities to develop and practice learning and thinking skills in a setting that is more structured than home or day care. While there is still plenty of time for play in today’s preschools, more and more pre-K programs are following a rigorous curriculum than in the past. To keep tabs on your child’s learning and thinking development, you’ll want to:

  • Ask your child’s teacher how learning and thinking development is nurtured in the classroom and whether (and how) your child is succeeding or showing signs of struggle.
  • Find out what learning and thinking skills your child will need to demonstrate in order to make a smooth transition to kindergarten.
  • Review the work and projects your child brings home from preschool, and discuss them together. Look for evidence of the learning and thinking skills your child is applying to her work and activities, and find ways to model and extend these activities at home.
  • Encourage your child to talk about school, and try to gauge how she feels about learning, thinking, and any skills or subjects she finds especially interesting (or difficult). Her answers may reflect her feelings as well as her learning and thinking abilities.

Cause for concern? Where to turn for advice and assistance

“Normal” learning and thinking skills don’t develop in exactly the same way for all preschoolers. However, you may want to seek help if your child:

  • Struggles to understand and follow simple instructions.
  • Doesn’t understand how objects in a group or category relate to each other.
  • Seems to confuse tenses and the order of events in time (past, present, or future).
  • Has difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.
  • Doesn’t engage in age-appropriate imaginary play
  • Has limited interest in toys.
  • Can’t recognize or confuses names of basic shapes and colors.

Discuss your concerns with your child’s preschool teacher, pediatrician, and, if necessary, a specialist such as a psychologist or speech-language pathologist. If you’re concerned that your child may have a learning disability or delay, you should contact your public school system and request (in writing) that a diagnostic screening (at no cost to you) be conducted (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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