Home Developmental Psychology Jean Piaget Preoperational Stage

Preoperational Stage

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The preoperational stage ranges from about ages 2 to 7 (Piaget, 1951, 1952). During the end of this stage children can mentally represent events and objects (the semiotic function), and engage in symbolic play.

Childrens' thoughts and communications are typically egocentric (i.e. about themselves). Egocentrism refers to the child's inability to see a situation from another person's point of view. According to Piaget, the egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same as the child does. 

At the beginning of this stage you often find children engaging in parallel play. That is to say they often play in the same room as other children but they play next to others rather than with them. Each child is absorbed in its own private world and speech is egocentric. That is to say the main function of speech at this stage is to externalise the child’s thinking rather than to communicate with others. As yet the child has not grasped the social function of either language or rules.

However as the pre-operational stage develops egocentrism declines and children begin to display some imitation of each other. They seem to enjoy the participation of another child in their games and “lets pretend “ play becomes more important. For this to work there is going to be a need for some way of regulating each child’s relations with the other and out of this need we see the beginnings of an orientation to others in terms of rules. The child will also begin to use one object to stand for (i.e. to symbolise) another.

Another key feature which children display during this stage is animism. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects (such as toys and teddy bears) have human feelings and intentions.

The Three Mountains Task

Jean Piaget used the three mountains task (see picture below) to test whether children were egocentric. Egocentric children assume that other people will see the same view of the three mountains as they do. According to Piaget, at age 7 thinking is no longer egocentric, as the child can see more than their own point of view.

Aim: Piaget and Inhelder (1956) wanted to find out at what age children decenter - i.e. become no longer egocentric.

Method: The child sits at a table, presented in front are three mountains. The mountains were different, with snow on top of one, a hut on another and a red cross on top of the other. The child was allowed to walk round the model, to look at it, then sit down at one side. A doll is then placed at various positions of the table.

The child is then shown 10 photographs of the mountains taken from different positions, and asked to indicate which showed the dolls view. Piaget assumed that if the child correctly picked out the card showing the doll's view, s/he was not egocentric. Egocentrism would be shown by the child who picked out the card showing the view s/he saw.

Findings - Four-year-olds always chose a picture which matched their own view, while six-year-olds showed some awareness of alternative perspectives. Only seven- and eight-year-olds consistently chose the correct picture.

Conclusion - At age 7, thinking is no longer egocentric as the child can see more than their own point of view.

piaget three mountains

Limitations in the Child's Thinking

Piaget focused most of this description of this stage on limitations in the child's thinking, identifying a number of mental tasks which children seem unable to do. These include the inability to decentre, conserve, understand seriation (the inability to understand that objects can be organized into a logical series or order) and to carry out inclusion tasks.

Children in the preoperational stage are able to focus on only one aspect or dimension of problems. For example, suppose you arrange two rows of blocks in such a way that a row of 5 blocks is longer than a row of 7 blocks.  Preoperational children can generally count the blocks in each row and tell you the number contained in each.  However, if you ask which row has more, they will likely say that it is the one that makes the longer line, because they cannot simultaneously focus on both the length and the number. The ability to solve this and other "conservation" problems signals the transition to the next stage.

Conservation is the understanding that something stays the same in quantity even though its appearance changes. To be more technical, conservation is the ability to understand that redistributing material does not affect its mass, number or volume.

So, what do these tasks tell us about the limitations of preoperational thought in general?

Piaget drew a number of related conclusions:

1) Understanding of these situations is 'perception bound'. The child is drawn by changes in the appearance of the materials to conclude that a change has occurred.

2) Thinking is 'centered' on one aspect of the situation. Children notice changes in the level of water or in the length of clay without noticing that other aspects of the situation have changed simultaneously.

3) Thinking is focused on states rather than on transformations. Children fail to track what has happened to materials and simply make an intuitive judgment based on how they appear 'now'.

4) Thinking is 'irreversible' in that the child cannot appreciate that a reverse transformation would return the material to its original state. Reversibility is a crucial aspect of the logical (operational) thought of later stages.

Evaluation: Martin Hughes (1975) - Policeman Doll Study

piaget criticism

Martin Hughes (1975) argued that the three mountains task did not make sense to children and was made more difficult because the children had to match the doll's view with a photograph.

Hughes devised a task which made sense to the child. He showed children a model comprising two intersecting walls, a 'boy' doll and a 'policeman' doll. He then placed the policeman doll in various positions and asked the child to hide the boy doll from the policeman.

Hughes did this to make sure that the child understood what was being asked of him, so if s/he made mistakes they were explained and the child tried again. Interestingly, very few mistakes were made.

The experiment then began. Hughes brought in a second policeman doll, and placed both dolls at the end of two walls, as shown in the illustration above.

The child was asked to hide the boy from both policemen, in other words he had to take account of two different points of view.

Hughes' sample comprised children between three and a half and five years of age, of whom 90 per cent gave correct answers. Even when he devised a more complex situation, with more walls and a third policeman, 90 per cent of four-year-olds were successful.

This shows that children have largely lost their egocentric thinking by four years of age, because they are able to take the view of another. Hughes' experiment allowed them to demonstrate this because the task made sense to the child, whereas Piaget's did not.


Piaget, J. (1951). Egocentric thought and sociocentric thought. J. Piaget, Sociological studies, 270-286.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1956). The Child's Conception of Space. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hughes , M. (1975). Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh University.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2010). Preoperational Stage. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/preoperational.html

Further Information

Jean Piaget

Sensorimotor Stage

Concrete Operational Stage

Formal Operational Stage

Jean Piaget – The Three Mountains Audio Broadcast

Cognitive Development piaget pdf

Piaget: Cognitive Development (Undergraduate Notes) piaget pdf