Learning to think

Supporting your child’s curiosity helps him learn

Beth Vreugdenhil wanted to build a fire extinguisher, so she asked her dad, Andrew, if he would cut a hole in a yogourt container and give her a bendy straw. She also wanted to know how an extinguisher works. Then she wanted to try it out; her dad supplied some foamy liquid and Beth suggested a pile of dry leaves to represent the flames.

It’s amazing to see Beth’s five-year-old mind at work. She’s learning about cause and effect — that a foamy spray can put out a fire — and she’s problem-solving, and she’s doing it all through play. While her dad isn’t sure why Beth is interested in fire extinguishers in particular, he’s happy to help.

Supporting your child’s interests and curiosity is the most important thing parents can do to encourage learning in their preschool children, says Janet Astington, a professor in the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto. And lending that support is easier when you understand the workings of a preschooler’s mind. Here’s a glimpse:

Empathy

The prevailing wisdom has long been that preschoolers are egocentric — they believe that everyone shares the same thoughts as they do. But research conducted by Astington and others suggests that “by five, children have the ability to recognize that people may think differently than they do.”

“The crucial change here,” says Astington, “is that children are developing the ability to see things from different points of view. It’s that level of understanding you need to understand tricks, lies and secrets.”

Thought control

During the preschool years, children also gain more control over their thoughts: They can pretend a banana is a phone; they can hold two ideas in their heads (“The red car belongs to me, but my friend Jeremy has it now”); and their capacity to delay gratification increases. Astington points to a study in which researchers offered children one sticker now, or several later on if they were willing to forgo the one. Three-year-olds took the one sticker right away, while the five-year-olds were able to wait.

Language

Intellectual development grows in tandem with language, and kids this age are increasingly able to express ideas and ask questions. But the questions change: Three-year-olds tend to ask, “What’s that?” By five, they’re asking “Why?” and “How does it work?” Having the answers is less important than engaging in the conversation: “Why are there clouds?” is a window into your child’s mind and an opportunity to wonder about it together.

Children are also beginning to understand how language works — that jokes make people laugh, while a story might make you feel sad.

Reading to your child every day is as important as talking together. Non-fiction can feed his curiosity about cats or cars. Stories provide fodder for imaginative play and help children understand people’s thoughts and feelings. Hearing you read aloud helps with vocabulary and grammar.

Parents can get overly concerned about cognitive development, thinking they need to work on skills. “Really, what matters is lots of interaction and talking,” says Astington. What you’re focusing on — whether fire extinguishers or the letters in her name — is less critical than the fact that you’re doing something together.