Discover How Young Children Think

Do you know how young children think? We'll talk about it below. What's more, we'll also provide some tips to develop their thinking.
Discover How Young Children Think
María José Roldán

Written and verified by the psychopedagogue María José Roldán.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Many parents, when they look at their toddlers’ faces, may wonder about how young children think. Moms and dads would love to have the magic to get inside their kid’s thoughts to find out what they think and how they think. But it’s all very mysterious!

Below, we want to solve this mystery so you can get an idea of how toddlers think and what goes through their little heads every day. If you’re curious, keep reading to better understand their cognitive functioning.

How do young children think?

To understand toddlers’ thinking, it’s important to know the characteristics of their cognitive functioning. To give you a better understanding, we’ve listed them for you.

  • Language is the most important of the semiotic functions because it’s used to represent objects or express actions and thoughts.
  • Children begin to use two types of mental representations: Symbols and signs (e.g., when they draw or engage in symbolic play).
  • Children imitate a caregiver, even if they’re not in the caregiver’s presence. Another version of this is verbal recall (e.g., when they “meow” even though they can no longer see the cat).
A father and son with shaving cream on their faces, smiling.
  • They are egocentric, meaning that they are not fully able to see things from another person’s perspective or to put themselves in another person’s shoes.
  • Children are focused on and only really concerned with their immediate environment. They don’t think about remote goals or situations in time and space.
  • They can’t make comparisons between things (e.g., bigger, smaller). They see each thing separately.
  • They’re unable to distinguish between psychological and physical events. They don’t know the difference between internal and external (e.g., seeing thought as part of speech).
  • Children personify objects. They believe that objects can feel or act like human beings (e.g., believing that a doll is angry).

What else do you need to know about how young children think?

Following on from the list above, let’s name three more points that are no less important than the previous ones, as they’ll help you understand their reasoning a little better:

  • Children’s reasoning isn’t sound. They may not see the relationship between two things or they may group unrelated things together. For example, “The girl doesn’t have a name because she can’t talk.” They may not see the relationship between cause and effect. For example, “He’s sick because he didn’t go to school.”
  • They may classify according to one criterion, such as shapes, but not more than one at a time (such as shape and color). This also relates to seriation (arranging different objects according to size). They can sort objects into large and small, but not order them perfectly in a series from largest to smallest.
  • Children don’t necessarily have a clear concept of numbers, even if they can count to 10. To have a concept of numbers, they must understand the ordinal properties, cardinal properties, and conservation of numbers. They also need to know that numbers can be grouped into different sets by addition and multiplication and that they can be divided by subtraction and division.

How to develop thinking in young children?

To develop cognitive skills in young children, i.e. thinking, certain things must be taken into account. During the preschool years (ages 3 to 6), parents can help their children reach their cognitive milestones through basic and necessary activities. Some important ones are discussed below.

Reading to children

Reading will help develop your child’s cognitive skills at a good pace. Reading to your children on a daily basis is essential and will be the difference between a child with a highly developed vocabulary or a child with a basic vocabulary. As you read to your children, they’ll develop:

  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
  • Language patterns
  • Thinking skills
  • Attention skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Memory
  • Listening skills, and much more

Talking to them

Language is one of the most important aspects of cognitive development. The best way to build it is to expose your child not only to hearing language but also to using it.

You’re the main source of their language in the early years, so it’s important that you use it in a grammatically correct and stimulating way. Your child will learn to speak by imitating you.

Talk to your little one all the time, every chance you get: In the car, in the bathroom, while making dinner, during playtime, etc. The less time children spend watching TV and other screens, the more they’ll converse with you and the people around them.

A young girl smiling proudly at her mom.

Singing nursery rhymes

Nursery rhymes are more than just a fun activity that children enjoy. They’re actually very stimulating and educational. They teach little ones language patterns and help them develop vocabulary. Most importantly, they stimulate a child’s auditory perception skills, such as auditory memory, sound discrimination, etc.

Expose your children to classic nursery rhymes, songs, poems, finger rhymes, nonsense rhymes, etc. Learning nursery rhymes is an important aspect of pre-reading skills and will prepare your child for reading success later in school.

Play thinking games

Thinking is an important skill for adults and one that should be actively worked on. Many older adults have a hard time thinking “outside the box,” finding solutions, or thinking critically. Thinking games are specifically intended to work on your child’s higher-order thinking skills and critical thinking skills.

They encourage your child to actively practice thinking. There are several examples of thinking skills. These are just a few:

In short, now that you know more about how young children think, what are you waiting for to put into practice these activities that we’ve suggested to stimulate your child’s cognitive skills to the max?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Muñoz García, A. (2010) Psicología del desarrollo en la etapa de educación infantil . Editorial: Pirámide

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.