At this stage, your child has the most of the psycho-neurological characteristics of an adult, but the thinking processes of a child before the age of six or so is fundamentally different from those of adults. This is the pre-logical phase: the age of magic.
Between one year and four years old the bridge between the two hemispheres of the cortex in the brain is created. This bridge of fibres scientifically called the corpus callosum enables the connections between visual/auditory memory and visual/auditory construct, and between thinking and kinaesthetic feeling. This change seems to allow the child to transcend simple impulsive/emotional responses, and develop a sense of “self” and will. The process begins with kinaesthetic control such as “toilet training”, and develops into the sense of self: “No” and “I won’t” becomes the favourite affirmation of autonomy.
By four years old, a child has an average vocabulary of 1000 words, and begins to use more sophisticated language structures (although they’re likely to say “Who says?” rather than the more formal “According to whom?”). By age of 4 a child has the language to describe past and future, and conceptualise a timeline, and by age of six, the structure of time into weeks, months and years makes clear organisation of even a “through time” timeline possible.
However, understanding of language is far from complete. The three-year-old will interpret words very concretely, so will not comprehend the multiple meanings and puns required to enjoy a “Knock Knock” joke. However, by the age five, a child will know that words can have metaphorical as well as concrete meaning (that saying a person is “sweet” is a result of a synaesthesia, not of a direct gustatory sampling).
At age four, then, each word tends to have one meaning to the child, and that meaning is “a part of” the thing – the child may be quite puzzled at the idea that they themselves could have had a different name, for instance. Another interesting characteristic of early childhood speech is that not all of it is intended as communication. Much of it is simply the self-talk that an adult will tend to do internally.
As an adult listens to a preschooler’s speech, it’s easy to assume that the child thinks exactly as an adult does. However, the child is still assimilating certain concepts we take for granted. For example, fantasies (visual/auditory constructs) will often not be distinguished from memories (visual/auditory recalls). The child may get very upset when a parent doesn’t make a seat for an imaginary friend; or may say with utter conviction “I talked to a dragon last night” after listening to a story about dragons. Also, a child may not fully comprehend the “conservation” of qualities: for example that if you have six coins on top of each other and then spread them out on the table, you still have only six coins because sixes is conserved.
Asked to perform a logical task, the young child will tend to skip across parallel concepts rather than being able to build up a logical cause and effect construct.
For example: Adult: Tommy, what happens when it rains?
Child: The sky cries.
Adult: How does it happen?
Child: Because we cry.
Adult: What makes it rain?
Child: Because we have tears.
In the above example, an adult might explain a cause and effect relationship. The young child’s answer is more of an intuitive leap. In fact, the style of thinking of the preschooler is characteristic of the “unconscious mind” in an adult. This type of pre-logical thinking, combining fantasy and memory, is enabled by the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. While it provides quick answers which are often intuitively correct, the child’s increasing need to make better sense of the world drives it to a breakthrough at around age seven.
One place where the child seeks better answers most urgently is in play. Playing interactively with another child requires the very skills that preschoolers find challenging: the ability to take a second and third position, and the ability to chunk up (to reach agreement). Children’s play tends to follow a sequence from solitary play, to onlooking, to parallel play (doing the same activity next to another child), to associative play (borrowing objects, etc.), and finally to co-operative play (where roles may interact, and group goals are established). Usually, this sequence and the learning of conflict resolution skills spans the age from 2-5 years old.