Child, Youth, and Family Studies, Department of


Date of this Version

November 1983


Published in Young Children 39:1 (November 1983), pp. 12-20. Copyright © 1983, by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Used by permission.
Based on a workshop presented at the annual symposium of the Jean Piaget Society, Philadelphia, May 1981.


During the early childhood years, children’s understanding of many social and moral issues undergoes immense changes. We became interested in learning more about these changes and supporting them through our laboratory preschool curriculum. One major change, for example, is that children come to classify themselves and others into sex, age, and kinship categories and to learn social role expectations. Children also show greatly deepened understanding of such moral issues as fair sharing, obedience, authority, and friendship.

These areas of development are part of what can be called social cognition, or “children’s understanding of social behavior—what children think about their own behavior and the behavior of others” (Moore 1979, p. 54). Recent research on social cognition has generated a great deal of new information very useful to educators. This research describes the typical developmental stages in children’s social thinking, and is based on Piagetian theory. Stated briefly, “Understanding others is not merely a matter of ‘learning more’ about people in some quantitative sense; it is organizing what one knows into systems of meaning or belief” (Shantz 1975, p. 266).

Most published social cognition activities have focused on children’s role-taking skills. Forman and Hill (1980), for example, offer many ingenious examples of how teachers can help children to understand what specific information is like from another person’s perspective. Out of this grows the ability to better understand the other person’s behavior. Educators have also developed curriculum ideas for stimulating children’s interpersonal problem-solving. Teachers can help a group of children to learn to notice and name a problem, generate alternative solutions, and evaluate the consequences of the alternatives (Spivack and Shure 1974; Copple, Sigel and Saunders 1979).

While we used these activities as a foundation for our social cognition curriculum, we also wanted to venture into new program areas. We began to develop learning encounters concerning equally important issues such as social roles, justice in sharing, and the distinction between moral and conventional rules. Our goal was not to transmit either our values or factual information to the children concerning these issues. Rather, we had two major aims:

1. To present intellectually challenging problems that children could discuss either individually or as a group. This we believed would stimulate them to think about social and moral issues. 2. To learn about the varied aspects of the children’s social and moral thinking, and then to use this information as a basis for less authoritarian guidance and management.

In implementing our goals, we focused on three different kinds of learning encounters: the dramatic skit, presented to a large group or the entire class; the thinking game, aimed at an individual child or a very small group; and the spontaneous discussion, relevant for a teacher interacting with any number of children.