looking down ont9 8 mugs of coffee from black to milky and all shades of coffee inbetween.

Do children think differently to adults?

When interacting with 3-7-year-olds, it’s important to have some understanding of the ways in which they think, in order for us to communicate effectively (and not patronisingly) with them. This blog post helps us to develop just an understanding.

Firstly, we consider a definition of ‘thinking’ before we then go on to outline some of the most popular theories of thinking. We follow this by providing some examples of the ways in which it’s been suggested that children think differently to adults, before ending with a little more food for thought (excuse the pun!) as to whether this is really the case or not…

So let’s turn our minds to what thinking actually is.

Thinking is the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts; the process of considering or reasoning about something that can happen independently of sensory stimulation.

It is one of six primary cognitive processes (brain-based skills) that develop over time in humans; the remaining processes being: attention, language, learning, memory, and perception.

An internet search for images related to ‘thinking’ or ‘thought’ quickly produces many images of a solitary figure depicting the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. Is this the only way that humans think?

a group of diverse children holding hands and dancing and singing in a circle
The short answer is no – Rodin’s depiction of a Thinker is not the only way that humans think – phew!

A longer answer is beyond the scope of this blog, but below is a brief outline of recent theories of how humans are considered to think:

Theories of thinking!

Bloom (1956) in his Taxonomy of Cognitive Goals, proposed cognition developed hierarchically, starting with knowledge, then followed by comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This taxonomy is considered relevant to understanding the processes of thinking by children as well as adults.
Piaget (1950, 1959) suggested children learn only when they are ready to do so, considering thought to be an internalized action that developed in stages:

  • Sensorimotor stage (birth to about 2-years)
  • Preoperational stage ( 2-years to about 7-years)
  • Concrete operational stage (7-years to about 12-years)
  • Formal operational stage (adolescence onwards)

Piaget also claimed that any attempts to ‘teach’ children before they were ready would have little impact on their thinking.

Vygotsky (1978) placed instruction at the heart of learning, suggesting children learn as they engage and interact with others, their optimum learning happening within a ‘zone of proximal development.’
Gardner (1983) suggested humans think in different (domain-specific) ways which he categorised as being linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential domains of thinking.
a group of diverse children holding hands and dancing and singing in a circle

Do children think differently to adults?

Yes, children can be observed to think differently to adults. Such differences include (but are not limited to):

  1. Object permanence: Toddlers only believe objects exist if they experience them directly with their senses; for example, objects hidden from view cease to exist to the mind of a child.
  2. Theory of mind: Theory of mind is the understanding that others think differently than you, and that not everyone knows what you know. Children do not begin to develop this until around 5-years of age.
  3. Conservation:For example, up until the age of 7-years, children lack the awareness to know that when a volume of liquid is poured from a wide glass into a tall glass, that the amount in the wide glass is the same as was in the tall glass.
  4. Abstract thinking: Children struggle with abstract reasoning; most of their thoughts being grounded in what they perceive as concrete reality.
  5. Intellectual realism: For example, in art, most young children will draw what they know, not what they see – if asked to draw a teapot placed on the table in front of them that had a broken handle, they will include a handle in their drawing because they know it should be there.
  6. Imagination: Children believe in magic and imaginary characters and places as readily as they believe in the tangible world around them.
Despite there being these observable differences, much evidence had been gathered over the past five decades to suggest that children’s thinking may not be quite as different as our observations, or those made by Piaget, would have us believe.

Scientific studies by Tizard and Hughes (2002) and Donaldson (1978), revealed how differences between children’s and adults’ thinking exist simply because of a lack of knowledge and experience, not because of age alone. Fitting with these findings, in situations where children have equal knowledge and experience to adults, be that in knowledge of dinosaurs, playing a game, or caring for a pet, they are seen to be more competent than their adult counterparts who may be a mere novice in this area!

As researchers continue to shed new light on the details of this age-old phenomena called thinking, perhaps the best we can do from our own side is to keep an open mind regarding how children think and perceive the world around them, and strive to facilitate their musical development and growing diversity awareness by making all their learning experiences as diverse and rich as possible.

keep an open mind regarding how children think and perceive the world around them, and strive to facilitate their musical development by making all their musical experiences as diverse and rich as possible


Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.

In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.