Capacity 6: Logical Thinking and Building Bridges between Ideas

Thinking and Reasoning

In the previous stage, the child’s expressions of emotion are like little unconnected islands. Play moves from a happy, nurturing tea party to an angry crashing of cars to a monster threatening to tear down a house all within a few minutes, as the child uses whatever caught her eye to play out emotional themes. In this sixth stage, the child builds bridges between those islands. Ideas are linked together into logical sequences and play, and imagination is also more logically connected. Whereas in stage 5 a child might dress up a doll, then, seeing a crayon, scribble, then, seeing a drum, pretend to be a drummer, a child at the stage of emotional thinking connects the pieces together. For example, she might have the drummer play for the dressed-up little girl and use the crayon to make invitations for the performance; or, the doll might have a tea party, call friends to invite them, prepare refreshments, set the table, and determine the seating pattern.

At this stage the child is able to express a wide range of emotions in her play, and through experimentation she begins to recognize more and more what makes “me.” She can even predict some of her feelings—“if Mommy leaves I will be scared”—and she begins to see that her feelings and behavior have an impact on others: “if I get angry and hit, Daddy will get mad”.

She also begins to understand emerging concepts of space and time in a personal, emotional way: Mommy is in another city, which is different from another room; if I hit Tommy today, he may hit me back tomorrow. The ability to conceptualize space and time and to link actions and feelings enables the child to develop a sense of self that has logical bridges between different perceptions, ideas, and emotions. She is also able to connect ideas in terms of spatial and verbal problem solving; instead of seeing separate block towers as isolated structures, she can link them together to make a big house. She can answer what, when, and why questions, enjoy debates, logically articulate an opinion, and begin the long journey to higher and higher levels of abstract thinking. Both verbal and spatial problem-solving abilities rest on emotional problem-solving skills. As with the earlier stages, emotional interactions create the thinking strategies that are then applied to the more impersonal world.

During this stage the child becomes more fully verbal. She still resorts to gestures to express her feelings—especially negative feelings such as anger and aggression—but she is now comfortable in the realm of words and understands that ideas and feelings can be communicated verbally.

At first we see children master islands of emotional thinking. Over time these islands coalesce into continents and the child’s view becomes more cohesive, integrating more experiences into a sense of self and problem-solving ability. Higher levels of thinking build on this foundation.

When Robbie was one year old, he was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy with low muscle tone and right-side weakness. He made good progress, however. At four and a half he was an engaging little boy, with the jagged walk and unintentional arm movements of a child with motor difficulties. But he had a warm smile and he made good eye contact—intermittently. His mother described him as “mysterious” because he was not always easy to understand, or “realistic.” His speech was immature for his age; he understood simple words but not concepts or abstract phrases, and he often gave silly, illogical answers to questions. Asked what he had for lunch he was apt to say, “The moon is green” or mutter illogical phrases to himself. But sometimes, such as when asked for a toy, he would be logical and connected to reality. His parents worried because he didn’t play with his peers and he so often seemed “lost in make-believe.”

Robbie had achieved most of the early emotional milestones, although none appeared to be fully mastered. They fall apart when he was stressed. For instance, he was eager to play with the toys and objects in the therapist’s office and remained calm while he examined them, but when his mother tried to pry a toy away from him, he screamed in rage for 15 minutes. Sometimes he turned inward, babbling to himself as if only his inner thoughts could comfort him. Much of the time he was connected to his parents. He would look them in the eye and answer their questions, although he rarely smiled. Then suddenly, with no apparent provocation, he would turn away and willfully ignore them. He was clearly capable of two-way communication, both with gestures and with words. His word comprehension and use of ideas was sometimes quite sophisticated. But again, with no apparent provocation, he would suddenly stop closing circles and instead respond with silly, illogical phrases. His play was mechanical; he enjoyed putting dolls down the slide of the dollhouse rather than acting out a drama, and when he did begin a little drama, what emerged were bits of unconnected action rather than a unified story. His range of emotion was narrow. In general, Robbie seemed unable to sustain an idea, a conversation, or a feeling more than a few seconds. After that he needed to retreat to the comfort of his inner world. His incomplete mastery of the earlier milestones had undermined his ability to work on Level Six.

Further evaluations revealed a number of factors contributing to Robbie’s problems. He had an auditory-processing and word-retrieval problem, which mean that he often couldn’t understand what was said to him and couldn’t think of the word he wanted. It was easy to see how this might discourage him from closing circles. He had made great strides in his physical therapy, but he still had significant gross- and fine-motor deficits. His posture and balance was insecure, and it was hard for him to plan and execute his movements. This difficulty accounted for his jagged walk, unintentional arm movements, and general lack of coordination. To tackle these impairments, his treatment program included speech and occupational therapy along with his physical therapy.

Equally important to treatment was the program developed for Robbie’s parents. It was clear from observing them play with Robbie that they could help him become more layered and integrated. His mother, rather than steer his conversations back to reality, often got lost with him in his self-absorbed elaborations of ideas. She called his fragmented ideas “his poems,” but she didn’t try to understand them. “Only he needs to know,” she explained. Robbie’s father was relatively uninvolved with him and avoided family activities. Untethered to reality, Robbie was moving further and further into his own world. In time, if the situation didn’t change, he would relate less and less well with others.

As part of the treatment program, Robbie’s parents were to play on the floor with him, encouraging him to close his circles of communication. Their goal was to prevent Robbie from withdrawing into himself and tuning them out. Each time he made a silly comment, they were to link that comment to reality by joining him in his play. By helping him close verbal circles, they would help him share his world with them and they would help him share their world rather than continue to live in his own. For instance, when Robbie slid a doll down the slide of the dollhouse and announced, “The doll is jumping out of the moon,” his parents might say, “Where is the moon?” If he didn’t answer they might say, “Is the slide the moon?” or “How do we get to the moon? as a means of joining his play. The slide might then turn into a spaceship and off they would go. Each time they joined him they tried to help him tie his ideas to their ideas so that there would be a logical bridge between what he created and what someone outside him created.

Robbie’s parents also practiced reality-based conversations. They might ask what Robbie did at preschool that day. If he said something silly, such as “The chimney has water in it,” they made a transition to something realistic. They might respond, “Did something happen with a chimney or with water?” and continue patiently until he was able to give them a logical reply. Robbie’s teachers were similarly encouraged to help him close his verbal circles.

Robbie’s parents were helped to set limits when Robbie had temper tantrums. In the past they had let him flail around or had given in to his demands. Now they held him tightly to help him calm down and then gradually helped him talk about the problem. After a few weeks they also used exercises from Robbie’s occupational therapy to help him calm down.

Over time, Robbie made slow but steady progress. By a few months into therapy he was able to maintain two-way communication for a longer period of time and was having few tantrums at home. With a lot of cuing from his parents to compensate for his word-retrieval problem, he was doing a better job of describing his day at school.

A few months later, his pretend play took on a whole new emotional level. He began to develop elaborate dramas in which good guys were constantly being overwhelmed by bad guys and having to defend themselves. Occasionally he would blurt out while playing that he was mad at his sister or at a child at school because “they wreck my things.” These comments began to provide a sense of Robbie’s inner feelings. Apparently he often felt overwhelmed by other people, felt angry at them for hurting him, and fantasized about counterattacking. He had begun forming bridges between ideas, between the real world and his play.

A year and a half later, Robbie had made tremendous progress. He could hold a conversation for as long as his partner wanted. His tantrums had virtually disappeared, and he had become quite capable of regulating his moods. He was able to express a wide range of emotions—from happiness to sadness, dependency to aggressiveness—in play as well as in life. And when earlier he had tuned out and closeted himself in his inner world, he was now rooted in reality. In the past Robbie had used his creativity and cleverness to escape into fantasy, in part because processing other people’s ideas and finding words was difficult and in part because of the conflicts over certain feelings. Now he used his creativity to stay involved in two-way communication, to build logical bridges between ideas, and to work out his problems with auditory processing and word retrieval. He still has some of these problems, and his parents continue to work with him on that. But overall Robbie’s progress has been excellent. He is now functioning at an age-appropriate level in all basic areas. With his parents’ patient help he has mastered all six emotional and intellectual milestones.

Children achieve these milestones at different ages—there is wide variation even among children without challenges. What is important is not so much the age at which a child masters each skill, but that each one is mastered, for each skill forms a foundation for the next.

Once a child has mastered all six milestones, he has critical basic tools for communicating, thinking, and emotional coping. He has a positive sense of self. He is capable of warm and loving relationships. He is able to relate logically to the outside world. He can express in words a wide range of emotions (including love, happiness, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, jealous, and others) and is able to recover from strong emotions without losing control. He can use his imagination to create new ideas. He is flexible in his dealings with people and situations, able to tolerate changes and even some disappointments and bounce back. Obviously not all children do all these things equally well, but a child who has mastered the milestones will have important foundations for loving and learning.

From Theory to Practice: Tips on how to help your child master stage 6

Goal: Building bridges between ideas. Challenge your child to connect her ideas together by seeking her opinion, enjoying her debates, and enlarging her pretend dramas.

Learning to Think

Help your child learn to think by holding long conversations with her in which you seek her opinions rather than simply trade pieces of information. For instances, when she expresses a desire to “Go out now!” you can ask her what she wants to do once she’s outside. When she replies, “Play on the slide!” she’ll be linking her wishes with your thoughts and ideas. Try and pose open-ended questions to get her thinking, such as “Why do you like this color so much?” rather than “Which is your favorite color?” Enjoy debates about everything from bedtime to ice cream flavors! When your child clamors to stay up later, and you ask, “Why should you be allowed to stay up so late?” she’s likely to give you a lawyerly response of “Because you let (big sister) stay up late and I’m almost as old!” Also, as you continue to be a pretend partner, try and come up with new plot twists. You might explore the dolls’ feelings or let her be a mommy while you are the child.

Capacity 6 Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do rely on jointly creating elaborate pretend dramas that have logical plots. For example, tea parties and school scenes and trips to Grandma’s can be woven together.
  • Do rely on enjoyable debates about everything from food and clothes choices to sharing toys.
  • Don’t simply tell your child what to do; explain why you want to do something. Discuss the pros and cons, and give your child plenty of time to argue her viewpoint. A good rule of thumb is that if your child’s answers don’t frequently surprise you, or if you have a single correct answer in mind, you are probably over-scripting.
  • Do rely on reflective discussions. When your child wants something, don’t simply say yes or no. Instead, ask “What/when/why/how…?” In this way, you’ll help your child give an opinion and reflect on her own wishes – the foundation for abstract thinking.
  • Do carry out these activities in peer, sibling, and small play groups. Children can debate each other or make funny pictures.
  • Don’t solve problems for your child; let her solve them herself. Your role is to help her brainstorm or to offer any needed encouragement.
  • Do create experiences involving quantity, time, and space concepts that engage your child’s strong feelings of the moment.
  • Do expose your child to a rich range of activities and encourage her natural interests and abilities. All these experiences will strengthen her ability to think abstractly.
  • Do enjoy stories, reading, puzzles, and other traditional activities as part of a vibrant back-and-forth discussion
  • Do enjoy helping your child use words to describe all the different feelings of life, from anger to closeness. Discuss feelings during both pretend play and reality-based conversations.

Games to help your child master Capacity 6:

The Director Game

See how many plot shifts or new story lines your child can initiate as the two of you lay make-believe games together. After the tea party play becomes a little repetitive or lacks direction, you can subtly challenge your child to thicken the plot by announcing something like “I’m so full of tea my tummy’s sloshing! What can we do next?”

“Why Should I?” Game

When you child wants you to do things for her, gently tease her with a response of “Why should I?” and see how many reasons she can give you. Then, offer a compromise, such as “Let’s do it together,” when she wants you to get her riding toy out of the garage, or pick out a new outfit to wear, etc.