5 ways to help your preschooler develop Theory of Mind - and why it matters

Here’s an interesting experiment to try with your preschooler at breakfast… Secretly swap the contents of a cereal box with crayons. Show your little one the box, and ask them to tell you what’s inside. They will (most likely!) suggest that cereal is in the box. Great - that's what's meant to happen!

Now show them what’s really in the box - the crayons. Finally, bring someone else into the room who isn’t in on the experiment, perhaps a sibling or Daddy. And here’s the test: What does Daddy think is in the box? (If as you’re reading this, you answered ‘cereal’, well done! You have passed the cereal box test!) Try asking your preschooler what Daddy thinks is in the box - did they also respond ‘cereal’, or was it ‘crayons’?

Under the age of 4 -5, most children will respond with ‘crayons’, because they haven’t yet developed ‘theory of mind’, which allows them to figure out that people can believe something to be true, even when it isn’t. This matters to us, because theory of mind is an essential precursor skill to gratitude. Only with theory of mind can children start to understand why other people make the choices they do - and appreciate the motives that lie behind people’s gift-giving, help and care. That’s why on our Nurturing Spirituality through Growing Gratitude workshops for early years educators, we have lots of tips for how you can help children develop theory of mind.

Do you want to support your child to develop this important foundation skill for gratitude? Read on for our top 5 tips on how to support your preschooler to develop theory of mind:

  1. Over the course of your day, describe your thoughts and feelings to your child. Let them know what's happening in your thoughts so they can start to build up a picture that your ideas, beliefs and desires are not necessarily the same as theirs. 'Daddy wants to go to the park, but I really want to go to the swimming pool this morning. We want different things. What do you want to do?' You can also point out other people's thoughts and feelings throughout the day: 'She's feeling happy because she really wanted a turn on the swing, and you let her.'

  2. Put your child's thoughts and feelings into words for them, by imagining what they might be thinking: 'You're trying to reach up high because you think the doll is up there - actually she's in the toy box now.'

  3. Play hiding games, and show your little one that people act in line with their beliefs, whether or not they're true: 'I was looking for you under the cushion, because I thought you were hiding there!' 'They think we're hiding behind the car - they don't know we're in this tree!'

  4. Take on different roles when you do pretend play together - it's time to dust off those acting skills for a few minutes! Bring thoughts and feelings into your role, to encourage your child to think about the world from someone else's perspective: 'Oh hello Mr Vet, I'm feeling so worried about my poor panda. Do you think you can help him? Do you think he'll be ok?'

  5. When you read together, discuss the character's thoughts, motives and intentions. Why did they do that? What did the character think was going to happen? And what really happened? What do you think the character wants to do next? Children's stories are often full of simple intrigue, where we as the reader know something the character doesn't - so enjoy these opportunities to discuss people's different beliefs and ideas! Wherever possible, relate the experiences of character's to examples of your child's own experiences - this helps children make sense of the things they encounter in books.

Have fun exploring theory of mind with your child - as you help your child develop insight into what motivates people to act the way they do, you’ll know you're laying the foundations for your child to begin Growing Gratitude.

Important note: Some children experience difficulty developing theory of mind - for example children who have autism spectrum disorder. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, talk to a health professional.

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