In the 1920s, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget began investigating preconceptual thought. Piaget and his team quizzed children in Paris, Nice, Geneva, and Valencia. He studied his own three children from infancy. The researchers collected thousands of statements about the origins of the sun, the moon, and the earth. They asked subjects about the formation of thunder, lightning, and clouds. Questions like: Where does thunder come from? Are clouds hard? Where does the sun go at night? Can you see a thought?
Children told Piaget that light came from the clouds when the sun disappeared during the day, and the moon followed them in the sky when they walked outside at night. They generally believed night occurred to facilitate sleep.
He asked small children if they knew what it meant to think of something. If they looked puzzled he said: When you are here and you think about your house, or your mother, or your dog, you are thinking about something. Then he asked them what they were thinking with. He asked the older children: If it were possible to open a person’s head, could you see a thought? Could you touch it?
He divided a child’s notion of thought into three stages. The youngest children told Piaget they thought with their mouths. By the age of eight, some children used the word ‘brain,’ but they still associated thought with a voice in their head. Thought was materialized. Children in the second stage tended to tell Piaget it was possible to touch a thought.
A boy told Jean Piaget, ‘The wind makes the grass move and you see it moving. That is thinking.’ A girl told him that memory is something in the head which makes us think. She said memory is a little square of skin, rather oval, and God has used a pencil to write stories on the flesh.
Piaget said that thinking about things separates us from the actual things. By the age of eleven the children no longer associated thought with the idea of physical substance. They had reached Piaget’s final stage. When he asked them if the moon could have been called the sun, and the sun been called the moon, they said yes.
‘The wind makes the grass move and you see it moving.’ The Child’s Conception of the World, by Jean Piaget, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Edition 2007, first published, 1929.