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How to Teach Preschoolers Second-Order Thinking

Written by: Kokotree

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How to Teach Preschoolers Second-Order Thinking

Have you ever wondered why your little one made a particular choice, or perhaps why they didn’t foresee the toy blocks toppling over after stacking them too high? That’s because, like all of us once did, they’re learning about the consequences of their actions. But what if there was a way to help them think about what happens immediately after they do something and what might happen next?

Welcome to the world of second-order thinking!

Imagine this: Instead of just thinking, “If I eat this candy now, it’ll taste sweet,” second-order thinking pushes us to consider, “But if I eat too much candy, I might get a tummy ache later.” It’s all about thinking a step ahead. For our young children, this skill can be a game-changer. It’s not just about predicting toppled toys or tummy aches but about building a foundation for smarter decisions as they grow.

So, dear parents, if you’re curious about helping your child think one step further, understanding second-order thinking is a brilliant place to start. Stick around as we dive into this simple yet transformative way of thinking and discover fun ways to weave it into your everyday moments with your little one. 🚀

History of Second-Order Thinking

Alright, let’s hop into our time machine for a quick journey!️

While it sounds modern, second-order thinking has roots that stretch back quite a bit. People have always needed to think ahead, whether it was ancient tribes planning their migrations based on weather patterns or leaders strategizing over territorial conquests.

  • Strategic Planning: Think of the ancient generals planning their battles. They didn’t just consider the immediate impact of sending their troops into the frontline. They pondered over questions like, “If we attack now, where will the enemy retreat? And then, how can we corner them?” This forward-thinking approach was essential for victory.
  • Game Theory: Ever heard of games where every decision counts, not just for now, but for many moves ahead? Game theory is the study of how people make decisions in situations where the outcome depends not just on what they do, but also on what others do. It’s like playing a game of tic-tac-toe or checkers. You’ve got to think about not only your next move but also about how your opponent might respond, and then what you’d do after that.
  • Chess Masters: Speaking of games, chess is a classic example! Chess grandmasters are often celebrated not just for their ability to think one move ahead, but several. They anticipate their opponent’s moves and plan their strategies accordingly. It’s a beautiful dance of prediction and strategy.

Now, you might think, “Alright, but where did the term ‘second-order thinking’ come from?” One notable figure who popularized it is Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett. Munger often emphasized the importance of not just considering the immediate effects of a decision, but also the effects of those effects. Imagine it like ripples in a pond, where one stone’s splash leads to bigger circles radiating outwards.

While the term might sound fancy, second-order thinking is as old as time. And just as it benefited ancient generals and chess champions, it can make a world of difference in our children’s lives too.

Educational App for Preschool

What is Second-Order Thinking?

Let’s break this down in the simplest way possible!

Imagine you’re watching a movie, and the main character is about to open a mysterious door. The first thought that pops into your head might be, “What’s behind that door?” That’s your first-order thinking – the immediate result of an action. But then, you might wonder, “Where will the character run if there’s a monster behind that door? How will they escape?” That’s diving into second-order thinking – considering the subsequent events after the initial action.

First-Order Thinking: It’s our immediate reaction to a situation. It’s the “what” of the decision. For instance, “If I touch this hot pot, my hand will burn.”

Second-Order Thinking: It goes a step further. It’s the “then what” of the decision. Like, “If I burn my hand, I won’t be able to play my favorite game later.”

Example Time!

Let’s say you and your child are baking cookies. Your little one might think:

  • First-Order Thinking: “If I eat the cookie dough now, it’ll be delicious!”
  • Second-Order Thinking: “But if I eat too much cookie dough, we won’t have enough for baking. And then, I won’t have any cookies to enjoy later.”

Second-order thinking is all about looking beyond the obvious and immediate, diving into the chain of events that might follow. It’s a simple yet powerful tool that can help us and our kiddos make wiser, more informed decisions in our daily adventures.

Why Does Second-Order Thinking Matter for Preschoolers?

Now that we know second-order thinking, the big question arises: Why should we care? Especially when it comes to our young ones? Let’s unravel this!

  1. Benefits in Decision-Making: Life is all about making choices, big or small. Whether it’s deciding which toy to play with or which snack to eat, every decision has consequences. By practicing second-order thinking, our kids can make choices that feel good in the moment and benefit them in the long run. It’s like giving them a little compass for life’s journey!
  2. Enhanced Problem-Solving: Problems and challenges? They’re an inevitable part of growing up. But with second-order thinking, our little adventurers can anticipate potential hurdles and devise smarter strategies to overcome them. Think of it as equipping them with extra tools in their problem-solving toolkit.
  3. Life Skills: More than just decision-making and problem-solving, second-order thinking fosters patience, foresight, and empathy. It encourages our children to pause, reflect, and consider the bigger picture. This makes them more thoughtful individuals and more understanding of others’ feelings and actions.
  4. Relevance in Today’s World: Our world is more interconnected than ever. Actions in one part of the globe can have ripple effects thousands of miles away. In such a complex landscape, thinking beyond the immediate is invaluable. By nurturing second-order thinking in our children, we’re preparing them for a world that requires a deep understanding of cause and effect, a world where thinking ahead isn’t just nice to have—it’s essential.

Introducing our kids to second-order thinking is like gifting them a superpower. It’s a skill that will guide them through their childhood adventures and set them up for success in the intricate maze of adulthood. After all, who wouldn’t want their child to be a little superhero in the making?

Approaching Second-Order Thinking with Preschoolers

Teaching our tiny tots to think a step ahead might sound like a grand mission, but worry not! The right approach can be as delightful as our daily playtime sessions. Let’s dive into the how-to!

  • Simplicity is Key: Remember, we’re working with young, imaginative minds that are just beginning to explore the vast world around them. Overloading them with complex ideas can be overwhelming. So, keep it simple! Use everyday scenarios, relatable stories, and fun activities to introduce the idea of thinking ahead.
  • Age-Appropriate Methods: Just as we wouldn’t give a picture book to a baby or a rattle to a 5-year-old, we must tailor our approach based on our child’s age and understanding. Preschoolers are at a stage where their curiosity is at its peak, but their attention spans? Not so much. Short, engaging activities or discussions that last a few minutes can be more effective than long-drawn lessons.
  • Understanding Developmental Stages: Preschoolers, typically aged 3 to 5, are in a unique phase of cognitive development. They’re moving from magical thinking (where anything is possible in their minds) to more logical thinking. However, their understanding of cause and effect is still very basic. For instance, they might understand that if they let go of a balloon, it flies away. But understanding why it flies away (because of the helium) might be too complex for them. Hence, when introducing second-order thinking, focus on tangible outcomes they can see or feel.
  • Start Small: Begin with everyday activities. If your child wants to skip their nap, you could discuss the immediate result (more playtime now) and then the second-order consequence (feeling too tired to enjoy their favorite story at bedtime). Or if they’re about to pour water from a big jug to a small cup, discuss what might happen if the cup overflows.
  • Be Patient and Encouraging: It’s important to remember that second-order thinking is a skill; like any skill, it takes time to develop. Celebrate the small wins, be there for the puzzled moments, and encourage curiosity at every step.

Introducing second-order thinking to preschoolers is all about blending learning with their natural playfulness. With patience, love, and a sprinkle of creativity, we can set our little thinkers on a path of insightful discoveries and smarter decisions.

Strategies to Teach Second-Order Thinking to Preschoolers

Teaching second-order thinking to preschoolers might sound challenging, but it can be both fun and rewarding with the right strategies. Here are some easy-to-follow, everyday methods that any parent, regardless of background, can use:

1. Storytelling: Craft Simple Stories with a Twist

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. From cave paintings to the bedtime stories we tell our children, they’ve been our primary method of conveying lessons, values, and understanding the world around us. For teaching second-order thinking, stories can be a magical tool.

Understanding Their ‘Stories’: Children live in a world of imagination where every toy has a personality and every shadow a story. By weaving second-order thinking into their tales, we help them see beyond the surface, encouraging them to think about the ‘what comes next’ in their imaginative scenarios.


  • The Lost Teddy: Begin with a simple story of a child who decides to take their teddy bear to the park. The immediate joy is having the teddy as a playmate. But then, in the excitement, the teddy gets left behind. Now, the child faces the consequence of not having their beloved teddy at bedtime. Discuss with your child how the character might feel and what they could do differently next time.
  • The Cookie Jar Tale: A little mouse finds an open cookie jar. Thinking of the immediate treat, it eats a few cookies. But then, it realizes it’s too full to escape the jar before the cat comes prowling. What will the mouse do next? How could it have planned better?

Techniques for Parents:

  • Interactive Storytelling: Instead of just narrating, involve your child. Ask them, “What do you think happens next?” or “How do you think the character feels now?”
  • Use Familiar Scenarios: Base stories on scenarios your child can relate to, like a day at school, a visit to the grandparents, or a trip to the zoo.
  • Encourage Them to Craft Stories: Let your child be the storyteller. If they narrate an immediate event, gently prompt them to think of what might happen next.

Parent Tip: Keep the stories short and engaging. The goal is to introduce the concept of second-order thinking, not to provide a detailed narrative. Also, it’s essential to make the storytelling session fun and not feel like a lesson. Your child’s enthusiasm and interest are the best indicators of the story’s effectiveness. Remember, every story is an opportunity for a valuable conversation!

2. Games: Engaging Minds with Strategy and Fun

Games are more than just a source of entertainment for our little ones; they’re a playground for their minds. Through games, children can explore scenarios, test strategies, and, most importantly, learn while having fun. For fostering second-order thinking, strategic games can be invaluable tools.

Understanding Their ‘Play’: At a glance, it might seem like kids are just moving pieces around a board or playing cards without a thought. But in reality, their brains actively make decisions, predict outcomes, and adjust strategies based on the game’s progress.


  • Connect Four: A classic game where players take turns dropping colored discs into a vertical grid. The objective is to connect four of one’s discs of the same color next to each other vertically, horizontally, or diagonally before the opponent. It teaches kids to think not just about their next move, but also about how to block their opponent and set themselves up for future moves.
  • Uno: This card game is not only about matching colors and numbers but also about strategizing. Do you play a ‘Skip’ card now or save it for a more strategic moment? What’s the best card to play to ensure you have a good move next turn?

Techniques for Parents:

  • Play Together: Initially, guide your child through the game, discussing potential moves and their consequences. Let them make decisions independently as they get the hang of it, but continue discussing the game’s progress.
  • Ask Probing Questions: “Why did you choose that move?” or “What do you think will happen if you play that card?” This encourages them to articulate their thought process.
  • Celebrate Strategic Moves: When your child makes a particularly insightful move, celebrate it! This reinforces the value of thinking ahead.

Parent Tip: The focus should always be on the fun and learning, not on winning or losing. It’s okay if your child makes a move that isn’t the most strategic; it’s all part of the learning process. Over time, as they play more, you’ll notice their ability to think ahead improving. And who knows, they might soon give you a run for your money in these games!

3. Role Playing: Stepping into Different Shoes

Role-playing is a powerful tool that allows children to step into different roles, scenarios, and worlds, all while staying in the safety of their familiar environment. It offers them a unique opportunity to experience the consequences of decisions in a controlled setting, making it a fantastic way to introduce second-order thinking.

Understanding Their ‘Roles’: As kids dive into their imaginative roles – be it a pirate, a doctor, a chef, or a superhero – they’re not just playing; they’re exploring relationships, actions, and outcomes. Through these scenarios, they experience the repercussions of their decisions firsthand.


  • Doctor & Patient: One child plays the role of a doctor, while the other is a patient who has eaten too much candy. The immediate joy was the sweetness of the candy, but now the patient has a tummy ache. The doctor advises on the importance of moderation and offers a “cure”. This scenario emphasizes the consequences of overindulgence.
  • Superhero Rescue Mission: Set up a scenario where a toy or a stuffed animal is “in danger” because of a decision they made (like wandering too far from home). The child, as a superhero, must rescue them. After the rescue, discuss the toy’s initial decision and how they could’ve stayed safe.

Techniques for Parents:

  • Guided Scenarios: Start with a setup that requires decision-making. For example, “You’re a chef and have ingredients for a pizza and a cake, but only enough time to make one. What will you choose and why?”
  • Discuss Outcomes: After the role play, sit down and chat about what happened. “How did the patient feel after eating so much candy? What could they have done differently?”
  • Switch Roles: This allows children to see situations from different perspectives, enhancing their empathy and understanding of consequences from various angles.

Parent Tip: Always ensure that the role-playing environment is positive and constructive. The aim is to learn from the scenario, not to instill fear or guilt. Remember, the beauty of role-playing is that it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. Whether it’s a quick 5-minute scenario or an hour-long adventure, the key is the interaction, discussion, and the lessons learned along the way.

4. Natural Consequences: Life’s Gentle Lessons

Nature has its unique way of teaching us lessons, often through the outcomes of our choices. These are what we call “natural consequences.” Unlike punishments or rewards, natural consequences are the direct results of our actions, and they can be incredibly effective in teaching children about second-order thinking.

Understanding ‘Natural Outcomes’: When kids experience the immediate results of their choices, it’s often more impactful than any lecture or reprimand. It’s real, tangible, and undeniably linked to their actions.


  • The Cold Day Dilemma: Imagine it’s chilly, and your little one is adamant about not wearing their jacket. You let them step outside, and within minutes, they’re shivering and eager to put on that warm coat. The immediate choice was the freedom to dress as they wished, but the second-order consequence was feeling cold.
  • The Forgotten Toy: Your child leaves their toy outside, thinking they’ll play with it again soon. However, it rains unexpectedly, and the toy gets wet and muddy. The direct consequence of leaving the toy out is the subsequent effect of having a dirty or potentially damaged toy.

Techniques for Parents:

  • Let Them Experience (Safely): While ensuring your child’s safety is crucial, sometimes it’s okay to let them face the mild and harmless consequences of their actions. It can be more educational than any verbal explanation.
  • Discuss the Outcome: After the consequence has been experienced, have a calm conversation about it. “How did you feel when you were cold? What can we do differently next time?”
  • Avoid “I Told You So” Moments: It’s essential to approach the situation with empathy and understanding, not with an “I told you so” attitude. The goal is to encourage learning, not to instill guilt or shame.

Parent Tip: As parents, it’s natural to want to protect our kids from any discomfort or harm. But sometimes, allowing them to experience the natural consequences of their actions (within safe limits) can be one of the most loving things we do. It equips them with the insight and foresight they’ll need to navigate the bigger challenges of life in the future.

5. Questions: Sparking Curiosity and Foresight

Questions have a magical way of opening doors to deeper understanding and reflection. By simply posing a “What do you think will happen if…?” question, we invite our children to think ahead, predict outcomes, and engage with the idea of consequences safely, rigorously.

Understanding Their ‘Predictions’: The future is often an abstract concept for preschoolers. But by grounding it in tangible, relatable scenarios, we can help them connect the dots between actions and their subsequent results.

List of Questions for Preschoolers:

  1. What do you think will happen if we don’t water our plants for a week?
  2. What do you think will happen if you use all your crayons on just one page?
  3. What do you think will happen if you build your tower of blocks too tall?
  4. What do you think will happen if you don’t put your toys away and someone trips over them?
  5. What do you think will happen if you pour too much soap into the bubble mix?
  6. What do you think will happen if the cat can’t find her favorite toy?
  7. What do you think will happen if you skip your afternoon nap today?
  8. What do you think will happen if we leave ice cream out of the freezer for too long?
  9. What do you think will happen if we don’t charge the toy’s batteries?
  10. What do you think will happen if you give the bird too much food?

Techniques for Parents:

  • Encourage Exploration: After asking the question, if it’s safe and feasible, let them explore and find out the answer for themselves. This hands-on approach can be incredibly impactful.
  • Discuss Outcomes Together: Whether they’ve explored the result or not, discuss the potential outcomes. Share your thoughts and listen to theirs.
  • Ask Follow-Up Questions: Deepen the discussion with questions like “Why do you think that happened?” or “How could we avoid that next time?”

Parent Tip: Remember, the goal isn’t always to get the “right” answer. It’s more about igniting the thought process and encouraging your child to consider multiple outcomes. Celebrate their insights, and if they’re unsure, it’s a fantastic opportunity to discover and learn together!

6. Modeling: Leading by Example

As parents, we often hear the phrase, “Kids don’t do as we say; they do as we do.” This couldn’t be truer when it comes to teaching second-order thinking. By modeling this approach in our everyday decisions and actions, we naturally impart the value and method of thinking ahead to our little observers.

Understanding Their ‘Observations’: Kids have an uncanny knack for picking up on our behaviors, attitudes, and even our thought processes. When they see us pausing to think about the consequences of our actions, they instinctively understand the importance of doing so.

Anecdotes and Examples:

  • Shopping Choices: While at the grocery store, you might verbalize, “If we buy these candies now, it might spoil our appetite for dinner. But if we choose this fruit, we can have a tasty and healthy snack before mealtime.”
  • Planning Outings: Before heading out to a park, you could discuss your preparations with your child: “If we go to the park and it starts to rain, we’ll need an umbrella. And if we stay for a long time, we might get hungry, so let’s pack a snack.”
  • Household Tasks: While doing chores, involve your child by saying, “If I water the plants now, they’ll have time to soak up the sun later. But if I wait until the evening, they might not get enough sunlight.”
  • Social Interactions: After a playdate, you could reflect with your child: “Remember when Tommy got upset because we played his game last? Today, we let him choose first; he was much happier. It made our playtime more fun!”

Techniques for Parents:

  • Verbalize Your Thought Process: Walk your child through your thinking out loud. It shows them how you’re considering consequences and encourages them to do the same.
  • Encourage Group Decisions: For decisions that impact the family, involve your child. Discuss potential outcomes together and let them see how second-order thinking influences the final decision.
  • Acknowledge Mistakes: Discuss a decision with your child if it doesn’t pan out as expected. “I thought if we left this early, we’d avoid traffic, but it seems there’s a jam. Next time, we’ll check the traffic updates first.”

Parent Tip: Modeling second-order thinking isn’t about always having the perfect answer or making the right decisions. It’s about showcasing the thought process and demonstrating that considering consequences is a valuable part of decision-making. By making it a regular part of your interactions, you’ll naturally weave this skill into your child’s approach to their world.

7. Simple Experiments: Discovering Cause and Effect Hands-On

There’s something magical about watching a hypothesis come to life, especially for curious little minds. Simple DIY experiments can be a fun and engaging way to teach children about cause and effect, laying a strong foundation for second-order thinking.

Understanding Their ‘Discoveries’: As children engage with these experiments, they’re not just observing results but connecting actions with outcomes. These activities allow them to see, firsthand, how one event can lead to another.

DIY Experiments and Activities:

  • Floating Eggs: Fill two glasses with water. In one, dissolve a lot of salt. Ask your child to predict what will happen if they place an egg in each glass. The egg will float in the saltwater and sink in the plain water, showcasing how different solutions can have varying effects.
  • The Domino Effect: Set up a line of dominoes and let your child topple the first one. As each domino falls, it causes the next to fall, illustrating a chain of events resulting from one initial action.
  • Balloon Rocket: Attach a string from one end of the room to the other. Blow up a balloon (without tying it) and tape a straw to it. Thread the string through the straw and let the balloon go. The air escaping propels the balloon forward, showing how the action of releasing the balloon leads to the effect of it zooming across the string.
  • Melting Colors: Place several colored ice cubes on a white piece of paper or a plate. As the ice melts, the colors will mix. This experiment showcases the effect of time (and a bit of heat) on the ice and the resulting mix of colors.

Techniques for Parents:

  • Encourage Predictions: Before starting the experiment, ask your child what they think will happen. This gets them thinking about potential outcomes.
  • Discuss Observations: After the experiment, talk about what happened. “Why do you think the egg floated in the saltwater but not in the plain water?”
  • Relate to Real-Life Scenarios: Connect the experiments to real-world situations. For instance, after the balloon rocket, you could discuss how real rockets work in a similar manner.

Parent Tip: The beauty of these experiments lies in their simplicity. They don’t require fancy equipment or extensive prep time. Yet, they offer invaluable lessons in cause and effect. Remember, the goal isn’t to have a perfect experiment but to ignite curiosity and encourage second-order thinking. Celebrate the discoveries, learn from unexpected outcomes, and enjoy the journey of exploration together!

Tips and Tricks for Parents Teaching Preschoolers Second-Order Thinking

Navigating the world of second-order thinking with your preschooler might seem daunting at first. But with a few handy tips and tricks up your sleeve, it can be an enjoyable and enlightening journey for both of you! Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you embark on this adventure together:

1. Encourage Patience

Understanding Their ‘Pace’: Every child is unique, and their pace of grasping new concepts will vary. While some might start predicting outcomes after a few discussions, others might take a bit longer. And that’s perfectly okay!

Techniques for Parents:

  • Celebrate Small Wins: If your child shows even a hint of thinking ahead, acknowledge and celebrate it. This boosts their confidence and motivation.
  • Stay Calm: If they don’t get it right away, avoid showing frustration. Instead, reassure them and revisit the concept another day.

2. Use Visuals

Understanding Their ‘Visual World’: Preschoolers are often visual learners. They can grasp abstract concepts better when they see a tangible representation.

Techniques for Parents:

  • Storyboards: Draw a simple sequence of events, illustrating cause and effect. For instance, a raincloud leading to a puddle, leading to someone splashing in it.
  • Flow Charts: For older preschoolers, simple flow charts with “If this, then that” can be quite effective.
  • Toys as Props: Use their favorite toys to act out scenarios, demonstrating the consequences of different actions.

3. Regularly Practice

Understanding Their ‘Learning Curve’: Just like riding a bike or learning a new word, the more they practice second-order thinking, the more intuitive it becomes.

Techniques for Parents:

  • Daily Scenarios: Integrate second-order thinking discussions into daily routines. “If we don’t set the alarm, what do you think will happen in the morning?”
  • Reflection Time: At the end of the day, reflect on the decisions made. “Remember when you chose to share your toy? How did that make your friend feel?”
  • Encourage Them to Share: Allow them to share instances where they thought about consequences, reinforcing the importance of the skill.

Parent Tip: Remember, introducing second-order thinking to your child is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s about planting seeds of thoughtfulness, foresight, and decision-making that will grow and flourish over time. With patience, consistent practice, and a sprinkle of creativity, you’ll be amazed at the little thinker you’re nurturing. So, breathe, enjoy the process, and cherish the beautiful moments of discovery with your child!

Cultivating Little Thinkers: Nurturing Tomorrow’s Visionaries Today

As we wrap up our exploration of second-order thinking for preschoolers, it’s essential to take a moment and reflect on the bigger picture. Why do we want our kids to think ahead, anticipate, and foresee? The answer is simple: to empower them. By introducing them to this concept early on, we’re equipping them with a tool that will serve them well throughout their lives in decisions big and small.

Our world is evolving at a breakneck pace, and the challenges of tomorrow will require individuals who can think critically, empathetically, and, most importantly, ahead. By nurturing second-order thinking in our children today, we’re laying the foundation for them to be tomorrow’s problem solvers, innovators, and leaders.

For all the parents embarking on this journey, remember that every day is an opportunity. There are countless moments to integrate these lessons and activities, whether it’s during mealtime, playtime, or bedtime. And the beauty of it? You get to be right there with them, learning, growing, and discovering the world’s wonders through their eyes.

So here’s to the adventures ahead, questions, discoveries, and the joy of seeing our children blossom into thoughtful individuals. Embrace the journey, cherish each moment, and take pride knowing you’re shaping the future, one thought at a time.

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