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How do children develop analogical reasoning?

analogical reasoning

Key points:

  1. Analogical reasoning is an advanced skill essential for human thinking.
  2. Children develop analogical reasoning through knowledge and executive function skills.
  3. Executive function, like inhibitory control, is crucial for analogical reasoning.
  4. To enhance analogical reasoning, encourage comparison, pattern recognition, and concept identification in children.

What is analogical reasoning and how do children first develop this ability? What are the cognitive mechanisms behind the development of this complex form of reasoning? In this article we’ll tell you all about it. 

Analogical reasoning is an advanced skill that allows us to tie together experiences or facts that are not similar. This ability is what distinguishes humans from intelligent animals, and it is essential for analytical and inductive reasoning. 

The science behind analogical reasoning

In the past, researchers believed that children were incapable of reasoning by analogy; however, analogical reasoning may be present in the early developmental stages of a child’s life. It’s a popular misconception to think that infants don’t possess analogical strategies.

A theory suggests that the reason why a child can’t or won’t use analogies is because they don’t understand the relations that originate them, but not because they’re incapable of analogical reasoning. Young children are capable of using analogies in a spontaneous way. For instance, inside the classroom, children can develop the use of analogies when learning basic skills like reading and learning about the world.

Some say that knowledge acquisition is the one thing that, with time, enables children to learn this ability. When babies are born, they interconnect certain representations based on their appearance and similarities. This is done in a non-analogical manner, because they don’t have enough background knowledge yet.

But as they grow and acquire more knowledge, they shift to analogical reasoning. This theory has been well demonstrated by the significant relationship that exists between early vocabulary and later reasoning skills, showing that language and knowledge act as building blocks for later analogical reasoning.


However, the development of reasoning skills is not solely explained by the acquisition of knowledge. It has also been shown that early executive function skills are clear predictors of future analogical reasoning.

But what is an executive function? It involves having control of cognitive activities, like inhibiting an impulsive response, and manipulating and organizing complex information while having it active in the working memory.

One example of executive function is when you try to say the alphabet backwards. First, you need to remember its original order in your head and then say it “the wrong way” out loud. Thus, executive function allows you to plan, monitor, switch between tasks, and control your attention. The inhibitory-control skill is especially influential for later analogical reasoning, since it predicts children’s analogy development.

Of course, these theories are not meant to be contradictory, they rather attempt to explain the development of analogical reasoning in children. Therefore, they should be considered as simultaneous processes, and the key aspects of each theory (knowledge and executive function) should be given equal weight when teaching children.

How to enhance analogical reasoning

Analogical reasoning supports innovative, adaptive, and creative thinking. That’s why it is very important to include the acquisition of new knowledge and vocabulary, as well as the strengthening of executive function skills, in childhood development and education. These can give children the tools they need to achieve future learning and success in the modern global setting. 

Encouraging basic relational thinking during preschool and kindergarten, with activities like identifying similarities and differences or finding patterns, can help build a strong foundation for the development of analogical reasoning in elementary school and beyond. Providing appropriate support to structure the process of analogical reasoning is essential. 

Here are some ways to enhance analogical reasoning: 

  • Provide children with learning opportunities that will allow them to make comparisons  between new and previously learned concepts.
  • Present different types of analogies to children, so they can understand how to identify them in the future. You can also engage in a comparison of several analogies, to further support the comparison process used in analogies. 
  • Highlight differences and similarities between simple and complex concepts. For instance, you can ask your child to classify objects or toys by different characteristics such as colors, shapes, or sizes.
  • You can use verbal stories or children’s books and find analogies in them. 
  • Ask your little one to try and identify patterns between objects that don’t seem immediately similar. For example: “How is a plant stem like a drinking straw?” 
  • Try to use a simple language when explaining the analogies. 
  • Talk to your child about the concepts you want to use for your analogy before presenting them. 
  • Before presenting an analogy, you can start by talking about how some things are alike and different from each other. Examples of common things can help!

These strategies can help children from a very young age, by supporting the cognitive system used in analogical reasoning. Remember that a supporting and loving environment, where children feel safe to explore, ask questions, and follow their curiosity can go a long way in the development of complex cognitive skills.

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