‘Hot’ And ‘Cold’ Cognition In Kids: Another Take On The Sharing Debate

The recent debate on whether sharing in preschool should be mandated or left in part to kids to work out for themselves brings up a related issue: the difference between hot and cold cognition in kids. 

Cold cognition can be thought of as processing information in a “factual” way without regard to emotional or social cues. We can try to teach kids “rules” about sharing – when you should share, when you don’t have to share, why sharing is a good thing. While this type of knowledge is important to acquire, bear in mind that it can be rather abstract.

Which brings us to hot cognition. Hot cognition is the type of processing that directly integrates social and emotional factors with that “knowledge” that comes about via cold cognition. So while you can tell a preschooler that it is important to share – or that they don’t have to share – it’s different when they are in the moment interacting with another child, and they have to deal with their own emotions, the other kid’s emotions, and the social situation.

Let’s take two concrete examples. First, you have two kids in a preschool in a morning meeting with a teacher. They are told about the “rules” of sharing. Second, they then  go off  and one kid starts playing with a toy. The other kid comes over and wants to play with it too. In that situation, it’s not just about the “rules” – and it’s hard to know what will happen next. Maybe the kid doesn’t want to share it. The other one gets frustrated. They have a little exchange about it. Or … maybe the kid with the toy wants to share it. Maybe the other kid asks if they can both play with it. Maybe they are friends and that happens. Maybe they don’t get along well and it doesn’t happen.

The thing is, the outcome isn’t the point. The process is the point. The process of processing all of this stuff – the rules, the emotions, the relationship – is the stuff of real social, emotional, and cognitive development. Kids need a chance to try out their social “rules” as they arise in real-time interaction and get integrated with emotion. Adults should be at the ready to help them sort through the issues and offer informed support. But without the chance to experience ‘hot’ cognition all that ‘cold’ cognitive processing becomes somewhat meaningless. That’s why it’s really important to let kids experience social interactions and help teach themselves the rules of play and sharing – because that’s how they learn how to interact with each other.

Kids Playing via Shutterstock.com


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  1. by sylvia mollison

    On May 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    It is interesting that as educators, we want to see kids playing cooperatively and sharing toys and materials. I do however agree that children should be given the opportunity to work it through themselves. Too often as parents and teachers, we end up being the mediator and kids never learn to negotiate effectively. We do need to be there on the sidelines to guide them, but it is I do believe it is okay to let kids raise there voices, talk things through, and that sometimes, it is okay NOT to share the toy. As adults, do we always want to share what we are enjoying/playing? Sometimes we like to experience the pleasure by ourselves, and we should not expect kids to automatically share. We should, however, equip them with the language and social cues to “let down” the friend gently, if they do not wish to share immediately.