Twentieth century psychologist Jean Piaget was a trailblazer in the understanding of children’s cognitive development. Unlike his predecessors, he believed children process information differently than adults and that intelligence is not inherent but acquired, adapting and expanding as children investigate the world around them.
Piaget focused on the ways in which children think and acquire knowledge, says Je Ajayi, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist at Connected Minds in Smyrna, Georgia. Observing the learning process of his own children and others led Piaget to develop Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development in 1936. In it, he delineates four stages in which intelligence grows, from birth through adolescence, also known as Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development:
- The Sensorimotor Stage: Birth to 2 years
- The Preoperational Stage: 2 to 7 years
- The Concrete Operational Stage: 7 to 11 years
- The Formal Operational Stage: 11 years and older
Jean Piaget’s Background
Born in Switzerland in 1896, Jean Piaget is considered one of the most influential psychologists to date.
“Piaget is widely known as a developmental child psychologist who explored the progressive development of human knowledge,” says Dr. Ajayi. “Similar to Sigmund Freud, Piaget developed a theoretical system for the development of cognitive abilities.” However, unlike Freud, Piaget focused on the ways in which children think and acquire knowledge, adds Dr. Ajayi.
What Are the Four Stages of Piaget’s Cognitive Development?
Piaget studied how children develop mental models for the world around them as they grow, says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California.
“He was interested not in the information or knowledge acquired, but the structures and mental frameworks into which that knowledge could be applied,” says Dr. Dimitriu.
His four stages of cognitive development outline not what material is learned, but a deeper level of how the child interacts with the world. Piaget observed children by playing games with them, asking them questions and devising tests to learn how they were thinking, says Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor at Mindpath Health in Dallas, Texas.
“He believed that as a child’s brain develops and their experience increases, they move through these four broad stages of development,” says Porche. While the amount of time spent in each stage can vary from child to child, Piaget theorized that every child progresses through each stage in the same order.
Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 Years)
Goal: Object Permanence
Infants can be seen exploring the world through sensory observation, says Dr. Ajayi. Dr. Dimitriu adds they are egocentric, or unable to see the world from any perspective other than their own. “As the name implies, children learn through their senses and learn to use motor functions to manipulate the world around them,” he says.
As infants become more mobile, they build on their interactions with the spatial, visual and tactile worlds, says Dr. Ajayi. “An infant will advance from shaking a rattle to shaking other toys or using the rattle in new, innovative ways,” he says.
The goal of the sensorimotor stage is for a child to develop object permanence, or the realization that objects exist independent of their interactions with them, says Dr. Ajayi. For example, a child starts to recognize that when a ball is dropped in front of them, it’s actually on the ground rather than no longer in existence simply because it’s out of sight.
“Symbolization occurs when infants are able to visualize an object of interest mentally regardless of its physical location,” says Dr. Ajayi. Once they develop object permanence, children transition to the next stage of development.
Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 Years)
Goal: Symbolic Thought
This stage is the beginning of primitive conceptualization, says Dr. Ajayi, meaning children are still unable to think logically or make simple deductions, but will start to imitate others, play make-believe and represent parts of their world by drawing. A child who drops a glass that then breaks won’t have any sense of cause and effect. They might believe that the glass was ready to break rather than believing that it broke because of their actions, adds Dr. Ajayi.
Meanwhile, despite having a rudimentary sense of good and bad, children in this stage cannot handle moral dilemmas—they often believe in immanent justice, or that punishment after wrongdoings is inevitable.
Though children typically begin to speak in this stage, they’ll remain unable to see the world from another’s perspective, says Dr. Dimitriu. Animalism, the ability to attribute living qualities to non-living things, such as the feelings of a toy, also occurs during this stage.
“Symbolic play begins, and there is some level of abstraction beyond the physical appearance of items. All four-legged animals may be dogs, and a table may be identified as a chair,” says Dr. Dimitriu.
Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 Years)
Goal: Logical Thought
Children can begin to make logical manipulations of concrete—but not theoretical—objects, says Dr. Dimitriu. They begin to serialize, order and group things into classes based on common characteristics, and they begin to reason and follow rules and regulations with marked improvements in mood regulation, adds Dr. Ajayi. “Egocentric thought is further replaced by operational thought as children start to be able to see things from someone else’s perspective,” he says.
A healthy respect for rules develops in this stage as well, which involves knowing when rules have exceptions. Children of this age who do not gain this understanding are at increased risk of developing obsessive-compulsive behavior, as they can become overly invested in rules and regulations, says Dr. Ajayi.
Conversation is also a highly important concept gained in this stage, as well as the ability to recognize that although the shape of an object may change, it still contains the same amount of mass. Reversibility is also recognized, says Dr. Ajayi, as children learn objects can turn into something and then back again, such as ice and water.
Formal Operational Stage (11 Years and Older)
Goal: Abstract Reasoning
At this stage, children begin to develop abstract thinking, deductive reasoning and an overall increased ability to think systematically and symbolically.
Not all children reach the formal operational stage, says Dr. Ajayi. “Those who don’t will demonstrate marked inabilities to perform mathematical calculations, think creatively, use abstract reasoning or imagine the outcome of particular actions. They also fail to develop deductive logic, a skill that is critical in the math and science,” he says
While adolescents who don’t reach the formal operational stage may make decisions that result in scholastic or legal issues, those who do reach this stage tend to show interest in more abstract studies such as philosophy, religion, ethics and politics, says Dr. Ajayi.
Children also develop the capacity for systematic thinking in the formal operational state, says Porche. “Kids’ thinking starts with a hypothesis that is deduced to testable inferences, and they are able to isolate and combine variables to come to a logical conclusion.”
Adolescents are also able to assess the logic of statements without the existence of real-world circumstances. “They are capable of abstract thinking that goes beyond the here and now as they use rules, principles and theories to assess cause and effect when considering possibilities and realities,” she says.
Piaget referred to the building blocks of knowledge as schemas, which are units of understanding that build upon one another and can be linked together to organize new information, relationships and experiences.
For example, when toddlers pick up an object for the first time, it’s not uncommon for them to bang the object against the ground, says Dr. Ajayi. “They’re testing to see if it will break and learning its functional limits. When teenagers go into the kitchen to make a sandwich, they often are following a subconscious list of instructions to do so (that’s also a schema),” he says. Each time we run a schema or engage in schematic play with others or ourselves, we are potentially building on old knowledge.
Piaget introduced the idea that when an infant experiences an event or transitions from one stage to another, they undergo a balance of three processes: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration.
Assimilation occurs when new information is integrated into an existing cognitive understanding (or schema).
Accommodation happens when existing understandings are altered, adapted or revised according to new information.
Equilibration refers to the cognitive state achieved when assimilation and accommodation are used to reach a state of cognitive equilibrium, meaning there are no conflicting schemas (or understandings).
Still, some developmental psychologists question Piaget’s work and his assumptions that there are distinct stages of cognitive development. These psychologists disagree with the idea that a child must pass through one stage to enter the next, arguing that development doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. Other critics believe Piaget’s theory doesn’t account for social and cultural influences on child development, says Porche.
How Are Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development Used?
Piaget’s model provides a way to understand how children learn, with each stage building on the last. “The ages at which the stages occur can have quite a bit of variability, but it has been shown that all children across various cultures go through the stages in this particular order,” says Dr. Dimitriu.
Piaget’s stages create a framework for understanding childhood mental development qualitatively, not quantitatively, he adds. “A deeper understanding of these structures rather than content allows both parents and researchers to have more informed and workable expectations of children at various ages and stages of development.”
As such, understanding Piaget’s theories can help optimize children’s treatment in situations like health care. For example, hospitalized children in the sensorimotor stage may not have developed object permanence yet and may exhibit separation anxiety. In this case, it would be appropriate to recommend a parent stay with them overnight,” says Dr. Ajayi.
Piaget’s theories can also be helpful for improving the parent-child relationship, adds Dr. Ajayi. Adolescents exhibit abstract thinking and can appear to be in severe distress, but this expression is often more related to difficulties accepting the world around them than an underlying psychiatric disorder.
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