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What is Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development?

Many people assume that babies are just tiny, playful adults who are not yet molded by the pressures of society or the traumas of growing up. While there is some truth to this, babies and children view the world differently than adults; they lack fundamental logical capabilities to make sense of the world as we do. 

Jean Piaget dedicated his life to spelling out how children develop through different stages of rational and mental ability. 

In the rest of this post, we’ll go over the work of Piaget and the stages of cognitive development.

What is the Piaget Theory?

The Piaget Theory is a comprehensive framework that explains the nature and development of human intelligence, particularly in children. Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that cognitive development occurs through a series of stages, each characterized by different abilities, thought processes, and modes of understanding the world.

His theory primarily focuses on children’s intellectual and cognitive growth, although some of its principles have also been applied to adults.

Who was Jean Piaget?

Jean Piaget, born in 1896, was a Swiss psychologist who dedicated his life to understanding how children process the world and learn. Through in-depth experiments and interviews with children, he deduced that humans tend to perceive and understand the world in four discrete stages of development.

Piaget’s work made a massive impact on the field of psychology as well as our understanding of best education practices. While some critics push back on his theories and techniques, and thinking has evolved since his death several decades ago, Piaget undeniably left a lasting impact.

Basic concepts of Piaget’s theory

Piaget’s long standing contribution to psychology was his idea that children go through four distinct stages of development. He called the stages sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. We’ll dive into more specifics in the next section.

Piaget also developed the concepts of “assimilation” and “accommodation.”

Assimilation is when you fit new information into how you see the world (what he called your “schemas”).

For example, imagine a child with a pet cat. If they say a puppy prancing about, the child might log that animal as another four-legged animal and call it a cat. The child is assimilating this new information (the dog) into their schema for a four-legged pet (a cat).

Accommodation, on the other hand, is when you change your viewpoint to fit in new information.

When the same child learns that the new animal is a dog, not a cat, they accommodate this further information by adjusting their ‘schema’ of four-legged pets to include dogs.

Examples of assimilation and accommodation

As the cat-dog example above illustrates, humans assimilate and accommodate1 as early as infancy. We continue these processes in more complex ways as adults.

For example, a promoted adult may assimilate this information into their working model: “Hard work = success.” 

But they see less hardworking people all around them getting promoted left and right. In that case, they may accommodate this new information and adjust their schema to something like “success = hard work + networking.” 

And maybe if they continue to accommodate new information, they may develop a more accurate model like “success = hard work + networking + strategy + mindset + privilege + luck.”

On the note of success, one essential part of strategic thinking is setting the right goals. Check out this guide if you’d like to learn scientific ways to improve your goal-setting.

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Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget proposed that cognitive development occurs through four distinct stages from infancy to adulthood: 

  • Sensorimotor stage: Learning through sensory experiences, 0-2 years
  • Preoperational stage: Symbolic thought, lack of logic, 2-7 years
  • Concrete operational stage: Logical thought, concrete contexts, 7-11 years
  • Formal operational stage: Abstract reasoning and problem-solving, 12+ years

Each stage is characterized by different ways of thinking and understanding the world.

Though these stages aren’t completely rigid, different kids might progress through them at different rates, and some children might show characteristics of more than one stage at a time. They are a helpful framework for understanding how cognitive abilities typically develop.

Let’s explore each one more thoroughly.

Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years)

During the sensorimotor stage2, infants and toddlers learn about the world through their sensory experiences and motor activities, hence the name “sensorimotor.” They explore and interact with their environment using their senses and physical actions.

Characteristics and behaviors of the sensorimotor stage

  • Sensory exploration. Infants learn about the world in their first months of age and experiment with their five senses.
  • Primary circular reactions. Babies enjoy interacting with their bodies, where they may suck their thumbs or kick their legs.
  • Secondary circular reactions. Babies discover pleasure in interacting with objects outside of their bodies. For example, they may find joy in squeezing their bottle and doing it continuously. 
  • Object permanence. Infants’ understanding of the world is limited to what they immediately perceive—they don’t yet understand that things continue to exist even when out of sight. This is why peekaboo is so fun for little kids—when your face is gone, they assume you are gone!
  • Cause and effect. Children at this stage also begin to understand that their actions can cause things in their environment to happen, which is a fundamental part of developing problem-solving skills. For example, they learn that shaking a rattle will produce noise. Or that crying might get them another baby snack!
  • Goal-directed behavior is when children exhibit intentionality in their actions to achieve specific outcomes, like moving a shoe out of the way to reach a toy.

Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years)

The preoperational stage lasts from around 2 to 7 years of age. During this stage, kids use words and symbols to make sense of everything. It’s like they’ve got a little “life dictionary” they’re filling in. But they’re still pretty wrapped up in their own point of view and can find it tricky to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. 

Characteristics and behaviors of the preoperational stage

  • Egocentrism: Younger children struggle to see a situation from another person’s point of view. For example, they might believe that if they’re scared of the dark, everyone else must be too.
  • Symbolic play: They can use objects, actions, or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas—like using a banana as a telephone during play. This points to the beginning of abstract thinking. If a child draws a picture3 of their family, some features may be more symbolic than literal; maybe the most significant people in the drawing are the most important.
  • Lack of conservation: This is when children struggle to understand that the quantity of something doesn’t change when the shape or appearance changes. For instance, they may believe that a tall, thin glass holds more juice than a short, wide one, even if the amount of juice is the same.
  • Animism: Children often assign life-like qualities to inanimate objects, like believing a teddy bear has feelings.
  • Centration: Children tend to focus on one aspect of a situation or object, ignoring others. For instance, if a child has one giant cookie and sees an adult has two big cookies, the child might be upset; but if the child’s cookie is then broken up into two smaller cookies, they might think they have just as much cookie as the adult because they are focusing solely on the number of cookies and neglecting the size of cookies.

Here’s an interesting (and cute) video of a child displaying centration and a lack of conservation.

YouTube video

Concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years)

The third stage of Piaget’s theory is the concrete operational stage, which typically occurs between 7 to 11 years of age. Children develop logic and concrete reasoning skills during this stage but still struggle with abstract concepts and hypothetical problems.

Characteristics and behaviors of the concrete operational stage

  • Conservation: Children understand the concept of conservation, or that quantity remains the same despite changes in shape or arrangement. For example, they would know that the amount of clay remains constant, whether rolled into a ball or squished into a pancake.
  • Classification:  This refers to the ability to categorize objects or situations based on common characteristics like color, shape, or type. They could categorize animals into subgroups like birds, mammals, and reptiles or understand that a red apple and a green apple can be grouped because they are both apples.
  • Seriation: This refers to the ability to sort objects or situations according to a characteristic, such as size, value, or volume. For example, a child could line up sticks from shortest to longest.
  • Reversibility refers to the ability to follow a line of reasoning back to its starting point. For example, they can understand that if you subtract a number from a sum, you can add the same number back to get the original sum again.

Formal operational stage (12 years and up)

The fourth and final stage in Piaget’s theory is the formal operational stage, which starts around 12 and continues into adulthood. In this stage, individuals think more logically about abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.

Characteristics and behaviors of the formal operational stage

  • Abstract thought: Individuals can think about abstract concepts like justice, freedom, or love and ponder philosophical or hypothetical questions. They’re no longer limited to concrete, tangible concepts.
  • Hypothetical-deductive reasoning: Individuals can consider hypothetical situations and reason logically about them. They can also solve problems systematically, considering all possible solutions before settling on the best one.
  • Future orientation: Adolescents start to think about future possibilities and consequences, allowing them to plan steps to reach a goal or consider the potential outcomes of various decisions.
  • Metacognition: This is the ability to think about thinking. Individuals can reflect on their thought processes, strategies, and perspectives here.
  • Complex problem solving: With the ability to understand abstract concepts and hypothesize, adults can solve more complex problems (like how to pay rent each month).

The Significance of Piaget’s Theory

Piaget’s theory gives us a solid framework for understanding how children’s thinking changes as they grow. It’s not just educators who rely on his insights; psychologists and parents find them valuable, too. Consider it a helpful guide on how your child’s brain develops from infancy through adulthood.

Piaget’s impact on education 

  • Paying attention to the child’s development: Piaget said, “Hey, kids need to learn in ways that match where their brains are at.” Meaning, trying to teach them stuff they’re not ready for? It’s not going to work. So keep an eye on what your child seems ready to learn, and go from there.
  • Active learning: According to Piaget, kids aren’t sponges just soaking up info; they learn best when active and engaged. Think of it as learning by exploring, not just by listening. Hands-on activities? A win.
  • Process learning:  Piaget was about how kids solve problems, not just whether they get the correct answer. It’s not just about the endgame—how they get there is important too. So when your kid is figuring stuff out, the process matters as much as getting it “right.”
  • Don’t rush the process: Piaget also remarked that American culture tends to try to speed up learning and development4 But Piaget saw the stages as having their own natural pace and encouraged resisting the impulse to outrun our natural pace of learning.

Piaget’s impact on psychology

  • Quantifiable impact: Piaget is widely regarded as one of the giants of the psychological community. He ranks second5 in number of professional journal citations (after Sigmund Freud) and fourth in number of citations in intro psychology textbooks (after Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner, and Albert Bandura).
  • Clinical method: In his work, he pioneered the Clinical Method6’s_Clinical_Method technique. In this flexible and incisive method, he’d interview children to understand their thoughts about the world and their cognitive capacities. 
  • Constructivism: Piaget’s work supported the idea that individuals actively build7 their understanding of the world through their experiences and interactions with their environment. If you encounter a new situation, you either assimilate it into your current model of how the world works or adjust your current model to accommodate the latest information. 
  • Genetic epistemology: This psychological jargon asks, “How do we come to know the things we know?” Piaget thought it was not just about what we’re born with or what people tell us. It’s more like we build our understanding through our own experiences. Sure, we come into the world with some built-in reactions—like a baby gripping your finger if you put it in their hand. But that’s just the starting point.
  • According to Piaget, the real learning happens when we interact with our environment. So, your kid isn’t just learning from you or their teacher; they’re also learning from playing in the park, messing around with building blocks, or even arguing with a friend.

Piaget’s Theory: Applying it in Real-Life

Piaget’s theory has had a significant influence not just in the field of psychology but also in practical domains such as education and parenting. Let’s explore how an understanding of Piaget’s stages of a child’s cognitive development can help support their cognitive growth.

Tailor your parenting method accordingly.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has significantly contributed to the education8 field. It has helped shape educational practices and policies around the globe by providing insights into how children think and learn at different ages. This is vital information for teachers and parents alike.

Here are a few ways that understanding Piaget could help a parent understand what’s going on in their kids’ brains at different ages:

  • When your kiddos are little: During those adorable toddler and preschool years (which align with the sensorimotor and preoperational stages), your kids are like tiny explorers, soaking up the world through their senses. Think hands-on play, fun visuals, and interactive games to help them grasp new ideas. You’re their first teacher, so feel free to go out with playdough, building blocks, or even simple cooking activities.
  • For the 7-11 crowd: As your children start to think more logically (concrete operational stage), this is a great time to introduce them to more complicated tasks that involve some real-world items. You can use anything from coins to teach them basic math to fun day trips that sneak in some learning about history or science.
  • Navigating the teen years: When your kids hit the teen phase, they’ve reached Piaget’s formal operational stage, which means they can handle abstract thinking and hypothetical situations. Dinner table debates, challenging books, and thought-provoking movies can be excellent ways to get them to flex their mental muscles. Please encourage them to share their opinions, debate ideas, and dig deep into topics; they’re ready for it!

Understanding these stages can give you a kind of “parenting cheat sheet” to help your children learn and grow at each phase of their lives.

If you are a parent or caregiver, here’s a science-backed guide on parenting.

Real-life examples of Piaget’s theory in action

Understanding Piaget’s theory can help us recognize its application in daily life. 

For example, a toddler in the sensorimotor stage might search for a toy hidden under a blanket, demonstrating their grasp of object permanence. Or here’s an example of a baby getting their mind blown by balls disappearing and reappearing.

A child in the preoperational stage might insist that their sibling, who has a taller slice of cake, has more cake than they do—even if they both have half—because they cannot understand the concept of conservation.

A concrete operational child could demonstrate their understanding of reversibility if they see a room get painted from white to blue. Even once the room is entirely blue, the child could understand that the room could be turned back to white again.

A teenager in the formal operational stage might ponder the future consequences of their actions, exhibiting their ability to think about hypothetical situations.

Criticisms and Alternative Perspectives to Piaget’s Theory

While Piaget’s theory has been profoundly influential and continues to contribute to our understanding of child development, it has also been the subject of various criticisms. Other psychologists have proposed alternative theories, and later research has led to changes in Piaget’s original ideas.

Flawed methodology

Some people criticize how Piaget went about his experiments, especially regarding how he found participants5 for his studies and how many children he studied. Criticism that he didn’t consider any statistical measures other than age. There is further criticism that his book The Origins of Intelligence in Children was based only on tests of his three children.

Scope of Intelligence

Piaget’s theories assume that intelligence develops as one coherent whole. But as Dr. J. Roy Hopkins5 points out, many consider intelligence modularly. In other words, we each possess a network of different types of intelligence that evolve at their rate and not just as one singular mass.

In a similar vein, all of the tests that Piaget used were scientific and rational. While this provides valuable insight, it needs to provide a comprehensive scope of the development of the human mind. How might a child develop creatively? Musically? Athletically?

The model stops short.

As Dr. Hopkins also shares, it’s limiting that Piaget’s model maxes out at age 12. While 12-year-olds can conduct complex reasoning, it is surprising to assume that no additional types of intelligence develop from 13 onward. Any adult reader can likely reflect on their past few years or decades and find straightforward ways in which their intellectual capacity has grown.

Underestimating children’s capacity

One criticism of Piaget’s theory is that it may underestimate children’s cognitive abilities. Some researchers have suggested that children can understand concepts at earlier ages with proper support and instruction than Piaget proposed.

Questioning universality

Another criticism is that Piaget’s stages may not be as clearly defined or universally applicable as he suggested. Cognitive development can vary significantly among children; some might not fit neatly into Piaget’s stages. Culture, education, and social environment can also influence the pace and nature of development.

Furthermore, some researchers argue that Piaget’s theory overly focuses on individual cognition and does not pay enough attention to cognitive development’s social and cultural context.

Alternative theories of cognitive development

Several psychologists have proposed alternative theories of cognitive development. 

Lev Vygotsky, a contemporary of Piaget, emphasized the social and cultural context in which learning occurs. He proposed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, suggesting that learning is most effective when tasks are slightly beyond a child’s current ability level and are supported by more knowledgeable individuals.

Another influential theory is the information processing theory9, which compares the human mind to a computer. This theory suggests that a person takes in information and stores it as sensory storage, transfers it to short-term memory, and then either forgets it or transfers it to long-term memory. If this chain is broken at any point (for example, if there’s too much happening in the short-term memory to convert to long-term), then the learning does not occur.

Evolution and expansion of Piaget’s theory by other psychologists

Despite the criticisms, many psychologists agree that Piaget significantly contributed to our understanding of cognitive development. His theory has been expanded and refined rather than discarded.

For instance, Neo-Piagetian10,complex%20thinking%20and%20reasoning%20skills. theories incorporate more recent findings about cognitive processes like memory and attention, and they propose that cognitive development involves the gradual expansion of the amount of information that individuals can process simultaneously.

While Piaget’s theory has limitations and has been criticized, it has had a profound impact on psychology and education and continues to be a valuable tool for understanding cognitive development.

Jean Piaget and His History

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who pioneered child development. He dedicated his career to profoundly understanding how knowledge grew throughout childhood. Piaget believed that children play an active role in growing their understanding and learning by doing, playing, and engaging.

Piaget’s interest began in animals. At 11 years old, he published a paper11 on albino sparrows. Over the next four years, he wrote scientific papers on mollusks that caught the attention of the European zoologist community.

He studied zoology and philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel in 1918, then studied psychology, eventually becoming a professor of child psychology at the University of Geneva in 1929 until he died in 1980.

While in Paris in 1919, Piaget first started to study children with a reading test he created; he realized that children of different ages tended to make other errors. This sewed the seeds for his further studies of how children think and eventually led to his four-stage model proposing a biological unfolding of human learning.

His work was revolutionary at its time, challenging the idea that children were less competent thinkers than adults. Instead, Piaget suggested that children think differently than adults. This fundamental shift in understanding has profoundly influenced psychology, education, and beyond, shaping how we think about intelligence, learning, and childhood.

Frequently Asked Questions About Piaget’s Theory

What is Piaget’s theory?

Piaget’s theory is a framework for understanding how humans, especially children, develop intellectually from infancy to adulthood. It posits four distinct stages of cognitive development—sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational—each characterized by specific thought patterns and behaviors.

Why is Piaget’s theory important?

Piaget’s theory is important because it offers a foundational understanding of how cognitive abilities develop across different stages of life. This knowledge guides psychology and education, helping design age-appropriate learning strategies and fostering a deeper understanding of human cognitive development.

How does Piaget’s theory influence current practice?

Piaget’s theory influences current practice by shaping educational methods and parenting practices. It underscores the importance of experiential and active learning, encourages educators to present age-appropriate challenges, and helps parents understand their children’s cognitive abilities at different stages.

How does Piaget’s theory help teachers?

Piaget’s theory helps teachers by providing a roadmap for cognitive development, enabling them to tailor their teaching strategies according to the cognitive stage of their students. It emphasizes the significance of hands-on learning experiences and helps teachers present new concepts that match their students’ cognitive maturity.

How can Piaget’s theory be applied to education?

Piaget’s theory can be applied to education by informing curriculum design and teaching strategies. For instance, younger students might benefit from hands-on, sensory-based learning experiences. In contrast, older students can handle more abstract concepts and hypothetical situations, reflecting the cognitive abilities of the respective stages.

Recap of Jean Piaget’s Theory

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development revolutionized our understanding of how humans develop cognitively from infancy to adulthood. 

Here’s a brief review of the basics.

Children go through four stages of cognitive development:

  • Sensorimotor from newborn babies to 2 years, a young infant will learn about the world through their senses and motor activities, developing a sense of object permanence and understanding that actions can affect the environment.
  • Preoperational from 2 to 7, children start using symbolic thinking to understand the world but struggle with logical reasoning and understanding other people’s perspectives. 
  • Concrete operational from 7 to 11, where children begin to think logically about concrete events and develop an understanding of concepts like conservation, reversibility, and cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Formal operational from 12 onward, marked by the development of abstract thought and the ability to think logically about hypothetical situations, reason deductively, and plan for the future.

Play is one of the most effective ways for children to learn and develop at each stage. In each stage, we develop cognitively through the following:

  • Building schemas are cognitive models of how the world works.
  • Assimilation, where we interpret new knowledge and information into our existing schemas
  • Accommodation: We build new schemas when new information doesn’t fit into our current schemas.

If you’d like to learn more about educating children in other ways, you might enjoy this article on teaching social skills to kids.

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