Piaget’s Theory of Child Development

Piaget’s Theory of Child Development


The best known human developmental stage model was developed by Jean Piaget, whose ideas became popular in the 1960s. He described four sequential stages of cognitive development from birth to adulthood. Piaget’s cognitive theory consists of three building blocks, namely (a) schemas, or building blocks of knowledge, (b) adaptation processes of equilibrium, assimilation, and accommodation that enables the transition from one stage to another, and (c) distinction of four steps of development. These developmental stages include the sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-7 years), concrete operational (7-11 years), and formal operational (11 years+) periods. To today, the stages remain useful, especially to understand the cognitive development of children, but it has also attracted criticism.

Sensorimotor Stage

Piaget suggested that the first stage of human development, the sensorimotor stage, begins at birth and lasts to 2-years-old. When a baby is born, he or she starts to develop both physically and cognitively. Physical abilities include crawling, grasping, and pulling, and, as babies develop cognitive skills, they also start to think about their behaviors and react to different stimuli such as noises, movement, and emotions. These aspects are what defines the sensorimotor stage, which can be further subdivided into six types, namely simple reflexes, primary, secondary, and tertiary circular reactions, coordination of reactions, and early representational thought.

A reflex is an involuntary reaction that happens automatically without thinking and is prevalent for the first six weeks of life. Primary circular reactions occur around 1-4 months of age when they realize that they have the ability to repeat a movement such as placing their thumb in their mouth. Secondary circular reactions happen between 4-8 months, and the child learns to intentionally repeat an action to get a response in the environment.

Coordination of reactions, which include clearly intentional actions, exploring their immediate surroundings, imitating the observed behavior of others, and recognizing the qualities of objects, take place between 8-12 months. Tertiary circular reactions involves trial-and-error experimentation, especially trying out out different sounds or actions as a way of getting attention from a caregiver, at 12-18 months of age. In the final sensorimotor substage, early representational thought, children become aware of mental operations and begin to develop symbols to represent events of objects in the world.

Preoperational Stage

The second stage of child development, the preoperational stage, lasts from 2-years-old to the age of 7. During this period, children starts to talk and begin to engage in symbolic play during which they learn to manipulate symbols. Yet, Piaget argued, they do not understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism. They use pretending in play activities by using objects to represent something else and assuming others’ roles. During this time, few children showed an understanding of conservation, or the ability to determine that a certain quantity will remain the same despite adjustment of the container, shape, or apparent size.

Concrete Operational Stage

Piaget called the third developmental stage the concrete operational stage, which spans from 7- to 12-years-old. The main characteristic of the concrete operational stage are a better understanding of mental operations, such as thinking logically about concrete events and an awareness that actions can be reversed. However, they still have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts. At his time, their understanding of conservation develops, and the marked egocentrism disappears.

Formal Operational Stage

Piaget’s final stage of child development happens in adolescence, from 12-year-old onward. During this fourth period of cognitive growth, abstract thought and hypothetical reasoning skills emerge. Children can use logic to come up with creative solutions to problems and apply systematic planning in the process. Deductive reasoning requires the ability to use a general principle to determine a particular outcome, while the capacity to think about abstract concepts means considering possible outcomes and consequences of actions rather than solely relying on previous experiences. Also, instead of depending on trial-and-error to solve problems, teens are able to plan an organized and systematic approach to achieve the same.

Criticism of Piaget’s Theory

More recent postformal development models criticized the fact that Piaget’s model does not cover adult cognitive development. Mostly, Piaget’s model assumes that thinking changes halt in adolescence and early adulthood. Until recently even, it has even been believed that adulthood brings a long and steady decline of cognitive capability. This is just illogical and definitely not correct but has shaped education and leadership development approaches of adults for many decades.

Also, there is an unclear association between cognitive and intellectual abilities. Piaget’s theory largely overlooks effects of cultural, social, and other contextual influences. The identification of distinct stages is oversimplified and assumes the same level of cognitive operations in all areas of functioning of any individual at a time. It also diminishes the impact of ego development and other psychological phenomena on cognitive processes, an issue that causes a failure to adequately account for dysfunctional behavior and psychological disturbances. Generally, no explanation is provided for a qualitative difference in cognitive capacity between two persons of the same age.

Piaget also assumed that individuals will automatically transcend to the next stage as they age, with the meaning of age generally defining developmental and social status. This is a fundamental flaw, especially when considering adult cognitive development. Contrary to earlier beliefs, children are not alike “little adults” with only incremental differences in physical ability, skills, and intelligence. Their cognitive structures and thinking patterns are vastly different. Thus, as a first step, several researchers expanded Piaget’s model to cover the whole lifespan, including the various adult stages of development, which is outside the scope of this material.

However, Piaget’s model remains useful to explain cognitive stages in child development, especially as he applied the concept of schema to an understanding of the development of learning in children. Piaget defined schema as the child’s mental representation of an associated set of perceptions, ideas, and/or behavior that form the basic building block of thinking. With the development of cognitive abilities, new schemata are constructed, while existing schemata are more efficiently organized to better adapt to the environment. Piaget also noted that an individual has the tendency to interpret new events about existing schemata rather than adapting or forming new ones. Therefore, the model describes how a child’s views and beliefs about himself, others, and the world builds over time until it becomes relatively fixed in late adolescence and plays a determining role in people’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior.