Piaget was one of the psychologists and researchers who most influenced the current conception of child development. Known for being one of the first constructivist theorists, he demolished the old idea that children were passive beings and showed that they are not only an active part of their learning, but also capable of interpreting the world around them.
For Piaget, children’s logic begins to develop even before language and is generated through sensory and motor actions of children in interaction with the surrounding environment. It was precisely on that idea that he based his entire theory.
The Foundations of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development in Childhood
Piaget was certain that just as the body develops physically during childhood, cognitive abilities also evolve. However, he considered that infantile cognition is not a mere unfinished reproduction of adult cognition. For this psychologist, the way of thinking of children is subject to different dynamics that depend on the stage of development in which they are.
In turn, these thought patterns are governed by different principles. One of them is organization, an innate condition according to which, as children mature , they incorporate simpler mental schemes or physical patterns into more complex systems that shape their way of thinking.
Another of these principles is adaptation. Piaget thought that children have the ability to adapt their mental schemes to the conditions and demands of the environment, which helps them to integrate into the world, as well as to develop their intellect.
To describe the process of children’s adaptation to the environment, Piaget used two mechanisms: assimilation and accommodation. The first explains how children integrate new knowledge into their mental scheme while the second refers to their ability to restructure their schemes when new information differs from what they already knew. According to Piaget, these mechanisms not only allow children to learn as they grow but are also a fundamental pillar in the process of cognitive maturation.
The 4 stages of cognitive development that children go through, according to Piaget
Piaget believed that children’s knowledge evolves through a series of stages. For this psychologist, the knowledge that children acquire in each of these phases is not only qualitatively and quantitatively different from that of the preceding phase, but also from the one that follows. Taking into account that these stages follow the same order, he considered that the passage from one to another is gradual, according to the learning pace of each child.
Starting from these foundations, Piaget established a series of successive stages in child cognitive development:
1. Sensory-motor stage
This stage comprises the period from birth to two years of age and is prior to the development of language and thought. In the sensorimotor stage , children relate to the world through the senses and action and develop their cognition through imitation games. In addition, they show an egocentric behavior, so that they are only able to conceptually distinguish their existence, that is, the “I”, and their environment.
From an intellectual point of view, some important milestones in development occur at this stage, such as the appearance of intentional or goal-directed behavior, thanks to which children learn the concept of cause and effect. At this time they also begin to be aware of the permanent existence of objects independently of their perception; that is, they discover that the objects continue to exist, even though they cannot see them.
2. Preoperational stage
In this stage, which ranges from two to seven years old, preoperative thinking is born. This type of thinking is the ability to mentally represent movements without executing them. In this period, although egocentrism is still present, children are already able to put themselves in the place of others. The representations begin to be very common, which explains why the symbolic game takes center stage.
At these ages, children continue to have an eminently concrete thought, but they are capable of using mental tools such as numbers or images. Around the age of four they begin to develop intuitive thinking, which is reflected above all in their relationship with natural phenomena. Their predilection for animism prevents them from identifying between animate and inanimate beings, so they are not yet fully aware of reality.
3. Stage of concrete operations
This stage covers from seven to eleven or twelve years. It is a period in which children begin to use mental operations and logic to reflect on the facts and things around them. This new ability to apply logic allows them to approach problems from a more constructive and systematic approach, while helping them understand reality from a richer and more complete perspective.
At these ages, children develop category systems to classify increasingly complex aspects of reality. In addition, they no longer base their judgments on the appearance of things and are capable of looking at several attributes of the same stimulus at the same time. All these advances make his thinking stop being so egocentric and rigid, becoming more and more flexible and open.
4. Formal Operations Stage
This is the last stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget and begins at age 12. One of the most important milestones in this phase is the transition from the real to the possible. In this period, children are able to use logic to reach abstract conclusions that are not directly related to a concrete situation.
The ability to think abstractly and reflectively is achieved during this stage. At these ages, children develop hypothetical-deductive thinking, that is, they are capable of drawing logical inferences from the relationship between two statements and can deliberately analyze and test hypotheses. They also have the ability to think about multiple factors at once and to assess probabilities for the future, one of the hallmarks of adult thinking.