Understanding the Sensorimotor Stage of Piaget’s Theory

Theory of Cognitive Development by Piaget

According to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children go through a series of four separate stages of cognitive development.(1) Each of these stages encompasses various aspects of mental development, including that of memory, language, morals, and reasoning. Piaget was of the belief that kids take an active role in this cognitive development, and they continue to build up their knowledge as they interact with the world around them.(2)

The sensorimotor is the first stage in this theory of cognitive development by Piaget. This period is one of tremendous growth and change for the child.

Jean Piaget is known as one of the first voices in the field of child psychology, and his ideas have helped in understanding how children develop intellectually. His cognitive theory was based on four distinct stages:

  • Sensorimotor
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete operational
  • Formal operational

Piaget made the following assumptions with regards to cognitive development in children:(3)

  • Children are well capable of using their personal experiences to develop their own views and knowledge of the world.
  • Children can learn on their own, even when they are not influenced or taught by other adults or children.
  • Children are born with an internal motivation to learn, so there is no need to provide them with separate rewards for learning.

While over the years, much criticism has surfaced on Paget’s work and theory, but experts generally do support the basic principles of his theory of cognitive development. Furthermore, Piaget’s research has contributed to a much greater understanding of how children learn and develop right from birth through adolescence. In fact, educators around the world still widely use Piaget’s theory to help children learn and grow inside and outside the classroom.(4)

Understanding the Sensorimotor Stage

Understanding the Sensorimotor Stage

Piaget had further divided the sensorimotor stage into six different subdivisions that focused on specific developmental goals. Here are the six subdivisions of the sensorimotor stage:

Reflexive Stage

The very first stage of the sensorimotor stage is the reflexive stage, during which the newborn child will tend to respond reflexively to any kind of touch or other stimulation. This usually happens by grasping, sucking, or sometimes even smiling. Eventually, these actions will become intentional rather than reflexive.

Primary Circular Reactions Stage

The second subdivision of the sensorimotor stage is focused on the period between 1 to 4 months. During this period, the baby should begin making precise movements for their own amusement. You will notice that if they make a specific sound or movement without meaning to and they enjoy how it feels, then they will try doing it again and again.

There are certain common behaviors that can be observed at this stage, including kicking, thumb sucking cooing, and smiling intentionally.

Secondary Circular Reactions Stage

This is the time period from 4 to 8 months of age, and by this time, the baby should have started using objects to learn about their world. This process usually starts by accident, but as soon as the baby begins to enjoy his/her ability to make something happen, they will continue doing these activities repeatedly.

They will start throwing or dropping things, shaking a rattle, banging objects together to see what sounds they make, and they will also be able to make more sounds by themselves. For example, they will try to make speech-like sounds, they will laugh, and even use certain noises to express their happiness, unhappiness, or excitement.

Coordinating Secondary Circular Reactions Stage

The fourth stage is known as coordination secondary circular reactions stage. This lasts from when the child is 8 months old until they turn a year. During this time period, they will start crawling to pick up a toy from across the room or begin to push aside toys that are blocked the toy they want. The child is also able to coordinate and plan their actions in response to their thoughts.

Some other developments in the baby may also include:

  1. They start enjoying simple games
  2. They turn to look whenever they hear something
  3. They start recognizing some words and respond to them
  4. They start saying a few words or try to imitate your speech, though major communication will still happen through gestures such as reaching or waving

Tertiary Circular Reactions Stage

The fifth stage occurs between 12 to 18 months of age, or what is typically known as the start of toddlerhood. At this stage, the child is able to explore their surroundings and learn more about the world through planning, experimentation, and motor coordination.

They may also be able to take things apart in order to join them back again and also perform some activities repeatedly to see what happens every time they do that action. It is now also possible for the child to carry out a series of planned steps for completing a given task.

They will also start understanding and responding to simple questions or directions and should even begin to speak simple phrases. They should listen to or show some preference for certain songs or short stories.

Representational or Symbolic Thought Stage

The sixth and final subdivision of the sensorimotor stage involves the development of symbolic thought, which is a big leap from what the child could do when he/she was born. According to the theory of cognitive development, at the age of 18 months, children start understanding that symbols represent objects. This will slowly expand into the concept of object permanence, which refers to the knowledge that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen or heard.

By the final stage of the sensorimotor phase, a child should be able to remember and repeat actions or words from previous days. Imaginative play usually starts during this phase, and your child’s vocabulary will also begin to develop significantly and with a big leap. They will even start asking short questions and also make requests with the use of one or two words.

Object Permanence: Ultimate Goal of the Sensorimotor Stage

Object permanence is the ultimate goal of the sensorimotor stage. A child’s understanding that objects and people will continue to exist even they cannot be seen is the primary developmental milestone of the sensorimotor stage.

According to Piaget’s theory, children typically start to understand this concept around 8 months of age. In some children, though, it may happen as early as 6 months, or it can be delayed as well. There is nothing wrong if there is a delay in your child understanding object permanence.

Object permanence also comes with the knowledge that their parents still exist even when they are temporarily not in front of them. If you find your child crying out when you are not in the room, then responding to their cries will help them realize that you have not entirely disappeared and that you will come back if they need you.

Once the child starts understanding the concept of object permanence, then they will not mind when you are stepping out of the room as they will realize that you are eventually going to return.

Conclusion

Based on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the sensorimotor stage refers to the first two years of a child’s life. During this stage, the child will achieve the following milestones:

  • Repeat behaviors they enjoy
  • Start exploring their world and interacting with objects intentionally rather than reflexively
  • Start coordinating their actions to achieve a target
  • They will understand what happens when they repeat a particular activity (understanding the concept of cause and effect)
  • They will understand that objects still exist even if they cannot be seen (object permanence)
  • They should know how to imitate, problem-solve, pretend, and repeat

Most importantly, the sensorimotor stage will be spent trying to understand the world through their own experiences. Once the child develops the capability for symbolic or representational thinking, which usually happens around the age of 2 years, they will progress onto Piaget’s second stage of cognitive development, which is known as the preoperational stage.

References:

  1. Cleverism. (2019). Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. [online] Available at: https://www.cleverism.com/piagets-theory/ [Accessed 15 Dec. 2019].
  2. Wadsworth, B.J., 1996. Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.
  3. Fischer, K.W., 1980. A theory of cognitive development: The control and construction of hierarchies of skills. Psychological review, 87(6), p.477.
  4. Kuhn, D., 1979. The application of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to education. Harvard educational review, 49(3), pp.340-360.

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