What is Piaget’s Stages of Development and How to Use Piaget’s Theory?

Piaget and his Stages of Development

A Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, is considered to be an expert in understanding children and the stages of development they go through right from their birth until adulthood. Piaget’s theory of intellectual or cognitive development was published in 1936 and is still used by many branches of today, including education and psychology.(1)

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development focuses on children, and it characterizes the different stages of development from birth until adolescence, including:

  • Memory
  • Morals
  • Reasoning
  • Language

Piaget also made various assumptions about children while he was developing his theory, including:(2)

Children are capable of learning things on their own without the influence of any adults or older children.

Children are able to build their own knowledge based only on their experiences.

Children are naturally motivated to learn by nature, and they do not need any rewards as motivation.

There are four stages in total in Piaget’s theory of cognitive or intellectual development. These include:(3)

  1. Sensorimotor Stage
  2. Preoperational Stage
  3. Concrete Operational Stage
  4. Formal Operational Stage

In total, these four stages cover a child’s behavior and development right from birth to young adulthood.

Let us take a closer look at these four stages of development.

Understanding the Four Stages of Development

These stages are divided as per age and are marked by the essential characteristics of a child’s thought processes. The steps also include targets or goals children should be able to achieve as they move through any given stage.(4)

Sensorimotor Stage

Age: From birth to 18-24 months old

Major Characteristics of the Stage: Children should be able to carry out certain motor activities without the use of symbols. All things that will be learned at this stage will be based on experience or on trial and error.

The main goal of the sensorimotor stage is to establish an understanding of object permanence. This means that the child should become aware that an object still exists even if it cannot be seen or if it is hidden.

Preoperational Stage

Age: 2 to 7 years old

Major characteristics of the stage: Development of language, imagination, and memory should take place. Intelligence at this stage will be both intuitive and egocentric.

Children at this stage are known to be egocentric, meaning that they have difficulty in thinking outside of what their own viewpoints are.

The primary achievement of the preoperational stage is that the child should be able to attach meaning to other objects with the use of language. This stage is all about thinking about things symbolically. Symbolic thought is a type of thinking where an object or a word is used to represent something that can be other than the object/word itself.

Concrete Operational Stage

Age: 7 to 11 years old

Major characteristics of the stage: Have a better knowledge of systematic and logical manipulation of symbols. A child will be less egocentric and more aware of the outside world and events that are taking place.

By the time children reach the concrete operational stage, children become much less egocentric, and the phase is marked by a higher logical manipulation of symbols.

The main achievement at this stage should be that a child is able to start working things out by themselves in their head. This is known as operational thought, and it allows children to solve problems without taking others’ help or without physically encountering things in the real world.

Formal Operational Stage

Age: From adolescence to adulthood

Major characteristics of the stage: The child understands the use of symbols to relate to more abstract concepts. A child is able to make hypotheses and also grasp abstract concepts and other relationships in their life.

One of the main milestones of this stage is to use symbols for understanding abstract concepts. At the same time, older kids and adults will also start to think about multiple variables and be able to derive hypotheses based on their previous knowledge.

While Piaget firmly believed that people of all ages continue to develop intellectually, he also thought that after reaching the formal operational stage, the intellectual development was more about building upon the previously gained knowledge, and not changing how this knowledge is understood or acquired.

It is important to note here that Piaget did not view a child’s intellectual or cognitive development as a quantitative process. This means that he did not believe that children do not just continue to add more information and knowledge to their already existing knowledge database as they get older. Instead, he believed that there was a qualitative change in how children think, and this change occurs as they gradually move from one stage to another.

For example, a child at the age of 7 years not only has more information about the world than he/she did at the age of 2, but there is also a fundamental change in how he thinks about and views the world.

Important Concepts by Piaget

In order to better understand the things that happen as a child goes through cognitive development, it is vital to first understand a few of the important ideas that Piaget introduced with regards to the field of child development.

Given below are some important factors that also have an influence on how children learn and grow:

Schemas

A schema is a term used to refer to both the physical and mental actions involved in a child’s understanding and knowledge. Schemas are different categories of knowledge that help a person to interpret and understand the world.

According to Piaget, a schema can include not just a category of knowledge, but also the process of how to obtain that knowledge. So as a child experiences things, the new information is accordingly used to modify, change, or add to previously existing schemas.

For example, a child may have a certain schema about an animal, such as a dog. If the child’s sole experience has been with big dogs, then a child will continue to believe that all dogs are big and have four legs. If, after this, a child then encounters a small and furry dog, then the child will take in this brand new information, modify the previously existing schema about big dogs, and then include these new observations to that existing schema.

Assimilation

Assimilation is the process of taking in further information into an already existing schema. This process can be said to be subjective because humans tend to change information and experiences accordingly to fit in with their preexisting beliefs. For example, seeing a dog and labeling it a dog is an example of assimilating the dog into the child’s existing schema on dogs.

Accommodation

The third essential factor that is a part of adaptation is how a child changes or alters an existing schema when new information is present. This process is known as accommodation. The process of accommodation also comprises of altering the existing schemas as new experiences or information becomes available. It is also possible for newer schemas to be developed during the process of accommodation.

Equilibration

Piaget’s theory believed that all children attempt to strike a balance between accommodation and assimilation, achieved through a mechanism known as equilibration. As children go from one stage of cognitive development to another, it is essential to maintain a balance between applying previously learned knowledge (assimilation) and newer or changing behavior to allow to make space for newer knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration is the process that helps explain how children can move from one stage of thought to the next stage.

How to Use Piaget’s Theory?

How can Piaget’s theory of cognitive development be applied to education? The necessary foundation of this theory is to allow educators and parents alike to recognize the stage a child is presently in and cater to that developmental level accordingly.

  • Parents and teachers alike can help by giving children different experiences that allow them to explore and experiment with their environments, thus learning more about the world around them. These experiences also help children gain better understandings of different ideas and concepts in a more hands-on way.
  • For younger children who are just entering kindergarten or preschool, Piaget’s theories align more with environments where children are given opportunities to learn through trial and error, or play-based school programs. They should also be provided with more interactions with the real world.
  • Here are some examples of how Piaget’s theory can be included in education programs around the world:
  • By providing children with visual aids and other items such as models, to demonstrate different concepts and ideas.
  • By giving children chances for trial and error. The educators should focus on the process of learning versus the end result of the learning process.
  • Use real-life examples to demonstrate complex ideas such as word problems in math.(5)
  • Provide opportunities to classify or group information. Hierarchies and outlines also serve as excellent examples and allow children to build on new ideas from their previous knowledge.
  • Offer problems that require logical or analytical thinking. Brain teasers are an excellent tool to be used in this instance.

Parents can further help their child throughout the various stages by catering to their child’s unique and individual style of learning according to what stage of development the child is at.

Conclusion

Jean Piaget’s work has helped many people better understand how knowledge is developed throughout the different stages of childhood. His theory is still widely used today in many education systems, right from prekindergarten up to class 12th. Understanding the various stages of development in a child will also help parents better understand their own child and also help in assisting the child’s learning development.

References:

  1. Kalina, C. and Powell, K.C., 2009. Cognitive and social constructivism: Developing tools for an effective classroom. Education, 130(2), pp.241-250.
  2. Piaget, J., 1976. Piaget’s theory. In Piaget and his school (pp. 11-23). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  3. Feldman, D.H., 2004. Piaget’s stages: the unfinished symphony of cognitive development. New Ideas in Psychology, 22(3), pp.175-231.
  4. Huitt, W. and Hummel, J., 2003. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Educational psychology interactive, 3(2), pp.1-5.
  5. Ojose, B., 2008. Applying Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to mathematics instruction. The Mathematics Educator, 18(1).

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