A Summary of Piaget's Stages

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development Chart

Piaget's stages of cognitive development chart
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Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that children move through four different stages of mental development. His theory focuses not only on understanding how children acquire knowledge, but also on understanding the nature of intelligence.

Piaget believed that children took at active role in the learning process, acting much like little scientists as they perform experiments, make observations, and learn about the world.

As kids interact with the world around them, they are continually adding new knowledge, building upon existing knowledge, and adapting previously held ideas to accommodate new information.

Learn more about the basics of his pioneering theory by exploring this handy chart that quickly summarizes each of the four stages of cognitive development.

Sensorimotor Stage of Cognitive Development

Ages: Birth to 2 Years

Major Characteristics and Developmental Changes:

  • The infant knows the world through their movements and sensations.
  • Children learn about the world through basic actions such as sucking, grasping, looking and listening.
  • Infants learn that things continue to exist even though they cannot be seen (object permanence).
  • They are separate beings from the people and objects around them.
  • They realize that their actions can cause things to happen in the world around them.
  • Learning occurs through assimilation and accommodation.

During this earliest stage of cognitive development, children go through a period of dramatic growth and learning. As kids interact with their environment, they are continually making new discoveries about how the world works. The cognitive development that takes place during this period takes place over a relatively short period of time, but involves a great deal of growth. Children not only learn how to perform physical actions such as crawling and walking, they are also learning a great deal about language from the people they interact with. Piaget also broke this stage down into a number of different substages. It is during the final part of the sensorimotor stage that early representational thought emerges. 

Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development

Ages: 2 to 7 Years

Major Characteristics and Developmental Changes:

  • Children begin to think symbolically and learn to use words and pictures to represent objects.
  • They also tend to be very egocentric, and see things only from their point of view.
  • Children at this stage tend to be egocentric and struggle to see things from the perspective of others.
  • While they are getting better with language and thinking, they still tend to think about things in very concrete terms.

The foundations of language development may have been laid during the previous stage, but it is the emergence of language that is one of the major hallmarks of the preoperational stage of development. Children become much more skilled at pretend play during this stage of development, yet still think very concretely about the world around them. 

Concrete Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

Ages: 7 to 11 Years

Major Characteristics and Developmental Changes:

  • During this stage, children begin to thinking logically about concrete events.
  • They begin to understand the concept of conservation; the the amount of liquid in a short, wide cup is equal to that in a tall, skinny glass.
  • Thinking becomes more logical and organized, but still very concrete.
  • Begin using inductive logic, or reasoning from specific information to a general principle.

While children are still very concrete and literal in their thinking at this point in development, they become much more adept and using logic. The egocentrism of the previous stage begins to disappear as kids become better at thinking about how other people might view a situation. 

Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

Ages: 12 and Up

Major Characteristics and Developmental Changes:

  • At this stage, the adolescent or young adult begins to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems.
  • Abstract thought emerges.
  • Teens begin to think more about moral, philosophical, ethical, social, and political issues that require theoretical and abstract reasoning.
  • Begin to use deductive logic, or reasoning from a general principle to specific information.

The ability to thinking about abstract ideas and situations is the key hallmark of the formal operational stage of cognitive development. The ability to systematically plan for the future and reason about hypothetical situations are also critical abilities that emerge during this stage. 

Final Thoughts

While Piaget's theory is less prominent than it once was, it had a tremendous influence on our understand of child development. Piaget was one of the first theorists to suggest that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think. Many of Piaget's ideas came from his observations of his own children, but his theory has also fueled an abundance of further research on the intellectual development of children.

Learn more about Jean Piaget's life as well, some of the critical components of his cognitive theory as well as a few of the criticisms of his work.

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