Piaget and the Young Mind: Child Development Stages


The early years of life are full of colors, sounds, experiences and experiments. Children learn through their senses along with interactions with others. Jean Piaget, a Swiss born biologist and psychologist, felt that every interaction establishes cognitive structure in children. Sure makes you think twice about using that cookie as a bribe for some good behavior, right?

Piaget and the Child Developmental Model

Piaget came to his conclusions after spending time observing children while they were learning and playing. His research in the 1920’s was groundbreaking in the understanding of the workings of young minds. His ideas offered insight to adults as to the developmental stages of children creating opportunities to enhance learning in the classroom and adult interactions with children. His renowned child developmental model is based on the idea that the developing child builds structures or maps in response to understanding physical and cognitive experiences within her environment.  His theory identifies four stages a child experience:

  1. Sensorimotor stage: from birth to 2 years of age. During this stage the child is internally motivated to interact physically with her environment, building an understanding of reality and how it works. A child at this age is not aware of object permanence yet, which means she has not figured out that when something is out of sight it is still in existence.
  2. Preoperational stage: 2 to 7 years of age. The child is yet to understand abstract reasoning and thinking and still needs concrete physical situations. This means using bribes to achieve desired behaviors may have negative consequences later in development, as the child does not understand the reasoning behind the process – just the result.
  3. Concrete operational stage: 7 to 11 years of age. By this time the child has gained important knowledge through physical interactions with her environment and is starting to conceptualize and create logical structures from her experiences. The child is able to understand abstract reasoning and is ready for advanced learning concepts such as arithmetic.
  4. Formal operational stage: 11 years of age and beyond. The child is now able to fully function as an adult as far as conceptual reasoning and understanding. She is ready for challenges and new experiences that will encourage her brain and understanding of the world around her.

Encouraging the Piaget Model

Through these stages, there are several ways adults can positively influence learning through Piaget’s concepts. Either within the classroom or in the home, the child greatly benefits from additional support and encouragement. By taking a look at each stage of learning and actions that the child begins to master, the adult can find ways to offer positive reinforcement.

Sensorimotor – During this stage, the child is limited by her abilities. Basic characteristics include grasping, reaching, and reflexive behaviors. Adults can motivate a baby of this age to grasp by putting small toys outside of her reach or hanging a mobile over her crib. Reading with the child encourages language through listening to inflections and watching movements of the face. As a baby ages playing simple games such as “peek-a-boo” or hiding an object just outside a child’s reach encourages the understanding of object permanence and cognitive development.

Preocupational – Speech is one of the main advancements during this stage, with language taking up a large part of development. Along with figuring out the world through experimenting and asking lots and lots of questions, the child is also working out moral dilemmas and becoming less egocentric. This means that wonderful lack of object permanence will soon be gone, causing the child to become attached to a special blanket, toy, or parent – which can lead to extreme melt-downs.

This is a great time to play board games with simple rules or offer experiences for the child with basic steps. Taking turns and following directions may be challenging at this age, but the more experience the child has leads to greater cognitive development.

Concrete operational – A child is ready for challenges at this stage. This means her cognitive development is motivated for advanced tasks that encourage multiple ways of thought, multi-tasking, and logical sequencing. Other models are essential to her cognitive development, with teachers, friends, and other adults encouraging her learning and evolution. Offering opportunities for advanced learning through educational or recreational activities is a way to hone skills and encourage individuality. If a child is excelling in the arts, encouraging classes in an area of interest is beneficial to her development and self-esteem.

Formal operational – Abstract thought has fully developed and the child is now ready to take on adult concepts and is able to demonstrate knowledge through proper use of symbols and abstract concepts. This does not mean the child is a fully functioning adult, but that her brain is honed to take on greater tasks and learning. This is a time for conversation and debate along with doing. The child’s thinking is less focused on concrete reality and is able to take on conceptual thoughts. Spending time talking through foreign concepts and problems encourages development and build cognitive growth.

Piaget’s model is one that offers insight and understanding of child development, which benefits teachers and parents alike. Encouraging kids during these stages provides much needed support and nurturing.