Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development | Free Essay Example (2023)

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The sensorimotor stage
  3. The preoperational stage
  4. The concrete operational stage
  5. The formal operational stage
  6. Criticism of theory
  7. Conclusion
  8. References


Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896. In his youth, he studied philosophy and obtained a doctorate in biology by the age of 21. In his work in biology, he discovered that mollusks could adapt to different environments and that their shells matured differently according to their environment. This discovery led him to consider how humans might adapt and mature differently according to their environment. This new area of interest led him to study developmental psychology and he went on to become one of the most respected and influential figures in the field.

(Video) Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

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The majority of his work in psychology and that which he is most famous for is his theory of cognitive development. Piaget believed that children were born with an innate desire (and need) to adapt to their environment and that they do this by interacting with it and learning from it. He came up with the idea of ‘schemas’ which are the basic building blocks of intelligence. Babies start with minimal in-built schemas for things such as sucking and grasping and moving limbs. As the baby grows its schemas are refined and combined to create more complex schemas such as for walking. This development takes place through the processes of ‘assimilation’, ‘accommodation’, and ‘equilibrium’ (Bryant, 1995). A baby will try and apply its schema of sucking its mother’s nipple to obtain nutrients to sucking a cup of juice; this is the baby’s attempt to assimilate the task of drinking from a cup into its existing schemata. The sucking schema is inadequate for the task and the child will be in a state of disequilibrium. To restore balance the child must modify its existing schemas to accommodate the new task or experience. This is the process of ‘adaptation’ (McIlveen, 1997).

Piaget identified four main stages of cognitive development through which all children pass as they grow older. Each stage is typified by the kind of schemas a child has within that stage. The intellectual understanding attained at each stage builds upon that of the previous stage, and the stages are therefore passed through in sequence. Development remains continuous and fluid through all the stages, however, rather than jumping from one stage to the next.

The sensorimotor stage

The first stage is called the sensorimotor stage. This stage occupies approximately the first two years of the child’s life. It is characterized by the child’s hands-on approach to discovering the world around it. The child learns by hearing, seeing, smelling (sensory), and grasping, sucking, and pulling (motor). The first few months are also characterized by the baby’s lack of ‘object permanence (Gross, 1992). This means that the child is not able to understand that when an object is removed from view the object still exists. To the child, if an object is out of sight it is out of mind. The child is also extremely egocentric; it is unable to make the distinction between itself and the world around it (Pulaski, 1980).

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The preoperational stage

The second stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is the preoperational stage which lasts from the ages of 2 to 7 years old. During this stage, the child greatly develops the ability to use symbols and language. Although the child learns to distinguish between itself and the rest of the world it is still egocentric in that it is unable to see things from other people’s point of view or to ‘put itself in other people’s shoes.

The concrete operational stage

The next stage is called the concrete operational stage which lasts from 7 to 11 years of age. This stage is where the child acquires the ability to perform logical operations. These cognitive operations allow the child to make logical deductions that are not dependant on their perceptions although they still need grounding in concrete experience. These logical operations are also fully reversible allowing the child to consider a lot of possibilities. The child also becomes a great deal less egocentric, allowing it to become a lot more sociable and consider various points of view (McIlveen, 1997).

The formal operational stage

The fourth and final stage is the formal operational stage which develops from the age of 11 to the age of 16. During this stage, the child’s ability to perform logical operations continues to grow and is freed from the need for the experience of the object or situation (Pulaski, 1980). This enables the child to think in more abstract terms allowing them to consider hypothetical situations as well as real experiences. The child also becomes capable of ‘reflective abstraction’ which allows them to acquire new knowledge by considering and reflecting upon existing knowledge.

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Criticism of theory

Piaget’s theory is coherent and offers a complete and detailed model of intellectual development from birth to adulthood. It is the most well-known and possibly the most established theory of its kind. It is also one of the most controversial. Many psychologists have criticized Piaget’s theory, especially about the manner of the experiments he used to explore and prove his theories (Bryant, 1995).

One of the first criticisms of Piaget’s work is that he often only used his own three children as test subjects for his experiments. This could introduce several confounding variables and problems with the validity of the results. First of all the use of only three participants for any kind of experiment is too small, especially when the results are to be applied to the whole world. Any kind of anomalies or unusual traits of his three children would be magnified. (Wadsworth, 1989) For instance, if one of his children was able to perform a particular mental operation at a very young age, this could be interpreted as meaning a third of the whole world’s children would be able to do the same, even though only a tiny proportion actually could (Gruber, 1977).

Another problem with Piaget’s use of his children is that there were many things in the children’s lives and environment which would be unique to them. An important example of this is the fact that their father was one of the world’s leading scientists! How many people in the world can say that? This means that Piaget’s great intelligence would have probably been passed on to his children in some way, either through genetics or through his interaction with them as they grew up (McIlveen, 1997). This means that they may have been more intellectually developed than the average child of their age and they would also be familiar with their father’s way of thinking and communicating, perhaps helping them to perform better in his experiments (Gross, 1992). Although Piaget’s theory is fundamentally based largely on his observations of his children, it is worth noting that he also performed larger scale experiments and some of his earlier work with his children was re-tested by himself and others with not too dissimilar results.

Piaget has also been criticized for the wording he used during his experiments. Some say that his wording was often too advanced, abstract, or ambiguous for the child to understand what is required of them. There is also the issue of what each child understands of certain words (McIlveen, 1997). For instance, when performing a liquid conservation experiment, Piaget would ask the child if one glass had more water in it than the other. Would the child have the same understanding of the word ‘more’ as ‘three-dimensional volume’ that Piaget would have? The child may interpret this as meaning ‘does one glass have more height of water in it. If so, then this is a different problem of cognition and does not necessarily mean that the child does not grasp the concept of conservation.

(Video) Educational Implications Of Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development | application of Piget's theory

Much of Piaget’s work was based on observations, usually of his children, which were non-experimental and recorded in a qualitative, yet systematic and comprehensive way. He saw this as the best way to solve the puzzles of cognitive development which concerned him. This kind of procedure produces results that are not easily analyzed and do not give definitive ‘black and white answers. The data he gathered is therefore open to some interpretation (Pulaski, 1980).

Piaget’s theory that children aged below seven are intrinsically egocentric has also been cast into serious doubt. Whilst it is generally agreed that youngsters are egocentric to some extent, it has been observed that children as young as four can choose suitable gifts for their mother’s birthday, rather than (as Piaget would have expected) buying toys that they would like. It has also been shown that children as young as four can use ‘child-contingent’ language to talk to younger children, meaning that they modify their language making it less complex so that it can be understood by the toddler.


There are many flaws in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and perhaps even more flaws in the methodology he used to explore and verify it. The volume of criticism that this has generated has left very few people who still entirely agree with Piaget’s theory. Many people dispute his theory as a whole. This revolt however does not necessarily mean that Piaget’s contribution to the field of cognitive development is invalidated, in fact, in some ways it only serves to highlight how important his work has become.

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(Video) Piaget's Sensorimotor Stage: Infant & Toddler Cognitive Development

All other alternative theories of cognitive development stem from or are inspired by Piaget’s work in one way or another. Some are an attempt to build on or refine his disputed theories into a more practical or rational explanation. Many new theories are a reaction to Piaget’s, very much at odds with his ideas and often from an opposite viewpoint (such as Vygotsky). If Piaget had not formed and published his theories on cognitive development then Vygotsky and other theorists may never have come to offer their alternative views and the subject of cognitive development may not have been researched nearly as much as it has been to date. For this reason, even if Piaget’s theories are eventually largely dismissed or disproved, his contribution to the subject should still be considered of great importance.


  1. Bryant P. E., Colman A. M. (1995) “Developmental Psychology”. Longman Publishers.
  2. Gross R. D. (1992) “Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 2nd Ed. Hodder & Stoughton.
  3. Gruber H. E., Voneche J. J. (1977) “The Essential Piaget: An Interpretive Reference and Guide”. Routledge Publishers.
  4. McIlveen R., Gross R. (1997) “Developmental Psychology”. Hodder & Stoughton.
  5. Pulaski M. A. S. (1980) “Understanding Piaget: An Introduction To Children’s Cognitive Development” Harper & Row, New York, USA.
  6. Wadsworth B. J. (1989) “Piaget’s Theory Of Cognitive And Affective Development, 4th Ed.”. Publisher: Longman.


What are the 4 stages of Piaget's cognitive development essay? ›

Piaget describes four different stages of development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operation, and formal operations.

What is Piaget's theory of cognitive development PDF? ›

To Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around them, then experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment.

What is cognitive development theory all about essay? ›

Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Piaget's hypothesis is that the four stages of cognitive development are; the sensorimotor stage, which ranges from birth to two years old.

What are the main ideas of Piaget's theory of cognitive development? ›

In his theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget proposed that humans progress through four developmental stages: the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage.

What is the main idea of Piaget's theory of development? ›

Piaget believed that children develop through a continuous drive to learn and adapt schemas, which are mental templates that help them understand things. His ideas still have a considerable impact on child psychology and approaches to education.

What is a real life example of Piaget's theory? ›

For example, a child may use a banana as a pretend telephone, demonstrating an awareness that the banana is both a banana and a telephone. Piaget argued that children in the concrete operational stage are making more intentional and calculated choices, illustrating that they are conscious of their decentering.

What is an example of Piaget's cognitive theory? ›

For example, a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child's sole experience has been with small dogs, a child might believe that all dogs are small, furry, and have four legs.

Which is a good example of the cognitive stage? ›

Examples include: Talking with your baby and naming commonly used objects. Letting your baby explore toys and move about. Singing and reading to your baby.

Why is it important to understand Piaget's stages of cognitive development? ›

Piaget's theories and works are significant to people who work with children, as it enables them to understand that children's development is based on stages. The construction of identity and knowledge as one predicated upon the development of stages helps to explain the intellectual growth of children of all ages.

How do you apply Piaget's stages to learning and development? ›

Applying Jean Piaget in the Classroom
  1. Use concrete props and visual aids whenever possible.
  2. Make instructions relatively short, using actions as well as words.
  3. Do not expect the students to consistently see the world from someone else's point of view.
Apr 26, 2011

How does Piaget's theory impact child development? ›

According to Piaget, the educator's function is to assist children in their learning. Instead of pushing information, the emphasis is on sharing the learning experience. Encouraging children to be active, engaged and creating situations where children can naturally develop their mental abilities.

What is the conclusion for Jean Piaget theory of cognitive development? ›

After many years of observation, Piaget concluded that intellectual development is the result of the interaction of hereditary and environmental factors. As the child develops and constantly interacts with the world around him, knowledge is invented and reinvented.

What is cognitive development with example? ›

Cognitive development means the development of the ability to think and reason. Children ages 6 to 12, usually think in concrete ways (concrete operations). This can include things like how to combine, separate, order, and transform objects and actions.

What is the importance of cognitive development? ›

Cognitive skills allow children to understand the relationships between ideas, to grasp the process of cause and effect and to improve their analytical skills. All in all, cognitive skill development not only can benefit your child in the classroom but outside of class as well.

How is Piaget's theory applied in the classroom? ›

Piaget suggested the teacher's role involved providing appropriate learning experiences and materials that stimulate students to advance their thinking. His theory has influenced concepts of individual and student-centred learning, formative assessment, active learning, discovery learning, and peer interaction.

Why is Piaget's theory important in education? ›

By using Piaget's theory in the classroom, teachers and students benefit in several ways. Teachers develop a better understanding of their students' thinking. They can also align their teaching strategies with their students' cognitive level (e.g. motivational set, modeling, and assignments).

What are some examples of cognitive learning? ›

Examples of cognitive learning strategies include:
  • Asking students to reflect on their experience.
  • Helping students find new solutions to problems.
  • Encouraging discussions about what is being taught.
  • Helping students explore and understand how ideas are connected.
  • Asking students to justify and explain their thinking.

What is an example of cognitive in a sentence? ›

We are not alone in having some of the cognitive skills required for intelligent thought. Social background is still the most powerful predictor of cognitive skills. He places particular emphasis on giving pupils a sense of continuity between their growing cognitive skills and their own environment.

How is Piaget's work used today? ›

His theory is used widely in school systems throughout the world and in the development of curriculums for children. His theory produced the idea of ages in stages in childhood development. This idea is used to predict the capabilities of what a child can or cannot understand depending on their stage of development.

How does Piaget's theory apply to parents? ›

According to Piagetian theory, direct instruction is not considered necessary for cognitive structures to develop, and the role of the parent and teacher is seen in an enabling capacity rather than an instructional one.

What are some examples of cognitive development in early childhood? ›

Cognitive development is important for knowledge growth. In preschool and kindergarten, children are learning questioning, spatial relationships, problem-solving, imitation, memory, number sense, classification, and symbolic play.

What is the most important influence on cognitive development? ›

Cognitive development is influenced by how a child approaches learning as well as his or her biological makeup and the environment. A child's background knowledge, or knowledge base, also affects the way a child thinks.

What is the most important stage of cognitive development? ›

The Sensorimotor Stage: Birth to Age 2

According to Piaget, these actions allow children to learn about the world and are crucial to their early cognitive development.

What affects a child's cognitive development? ›

Children's cognitive development is affected by several types of factors including: (1) biological (e.g., child birth weight, nutrition, and infectious diseases) [6, 7], (2) socio-economic (e.g., parental assets, income, and education) [8], (3) environmental (e.g., home environment, provision of appropriate play ...

Why is Piaget's 4 stages of cognitive development important? ›

Piaget's theory of cognitive development helped add to our understanding of children's intellectual growth. It also stressed that children were not merely passive recipients of knowledge. Instead, kids are constantly investigating and experimenting as they build their understanding of how the world works.

What are the 4 main features of the cognitive approach? ›

Key features of the cognitive approach are:
  • A belief that psychology should be a pure science, and research methods should be scientific in nature.
  • The primary interest is in thinking and related mental processes such as memory, forgetting, perception, attention and language.

What is the significance to classroom teachers to understand Piaget's four stages? ›

By using Piaget's theory in the classroom, teachers and students benefit in several ways. Teachers develop a better understanding of their students' thinking. They can also align their teaching strategies with their students' cognitive level (e.g. motivational set, modeling, and assignments).

What is the most important thing about cognitive development? ›

Why is Cognitive Development important? Cognitive development provides children with the means of paying attention to thinking about the world around them.

How does cognitive psychology affect human behavior? ›

Cognitive Psychology is the science of how we think. It's concerned with our inner mental processes such as attention, perception, memory, action planning, and language. Each of these components are pivotal in forming who we are and how we behave.

What is the main focus of the cognitive approach? ›

The cognitive perspective in psychology focuses on how the interactions of thinking, emotion, creativity, and problem-solving abilities affect how and why you think the way you do.

What are examples of cognitive theory? ›

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

For example, one study suggests that someone's motivation to learn helps determine how often their mind wanders during a lesson. Participants who felt more motivated to learn experienced less mind wandering than those who said they were less motivated.

Why is Piaget's contribution important? ›

Piaget contributed to psychology in various ways. He provided support for the idea that children think differently than adults and his research identified several important milestones in the mental development of children. His work also generated interest in cognitive and developmental psychology.

What are the most significant implications of Piaget's theory? ›

An important implication of Piaget's theory is the adaptation of instruction to the learner's developmental level. The content of instruction needs to be consistent with the developmental level of the learner.

Why is it important for teachers to understand the stages of cognitive development? ›

Cognitive development theories and psychology help explain how children process information and learn. Understanding this information can assist educators to develop more effective teaching methods.


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