Children's Development: The Theory of Piaget
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Children's Development: The Theory of Piaget

This article discusses Piaget's theory of children's development. His four stages will be discussed, as well as some of the problems with his theory.

Jean Piaget and his Theory

An influential theory regarding the cognitive development of children was proposed by Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), a Swiss scientist and philosopher. He proposed that, as children grow up, they use internal representations, or schedules, to make sense of the world. As interactions with the environment increase in number and complexity, two processes can be used to adapt these schedules:

  • Assimilation: new information about the world is categorized in an already existing schedule.
  • Accommodation: creating new schedules to include deviant information.

In principle, these processes can occur continuously, but Piaget was convinced that important changes in the development of a child occur in leaps, which led to his theory of four stages.

The Four Stages

Thus, Piaget discerned four separate stages in the development of a child:

  1. The sensorimotor stage (from birth to 2 years of age): in this stage, children are mainly occupied with their perceptions (sensory), their actions (motor) and the interaction between both. The child will learn to control its movements and start to consider the consequences of its action through repeating them several times (like dropping things over and over again). This way, basic concepts of time, space and causality are formed. An important development is object permanence, which generally occurs around 8 – 12 months of age. Here, children learn that an object continues existing even when it is out of sight.
  2. The preoperational stage (2 – 7 years of age): more than in the previous stage, children try to understand the relations between events and to explain the new phenomena they encounter. According to Piaget, the knowledge in this stage is based on external appearance of things and the capacity of logical thought is not yet developed.
  3. The concrete-operational stage (7 to 11 years of age): in this stage, children develop the insight that actions can have reversible effects, which allows children to begin understanding the underlying physical principles. The insight into this reversibility, however, remains only applicable on concrete, tangible issues.
  4. The formal-operational stage: (starting at 11 years of age): here, the child gains insight into abstract underlying principles and can apply these to hypothetical situations. Children become able to imagine alternative sequences of events and start to wonder who they are and what their place is.

Some Problems

As developmental psychology progressed, some of Piaget’s ideas were criticized. The most common objections are that:

  • Babies seem to be able to do a lot more than Piaget gave them credit for. For example, babies seem to possess basic awareness of quantity.
  • It turns out that the progress from one stage to the next does not occur at the same age for all problems. Some kids understand the conservation principle (the underlying physical dimension remains equal despite shallow changes in appearance, for example the same amount of water in a tall, small glass or a short, wide glass will look differently) earlier for some issues than for others.
  • Lastly, there is a problems with the idea that children have to reach a certain age before the next step can be made. It has been shown, for example, that kids can be learned the conservation principle earlier than they would have acquired it themselves.


  • Piaget, J. (1976). A Child’s Conception of the World. Totowa, NJ.: Littlefield, Adams & Co.
  • Sutherland, P. (1992). Cognitive Development Today: Piaget and his Critics. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

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