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Piaget’S Theory Of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development explains how a child constructs a mental representation of the world. His stages test how children’s learning and ways of thinking drastically changes from birth to age fifteen. The four stages which reflect the increasing maturation of the thought process are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Each child goes through the stages in the same order, however there are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through the stages. The main purpose of this research is to identify the stages of cognitive development and test if children truly acquire the features mentioned in each stage.

The sensorimotor stage is the first stage of Piaget’s Cognitive theory of development. This stage spans from birth to two years of age as well as deals with aids children with the understanding of the world by matching sensory experiences with physical and motor actions. “It is defined by the direct physical interactions that babies have with the surrounding objects. During this stage, babies form their first schemas by using their primary senses—they stare at, listen to, reach for, hold, shake, and taste the things in their environments.”( There are 6 substages in the sensorimotor stage, the first one is the simple reflex stage which is present from birth to one month of age. Infants experience new senses through reflexive behaviors. This is where we see that children have not discovered the idea of object permanence which is where if an infant is presented with an object and then the object is hidden, the child will not look for the object because they believe it has disappeared. The second substage is Primary circular reactions which is present between one and four months of age. Infants coordinate new sensory experiences with habit and circular reactions which is repetitive actions. For example, if an infant accidentally puts their fingers in their mouth, the infant will continuously try to perform the same scheme in order to elicit the same stimulus. The third substage is secondary circular reaction stage which is most prominent between four and eight months of age. Infants are more object oriented and move beyond becoming preoccupied with the self.“Secondary circular reactions are repetition of actions on the environment that bring out pleasing or interesting results (banging a rattle).”( The fourth stage is Coordination of secondary reactions which is present between eight and twelve months of age. Infants coordinates vision and touch, hand and eye as well as previously learned schemes to have a better understanding of schemes. Object permanence is finally understood during this stage where once objects are hidden from the infants sight, they continue to look for it. The fifth stage is Tertiary circular reactions, novelty, and curiosity which is present during twelve and eighteen months of age. Infants are more interested with the trial and error, trying different methods with various objects in order to explore different results with them. The last substage is Internalization of schemes and is present between eighteen and twenty-four months of age. Infants use primitive symbols in order to form mental representations within themselves. For example, if a child who has never thrown a tantrum sees a classmate throw a tantrum, that child will throw a tantrum the next day due to them having a mental representation of the tantrum. Overall, the sensorimotor stage is all about infants developing their senses in order to form schemes to help understand the world.

My first observation was with my nephew Ilario. He is a fourteen-month old, white male, male living in a middle class home. His mother is of Italian descent and his father is of Polish descent. For my observation of my nephew, with the accompaniment of his mother, we were looking for signs that Ilario is in the sensorimotor stage of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Ilario is fourteen months old, so he would be classified in the fifth stage of Piaget’s theory. The Tertiary stage which is between 12-18 months of age begins the trial and error experimentation within children. For the observation I placed Ilario in the living room of his room and placed a set of colorful blocks in front of him. He was very intrigued with the blocks due to the variety of colors that he was seeing. Ilario immediately dove into the stack of blocks and began to play with them. He first began to observe the blocks, taking one into each hand and looking at them, then he began to play with them. Ilario would take the blocks and position them in a number of ways and each way would be different. First, the blocks were stacked on top of each other sort of like a tower. He would try to stack them one block at a time and once he finished stacking them, he would knock them over and try a different method of stacking them. Each time Ilario knocked the blocks over, there was always a different method on how he would restart the tower. It has been observed that Ilario is in the fifth stage of Piaget’s theory of development because of the trial and error scheme as in doing well for the continuation of his cognitive development. This observation allows the child involve in play as well as progress their development through exploring their curiosity as well as their exploration of properties through different objects.

The preoperational stage is the second stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage starts from the age of two and lasts to the age of seven. During this stage, children begin to understand the world through words, images, and drawings, but don’t yet understand concrete logic. There are many key features of the preoperational stage. One main key feature is egocentrism. Children are unable to distinguish between their own perspective and someone else’s. The child assumes that other people are able to see, hear, and feel exactly the same way as they do. Another feature is the concept of animism. The child believes inanimate objects, such as toys, have human characteristics and feelings. According to Piaget, it is meant that “for the preoperational child the world of nature is alive, conscious and has purpose” ( Children at the age of four or five believe almost everything is alive and has purpose, while children between ages five to seven believe only objects that are capable of moving have purpose. A third feature is the child being able to understand symbolic representation. The children have the ability to make a thing, a word or object, to standing for something other than itself. Language is seen by many people as the most obvious form of symbolism that young children display. However, Piaget argues that “language does not facilitate cognitive development, but merely reflects what the child already knows” ( Lastly, a key feature of symbolic play is present in children during this stage. Children pretend to be people with certain occupations, a doctor or superhero, and also uses props to symbolize real life objects. This activity helps the child create mental images of objects and being able to store them in their minds for later use. Overall, the preoperational stage consists of the child building experiences about the world through adaptation and working towards the concrete stage where they are able to use logical thought.

A famous demonstration of egocentrism is the “Three Mountain Task”. Piaget wanted to show that “children have a self-centered perception at this age” ( I performed this experiment separately on my twin cousins, boy and girl, who were the age of five. They are both Palestinian and are growing up in a middle-class home environment. I showed them a three-dimensional model of three mountains. The mountains were different sizes, colors, and had different features. They explored the model and a doll was placed facing the mountain in a different position than what they were able to see. I then asked them what specific things the doll was able to see. According to the characteristics of a child during the preoperational stage, they would explain the features they are able to see and not what they doll should see at its position. To my surprise, both of my cousins were able to distinguish between their own perspective and the perspective of the doll. As a result, they were able to think ahead of their age of Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory and not fall under the thinking of egocentrism. This tasks helps them to see things in different perspectives and understand that not everyone sees, hears, and feels exactly the same as they do.

The concrete operational stage is the third stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage starts at the age of seven and lasts until the age of eleven. During this stage, “children can perform logical operations, but only in relation to concrete external objects rather than ideas” ( For instance, children are mature enough to use logical operations to understand rules and commands, but can only apply logic to concrete, physical objects. There are many abilities children gain during this stage. One ability is the understanding of conservation. Conservation is the understanding that changing the appearance of an object doesn’t change its basic properties. They understand the concepts of area, volume, and mass must be held accountable when measuring or observing two different things. Classification is another ability the children attains. They are able to identify the properties of categories and able to distinguish and classify objects according to their specific category. This ability of classification branches out in understanding seriation and transitivity. Seriation helps them order stimuli along a quantitative dimension, such as length. Transitivity helps them logically combine ideas together in order to understand certain conclusions. These abilities help the child during math concepts, such as numbering, and helps develop high-order thinking and problem-solving skills. During this stage, they also begin to “lose their egocentric focus” by being able to understand a situation from the viewpoint of another person ( Overall, a child during this stage is able to solve problems in a logically, but not able to think abstractly yet.

One of the most common activities done to test conversation skills is the conservation of water. I experimented on my cousin who was the age of nine and male. He is Palestinian and grows up in a middle class environment. In front of him, I placed two equal glasses of liquid next to each other. I asked if they contained the same amount of water, and he replied yes. I then poured on of the glasses into a taller and more narrow glass. He was asked again which glass contains more water. A child in the preoperational stage would reply that the taller glass contains more water believing the longer length of the glass means more water. Since my cousin is in the concrete operational stage, he has acquired the skill of conversation and understood and answered that the glasses of water still contain the same amount of water. As a result, he understood that redistributing materials does not affect its mass, volume, or length. He is on track of Piaget’s cognitive development and acquiring the skills that will later help him think abstractly.

The formal operational stage is the last stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which is present in young adults ages eleven to fifteen. “During this stage, the ability of full logic and reasoning processes are used. Children in this stage begin to show signs of using real as well as abstract situations as a form of thought. Qualities formed in this stage enable a person to use advanced reasoning in science and mathematics.”( Children during this stage have a fair understanding of hypothetical-deductive reasoning (scientific thinking) where they can think of a hypothesis or a scientific guess that is the most reasonable or most logical in order to solve the problem. Also, during this stage children have this idea of Adolescent egocentrism where they believe that people are interested about them just as much as they are interested with themselves. Adolescents also believe that they are the center of attention and everybody is watching them which coincides with the adolescent egocentrism. Along with this stage adolescents have a wide imagination and are very good with coming up with creative ideas.

The experiment I performed in order to test the formal operational stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was the pendulum experiment. The volunteer I had for this experiment was my sister, Gabriela, who is fifteen years old. She is a white, female coming from an upper middle class home with her mother and father are being from Polish descent. I asked Gabriela to sit down first and explained the experiment to her, so she would have a general idea about what I was asking her to do. The pendulum experiment is used to see out of three items that are chosen, which item would make the pendulum swing faster? In front of Gabriela I placed a pencil, a cell phone and screwdriver on the table. I then asked Gabriela to develop a hypothesis on which item out of the three she believed would make the pendulum swing faster. Her hypothesis was, “ Out of the three items the pencil would make the pendulum swing faster because it is them item with the less weight. The lighter the object is, the faster it will swing on the pendulum because the force of gravity is not as strong. The cell phone and the screwdriver would not work because those objects are heavy and the force of gravity is greater.” Once Gabriela presented me with her hypothesis we tested it out to see if it was correct. We took the pencil, attached it to a string that was about a twelve inches in length and attached it the edge of the table with some tape. We did the same to the phone and screwdriver and tested those out first. The results of the experiment was that the cell phone made the pendulum swing the slowest, the screwdriver was in second place and the pencil made the pendulum swing the fastest, which matched Gabriela’s hypothesis. Gabriela’s hypothesis matched the formal operational stage because she used logic and scientific reasoning to figure out the answer to the question that was brought to her. It can be concluded that Gabriela is far along in the formal operational stage of Piaget’s theory which can be expected because of her reasoning as well as her age.

In conclusion Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development is the development of the mental representation of the world and how it progresses throughout the lifespan. The research of this area is important in order to see how each of the schemes are presented in each stage as well as how it aids in the progression of the child’s development. The process of thinking throughout different age groups vary drastically and throughout our observations/experiments we can conclude that the children in the different stages elicit the features that are specific to the stage. It was very interesting to see how each child interviewed or observed portrayed the exact ideas that are presented in the theory that was discussed in class. For future research it would be very fascinating to see how children of different socioeconomic classes observations or answers would vary. Piaget’s Theory is very accurate and factual from our own experiences and it will be interesting to observe other children throughout our own line of work in the future.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.