Psychologist Jean Piaget’s work helped explain how children learn, with each stage building on the last. In this Forbes article, Mindpath Health’s Brandy Porche, LPC, discuss how his model of learning affects how children interact with the world.

Piaget’s Stages Of Cognitive Development

Twentieth century psychologist Jean Piaget was a trailblazer in the understanding of children’s cognitive development. Unlike his predecessors, he believed children process information differently than adults and that intelligence is not inherent but acquired, adapting and expanding as children investigate the world around them.

Observing the learning process of his own children and others led Piaget to develop Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development in 1936. In it, he delineates four stages in which intelligence grows, from birth through adolescence, also known as Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development.

What are the four stages of Piaget’s cognitive development?

Piaget studied how children develop mental models for the world around them as they grow, says Alex Dimitriu, MD.

His four stages of cognitive development outline not what material is learned, but a deeper level of how the child interacts with the world. Piaget observed children by playing games with them, asking them questions and devising tests to learn how they were thinking, says Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor at Mindpath Health.

“He believed that as a child’s brain develops and their experience increases, they move through these four broad stages of development,” says Porche. While the amount of time spent in each stage can vary from child to child, Piaget theorized that every child progresses through each stage in the same order.

Sensorimotor stage (Birth to 2 years)

Goal: object permanence

Infants can be seen exploring the world through sensory observation, they are egocentric, or unable to see the world from any perspective other than their own. As infants become more mobile, they build on their interactions with the spatial, visual and tactile worlds.

The goal of the sensorimotor stage is for a child to develop object permanence, or the realization that objects exist independent of their interactions with them, says Dr. Ajayi. For example, a child starts to recognize that when a ball is dropped in front of them, it’s actually on the ground rather than no longer in existence simply because it’s out of sight.

Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years)

Goal: symbolic thought

This stage is the beginning of primitive conceptualization, meaning children are still unable to think logically or make simple deductions, but will start to imitate others, play make-believe and represent parts of their world by drawing. A child who drops a glass that then breaks won’t have any sense of cause and effect. They might believe that the glass was ready to break rather than believing that it broke because of their actions.

Though children typically begin to speak in this stage, they’ll remain unable to see the world from another’s perspective, says Dr. Dimitriu. Animalism, the ability to attribute living qualities to non-living things, such as the feelings of a toy, also occurs during this stage.

Concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years)

Goal: logical thought

Children begin to serialize, order and group things into classes based on common characteristics, and they begin to reason and follow rules and regulations with marked improvements in mood regulation, adds Dr. Ajayi.

A healthy respect for rules develops in this stage as well, which involves knowing when rules have exceptions. Children of this age who do not gain this understanding are at increased risk of developing obsessive-compulsive behavior, as they can become overly invested in rules and regulations, says Dr. Ajayi.

Formal operational stage (11 years and older)

Goal: abstract reasoning

At this stage, children begin to develop abstract thinking, deductive reasoning and an overall increased ability to think systematically and symbolically.

Not all children reach the formal operational stage, says Dr. Ajayi. “Those who don’t will demonstrate marked inabilities to perform mathematical calculations, think creatively, use abstract reasoning or imagine the outcome of particular actions. They also fail to develop deductive logic, a skill that is critical in the math and science,” he says

While adolescents who don’t reach the formal operational stage may make decisions that result in scholastic or legal issues, those who do reach this stage tend to show interest in more abstract studies such as philosophy, religion, ethics and politics, says Dr. Ajayi.

How are Piaget’s stages of cognitive development used?

Piaget’s stages create a framework for understanding childhood mental development qualitatively, not quantitatively.

Piaget’s theories can also be helpful for improving the parent-child relationship, adds Dr. Ajayi. Adolescents exhibit abstract thinking and can appear to be in severe distress, but this expression is often more related to difficulties accepting the world around them than an underlying psychiatric disorder.

Read the full Forbes article with sources.


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