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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development You'd Be Fascinated to Know

Understanding Piaget's theory forms the key to decipher the intricacies of human intelligence development. In this article, let's learn about the Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Kundan Pandey
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
As children, we all understand this world only after a certain stage. For instance, a two- or three-year-old child doesn't have enough intelligence to understand this world. During the development phase, a child's mind and other faculties and traits, like Intelligence Quotient (IQ), Emotional Intelligence (EI), maturity, etc., develop over a period of years. Jean Piaget (9 August 1896 - 16 September 1980) -- a Swiss psychologist and a well-regarded name in the field of epistemological studies with children, is best known for his theory of cognitive development.
In the 1920s, Piaget was working at the Binet's Institute where he had to develop the French version of English Intelligence Tests. He was intrigued by the wrong answers given by children for questions related to logical reasoning. He concluded that the children were no less intelligent than adults; instead, their way of thinking, reasoning, and interpreting the world was totally different. This growing interest led him to study the ways in which children develop knowledge. Based on years of research and study, Piaget came up with what is known as the "theory of cognitive development." As a part of his research, he observed and studied his own three children.
Key Concepts

Schemas can be defined as unit of knowledge, each representing a specific activity, or a thing. Infants are born with some inherent schemas, like sucking schema, grasping schema, etc. It comes naturally to them. When they grow, these schemas are modified, elaborated, or replaced, and gradually, many more schemas are added. The concept of schema is central to understanding Piaget's theory of cognitive development.


Assimilation is the process of putting in new information into an already existing schema. Say, a child has a schema for a certain breed of dog. But later, he comes across a different breed of dog with some distinctly different features. New information needs to be added to the existing schema about dogs. Hence, the schema is modified by the process of assimilation.


Accommodation is the process of adding new schemas, as the already defined schemas don't work. Say, a child has already formed a schema for dogs, and then, he notices a cat. His mind will add a new schema for cats as the existing schema for dogs does not fit into the description of cats.


Equilibration is the state when a child's schemas can easily take in new information through the process of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, children can easily transform an information that is entering their brain so that it meets with their existent thoughts.
Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget believed that cognitive development in children does not happen gradually; rather, it happens in leaps and bounds. A child's cognitive development is akin to constructing a mental structure of the world. This structure helps him to understand the world, store, analyze and use information, etc. Needless to say, it is very important for the overall intellectual development of the child. Piaget suggested that children, irrespective of geographical restrictions, adapt to a new environment and learn new things in a similar pattern. Piaget divided the cognitive development of children into four stages. Let's know more about the stages of cognitive development and its salient features in the sections below.
1. Sensorimotor Stage
  • It is a development phase between a child's birth until 2 years of age.
  • In this phase, a child is able to differentiate his own self from objects and other things.
  • A child has some innate schemas with the help of which he carries out various activities, like sucking, trying to put anything that is given to him in his mouth, or constant touching of objects and trying to play with them. It is an indication that a child begins to become the doer of acts, intentionally.
  • A term coined by Piaget known as object permanence is an important trait of this phase of a child's development. In this condition (of the sensorimotor stage), a child is able to understand that things do exist even if the object is out of sight.
Piaget further divided this stage into six substages:
Substage 1 (0-1 months)
Reflexes: From birth itself, infants have inherited reflexes, and they begin to build understanding and make sense of things. A child uses his innate schemas only, like sucking, grasping, eye movements, awareness to sound, etc.

Substage 2 (1-4 months)
Primary Circular Actions: The child repeats actions on his own body repeatedly. Take the example of thumb sucking which the child may find enjoyable and will keep doing it. The child also tries to refine these reflexes, forming a more complex version of them.

Substage 3 (4-8 months)
Secondary Circular Actions: The child's focus shifts to his surroundings. There is a degree of intention in its actions. However, the child is not sure about the consequences of the actions.

Substage 4 (8-12 months)
Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions: At this stage, their action becomes goal-oriented. For instance, they would want to kick a ball to hit a particular toy. Object permanence is also acquired at this stage.

Substage 5 (12-18 months)
Tertiary Circular Reactions: At this stage, children are more adventurous. With increased mobility, they want to explore various new actions and experiment with things. They try to learn things by trial and error.

Substage 6 (18-24 months)
Symbolic/Mental Representation: At this stage, children begin to develop symbols to represent various objects and events. They begin to understand the world through their mind rather than through actions.

2. Preoperational Stage
  • It is the development phase between 2 to 7 years of age.
  • The child is able to assimilate and learn images, words, and develops the ability to pick up language skills.
  • Egocentrism, as Piaget puts it, is still abundant and the child feels, he or she is the center of the world. Children do not have the ability to think from another person's point of view.
  • The child develops the ability to identify objects by a unique feature, or clubs them by a single feature. For instance, if there are several balls of different colors and sizes, the child may be able to identify all red balls, or black balls, based on 1 single feature -- its color, irrespective of its shape.
  • A child also does not have the understanding of conservation. Conservation is the concept, based on which even if something changes shape, the amount doesn't change. For example, the level of equal volume of water in different shapes of glass will be different. But to them, the water in a taller glass will be more.
  • Another key characteristic of this stage is animism. Children, at this stage, think that inanimate objects also have feelings.
3. Concrete Operational Stage
  • This phase occurs between 7 to 11 years.
  • It is believed to be a very important stage, as it marks the beginning of the development of the child's logical thinking abilities.
  • The child becomes more smart in classifying objects based on numerous factors, such as height, weight, shape, size, etc. The child can even put objects in order, depending on any particular series.
  • He becomes less egocentric and understands conservation better. He is able to understand numbers, weight, and other physical features of objects.
4. Formal Operational Stage
  • Children above 11 years of age are grouped in this phase.
  • A sense of individuality gradually begins to creep in. Children in the adolescence and teenage years struggle with issues of future, ideologies, discipline, right, wrong, and morality.
  • As per this theory, in this phase, children are able to accept that societal rules must be obeyed, but as they grow, their ideologies of personal liberty and individualism start triggering them to break rules. Here, they identify that societal rules are negotiable.
  • Logical thinking faculties develop properly, and the child is able to think on abstract topics -- more or less, depending on maturity level gained. Children can approach and solve a problem, logically and systematically.
Drawbacks of Piaget's Theory
Although Piaget's theory is a benchmark in the field of cognitive studies of children, it has certain drawbacks too.
The research method used by Piaget had been greatly selective. Much of the observational results were deduced by studying his own children and that of his friends. His research sample was too narrow to generalize his findings for a larger population.
Piaget had distinctly demarcated the 4 stages with specific traits. However, it has been seen in later studies that many children show an overlap of the traits at different stages. They exhibit certain traits at an earlier, or later stage than Piaget expected.
Piaget did not consider the social, cultural, and environmental factors while considering a child's cognitive growth. Apparently, it does play an important role in the mental development of a child.
Piaget's assumption that cognitive development in children happens in leaps and bounds has also been criticized. Many argue that it is a continuous process.
Despite all the criticism, it is indisputable that Piaget's theory was one of the most influential theories on cognitive development. It formed the basis for later researches. It helped and guided people in understanding and communicating with children, more significantly in the field of education. Simple though it seems, Piaget's theory of cognitive development has been the foundation stone of designing basic educational system patterns, to quite a large extent, all across the globe.
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