Piaget Stages Of Cognitive Development: Jean Piaget’s Theory, Explained

A Parent’s Quick And Easy Guide To Jean Piaget’s Stages Of Cognitive Development

December 9, 2020 Updated April 2, 2021

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Anyone who has interacted with a baby or toddler regularly over a period of time has witnessed cognitive development firsthand. Telling another parent that their little one has “grown up so much” — even if only a month or two has passed since you’ve seen them last — is a cliche for a reason. Not only do babies quickly grow and change in physical appearance, but they are also constantly progressing through a series of steps necessary for their little brains to develop. One of the best-known and widely used methods of understanding the different stages is Jean Piaget’s theory. Wondering what that means? Here’s what to know about the Piaget stages of cognitive development, including when kids reach each stage and the expected outcomes.

Looking for more content on baby development? We have an object permanence page and a breakdown of Vygotsky’s theory!

How did Piaget’s theory form?

Born in Switzerland in 1896, Jean Piaget loved learning. He focused on natural sciences throughout his academic career, which included getting a Ph.D. in zoology in 1918. A few years later, he became increasingly interested in psychology and learned more about the discipline by working with Alfred Binet, the developer of the world’s first intelligence test. After getting married and becoming the father of three children, Piaget’s focus shifted yet again — this time to how children’s brains develop.

In the early 20th century, most experts in this area simply assumed that from a cognitive perspective, children were basically mini-adults. But Piaget theorized that this wasn’t the case. He believed children’s brains operate in a fundamentally different way than those of adults, including that they develop over a long period of time. Observing his own kids, Piaget noticed that when children learn something new, they classify it into different categories called “schemas.” From there, he created his theory of cognitive development.

What are the Piaget stages of cognitive development?

First published in 1936, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development identified four different stages of intellectual development. They are:

The Sensorimotor Stage

Lasting from birth to approximately age two, the sensorimotor stage involves children getting to know the world through their senses, experiences, and motor movements. The goal is to get a good grasp on object permanence. By definition, object permanence is a child’s ability to understand that objects still exist — even when those objects are out of their sight.

The Preoperational stage

Lasting from approximately the ages of two years old to seven years old, the preoperational stage is the point at which kids develop language, memory, and imagination. This stage typically includes symbolic play: the ability of children to use actions, ideas, or objects to represent other actions, ideas, or objects in play. The goal of this second stage is symbolic thought, which is the ability to think about objects and events that are not within the immediate environment.

The Concrete Operational Stage

Lasting roughly from the ages of seven years old to 11, the concrete operational stage is when kids start thinking logically but still may have difficulty with abstract and theoretical thinking. The goal is operational thought, which is marked by logical reasoning in real situations without being influenced by changes in appearances.

The Formal Operation Stage

Lasting from age 12 and into adulthood, the formal operation stage is Piaget’s final stage of cognitive development. Here, humans become increasingly better at abstract thought and deductive reasoning. The goal is to have an understanding of abstract concepts.

What is the legacy of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development?

For a concept that has been around this long, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development have held up relatively well and continue to be applied in different forms today. Having said that, Piaget has been criticized for assuming that all children develop at the same pace. Additionally, some researchers in the 1960s and 1970s suggested that Piaget doesn’t give kids (and their brains) enough credit, underestimating their cognitive abilities. And also, like plenty of other research, Piaget focused on white, middle-class kids in economically advantaged countries.

What play ideas encourage newborn cognitive development?

Cognitive development is key to a baby’s growth, and there are many ways you can strengthen that skill from an early age.

  • Introduce toys to your kid that feel soft or make noises. You want your baby to become familiar with the feel and sounds of objects, which they can start doing at a few weeks old. 
  • Make eye contact with your baby when you speak to them.
  • Make sure you sing and read to your baby often. During story time, try to use different voices for each character.
  • No one loves a funny face more than your baby. So contort your mouth and eyes into amusing shapes that will get their attention or make them laugh. 
  • Introduce your baby to a wide range of music.
  • Teach your baby how to hold, drop, and roll a ball. This will help them learn how things move.
  • If your baby is lying down, put some toys nearby to encourage them to move and interact.
  • When your kid is taking a bath, add toys that allow them to measure and pour the water. This toy can be as simple as a plastic cup.

Jean Piaget Quotes

In addition to his cognitive development theories, there’s more you can learn from Piaget through his own words. For a deeper look into Piaget and his work, we’ve gathered his best quotes to help further your understanding of him and his studies.

“It is with children that we have the best chance of studying the development of logical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, physical knowledge, and so forth.”

“This means that no single logic is strong enough to support the total construction of human knowledge.”

“To express the same idea in still another way, I think that human knowledge is essentially active.”

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.”

“Scientific knowledge is in perpetual evolution; it finds itself changed from one day to the next.”