The Theory of the Cognitive Development of the Child (Jean Piaget)

Jonah Lester
The Theory of the Cognitive Development of the Child (Jean Piaget)

Piaget's theory proposes that the cognitive development of the child it occurs in four universal and qualitatively different general stages or periods. Each stage arises when an imbalance occurs in the child's mind and he must adapt by learning to think differently.

Piaget's method of finding out how children's thinking worked was based on observation and flexible questioning, insisting on the answers. For example, he observed how a four-year-old boy believed that if coins or flowers were placed in a row, they were more numerous than if they were grouped in a set. Many of the initial studies that he carried out were done with his children.

Piaget's theory

His theory, one of the richest and most elaborate carried out in the field of psychology, is framed within the cognitive-evolutionary models.

These models are rooted in the writings that Jean-Jaques Rousseau developed in the 18th century. From here it was suggested that human development occurred with little or no influence from the environment, although currently they place more emphasis on the environment. The main idea is that a child will behave based on the development and organization of their knowledge or intelligence.

Piaget formulates his theory of cognitive stages from the consideration of development from an organicist perspective, that is, he states that children make efforts to try to understand and act in their world. This theory caused a cognitive revolution at that time.

According to this author, the human being acts when it comes into contact with the environment. The actions carried out in it are organized in schemes that coordinate physical and mental actions.

There is an evolution from mere reflexes to sensorimotor schemes and later to operational structures, of a more intentional, conscious and generalizable nature..

These structures suppose a way to organize reality actively through actions or through the functions of the functions of assimilation or accommodation to new situations to seek the balance that responds to the demands of the environment..

The functions and structures

Human development could be described in terms of cognitive functions and structures, trying to show that the structural and functional aspects of the mind were interrelated and that there was no structure without function and there was no function without structure..

He also thought that cognitive development progressively evolved from lower stages to the functioning of reversible and formal mental structures.

  • The functions they are biological processes, innate and equal for all, which remain unchanged. These have the function of building internal cognitive structures.

This author thought that when the child was related to his environment, a more precise image of the world is formed in it and they develop strategies to deal with it. This growth is carried out thanks to three functions: organization, adaptation and balance..

  • Organization: consistent in the tendency of people to create categories to organize information, and that any new knowledge must fit within this system. For example, a newborn is born with a sucking reflex that will later be modified by adapting to the sucking of the mother's breast, the bottle or the thumb..
  • Adaptation: consisting of the ability of children to handle new information with respect to things they already know. Within this there are two complementary processes, assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when the child has to incorporate new information to previous cognitive structures. That is, there is a tendency to understand new experiences in terms of existing knowledge. And the accommodation that occurs when you must adjust the cognitive structures to accept the new information, that is, the structures change in response to new experiences..

For example, a bottle-fed baby who later begins to suck on a glass shows assimilation as he uses a previous scheme to cope with a new situation. On the other hand, when he discovers that to suck the glass and drink water, he has to move his tongue and mouth to suck, otherwise, he is accommodating, that is, he is modifying the previous scheme.

Or, for example, a child who has all those big dogs associated with the concept of dog. One day he goes down the street and he sees a mastiff, which is a dog he had never seen before but that fits into his big dog scheme, so he assimilates it. However, another day he is in the park and sees a child with a chihuahua, this dog is small, so he will have to modify his scheme by accommodating.

  • The balancing refers to the struggle to achieve a stable balance between assimilation and accommodation. Balance is the engine of cognitive growth. When children cannot handle new experiences in the context of previous cognitive structures, they suffer from a state of imbalance. This is restored when new mental and behavioral patterns are organized that integrate the new experience..
  • The schemes they are psychological structures that reflect the child's underlying knowledge and guide his interactions with the world. The nature and organization of these schemas are what define the intelligence of the child at any given moment..

Stages of the child's cognitive development

Piaget proposed that the cognitive development of the child occurred in four general stages or universal and qualitatively different periods. Each stage arises when an imbalance occurs in the child's mind and he must adapt by learning to think differently. Mental operations evolve from learning based on simple sensory and motor activities to abstract logical thinking.

The stages proposed by Piaget through which the child develops his knowledge are the following: sensorimotor period, which occurs from 0 to 2 years; preoperational period, which occurs from 2 to 7 years; period of specific operations, which occurs from 7 to 12 years and period of formal operations, which occurs from 12 onwards.

The following diagram shows the fundamental characteristics of these periods.

Sensorimotor period

The initial patterns of the child are simple reflexes, and gradually some disappear, others remain unchanged, and others combine into larger and more flexible units of action..

Regarding the primary, secondary and tertiary reactions, to say that the former involve the improvement of sensorimotor schemes based on primitive reflexes that go from being a reflex activity to being a self-generated activity in a more conscious way. For example, the child who sucks his thumb and repeats it because he likes the feeling.

Secondary reactions are due to the repetition of actions that are reinforced by external events. That is, if a child has seen that when shaking a rattle, it makes noise, they will shake it again to listen to it again, first they will do it slowly and hesitantly, but they will end up repeating it firmly.

In tertiary circular reactions the child acquires the ability to create new sequences of behaviors to deal with new situations. That is, the child repeats those actions that he finds interesting. An example would be a child who observes that when he shakes the rattle it sounds differently than when he picks it up and hits the ground.

At the end of this stage the child is already capable of having mental representations that allow him to free himself from his own actions. And they develop deferred imitation, which is the one that occurs even though the model is not present.

Preoperative period

This stage is characterized because the child begins to use symbols to represent the world cognitively. The symbolic function is manifested in imitation, symbolic play, drawing and language.

Objects and events are replaced by words and numbers. In addition, the actions that you had to do physically before can now be done mentally, through internal symbols.

The child at this stage does not yet have the ability to solve symbolic problems, and there are various gaps and confusions in his attempts to understand the world.

Thought continues to be dominated by the perceptual aspects of problems, by the tendency to focus on a single aspect (centering), by its invariance and inability to carry out transformations, and by the use of transductive reasoning (the child goes from the particular to the the particular).

Period of specific operations

The fundamental novelty that occurs at this stage is the appearance of operational thinking, based on the use of operations. That is, an internalized action (unlike in the sensorimotor, which were external and observable), reversible, which is integrated into a whole structure.

Understanding reversibility is one of the fundamental features of the operation. It is based on two rules: investment and compensation.

The inversion ensures that transformations that occur in one direction can also be carried out in the opposite direction. And compensation is the performance of a new operation that cancels or compensates for the effects of a transformation.

At this stage, children are already able to perform mental operations with the part of knowledge they possess, that is, they can perform mathematical operations such as adding, subtracting, ordering and inverting, and so on. These mental operations allow a type of logical problem solving that was not possible during the preoperative stage..

As examples of logical-mathematical operations we find conservation, classifications, series and the concept of number.

Conservation consists of understanding that the quantitative relationships between two elements remain unchanged and are conserved, despite the fact that some transformation may occur in some of the elements. Example: the child learns that a ball of plasticine remains the same in its rounded and elongated shape. And not because it is elongated is it greater than the rounded shape.

The classifications refer to the similar relationships that exist between the elements that belong to a group.

The series, consist of the order of the elements according to their increasing or decreasing dimensions.

The concept of number is based on the previous two. It occurs when the person understands that the number 4 includes 3, 2 and 1.

Formal operations period

This includes all those operations that require a higher level of abstraction, and that do not require concrete or material objects. As examples we can speak of the ability to deal with events or relationships that are only possible as opposed to what really exists..

The characteristics of this formal thought are as follows. The adolescent appreciates the difference between the real world and the possible one. When you come across a problem, you can come up with a multitude of possible solutions trying to find out which ones are the most appropriate..

In addition, hypothetical deductive thinking appears, this consists of the use of a strategy consisting of the formulation of a set of possible explanations and subsequently the submission of these approved to check if they are given. And finally, it is capable of integrating the two types of reversibility that it practiced in isolation, investment and compensation..

Criticisms of Piaget's theory

According to some authors, Piaget underestimated the capacities of infants and young children and some psychologists questioned their stages and provided evidence that cognitive development was more gradual and continuous.

In addition, they ensure that, in reality, the cognitive processes of children would be linked to the specific content (what they think about), with the context of the problem and with the information and ideas that a culture considers important.

Faced with these criticisms, Piaget reformulated his postulates and assured that all normal subjects arrive at formal operations and structures, between the ages of 11-12 and 14-15, and in all cases between the ages of 15-20..


  1. Cárdenas Páez, A. (2011). Piaget: language, knowledge and Education. Colombian Journal of Education. N.60.
  2. Medina, A. (2000). Piaget's legacy. Educere Articles.
  3. Papalia, D.E. (2009). Developmental psychology. McGraw-Hill.
  4. Vasta, R., Haith, H.H. and Miller, S. (1996). Child psychology. Barcelona. Ariel.

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