Who was Piaget and what are his stages of development?

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied children in the early 20th century. His theory of intellectual or cognitive development, published in 1936, is still used today in some branches of education and psychology. It focuses on children, from birth through adolescence, and characterizes different stages of development, including:

  • language
  • morals
  • memory
  • reasoning

Piaget made several assumptions about children while developing his theory:

  • Children build their own knowledge based on their experiences.
  • Children learn things on their own without influence from adults or older children.
  • Children are motivated to learn by nature. They don’t need rewards as motivation.

There are four stages in all:

  • sensorimotor stage
  • preoperational stage
  • concrete operational stage
  • formal operational stage

The stages cover a range of ages from birth to 2 years old to young adulthood.

Piaget’s four stages

Piaget’s stages are age-specific and marked by important characteristics of thought processes. They also include goals children should achieve as they move through a given stage.

StageAgeCharacteristicsGoal
SensorimotorBirth to 18–24 months oldMotor activity without use of symbols. All things learned are based on experiences, or trial and error.Object permanence
Preoperational2 to 7 years oldDevelopment of language, memory, and imagination. Intelligence is both egocentric and intuitive.Symbolic thought
Concrete operational7 to 11 years oldMore logical and methodical manipulation of symbols. Less egocentric, and more aware of the outside world and events.Operational thought
Formal operationalAdolescence to adulthoodUse of symbols to relate to abstract concepts. Able to make hypotheses and grasp abstract concepts and relationships.Abstract concepts

Sensorimotor

The sensorimotor stage covers children ages birth to 18–24 months old. Characteristics include motor activity without use of symbols. All things learned are based on experiences, or trial and error.

The main goal at this stage is establishing an understanding of object permanence — in other words, knowing that an object still exists even if you can’t see it or it’s hidden.

Preoperational

The preoperational stage can be seen in children ages 2 through 7. Memory and imagination are developing. Children at this age are egocentric, which means they have difficulty thinking outside of their own viewpoints.

The main achievement of this stage is being able to attach meaning to objects with language. It’s thinking about things symbolically. Symbolic thought is a type of thinking where a word or object is used to represent something other than itself.

Concrete operational

Children are much less egocentric in the concrete operational stage. It falls between the ages of 7 to 11 years old and is marked by more logical and methodical manipulation of symbols.

The main goal at this stage is for a child to start working things out inside their head. This is called operational thought, and it allows kids to solve problems without physically encountering things in the real world.

Formal operational

Children 11 years old and older fall into Piaget’s formal operational stage. A milestone of this period is using symbols to understand abstract concepts. Not only that, but older kids and adults can also think about multiple variables and come up with hypotheses based on previous knowledge.

Piaget believed that people of all ages developed intellectually. But he also believed that once a person reaches the formal operational stage, it’s more about building upon knowledge, not changing how it’s acquired or understood.

Schema, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration

There are a variety of terms Piaget used in his theory to explain cognitive development and how it’s achieved at different stages.

Schema is a term he used to represent the building blocks of knowledge. You may think of schemas as different index cards inside the brain. Each one informs the individual on how to react to new information or situations.

For example, picture a person visiting the grocery store to buy milk. In this event, the schema is a mentally stored pattern of behavior that can be applied to this situation. The person remembers how to go through the aisles, find the milk, select the preferred kind, and then pay at the register. Whenever the person is tasked with getting milk, this particular “script” or schema is recalled from memory.

Other important terms:

  • Assimilation is using an existing schema and applying it to a new situation or object.
  • Accommodation is changing approaches when an existing schema doesn’t work in a particular situation.
  • Equilibration is the driving force that moves all development forward. Piaget didn’t believe that development progressed steadily. Instead, it moved in leaps and bounds according to experiences.

How can caregivers use schemas?

Parents and teachers can help build a child’s various schemas to promote learning and development throughout the stages. This can be achieved by giving children plenty of exposure to the outside world. Being exposed to a variety of learning-by-doing experiences from a young age may help build up those internal index cards. Then, as children get older, it’s about broadening the experiences and applying them to new, even hypothetical, situations.

How to apply Piaget’s stages to learning and development

So, how exactly can Piaget’s stages be applied to education? At the root, it’s about recognizing the stage a child is currently in and catering to that developmental level.

Teachers and parents can help by providing children with different experiences or ways to explore and experiment with their environments. It’s through these experiences that children may gain understandings of different concepts in a hands-on way.

For young children entering preschool and kindergarten, Piaget’s theories align more with play-based school programs, or environments where kids are offered opportunities for trial and error, and interaction with the real world.

Piaget’s philosophy can be incorporated into any education program.

Examples include:

  • Providing chances for trial and error. Focus on the process of learning versus the end result.
  • Providing children with visual aids and other props, like models, to illustrate different ideas and concepts.
  • Using real-life examples to paint complex ideas, like word problems in math.
  • Providing chances to classify or group information. Outlines and hierarchies are good examples and allow kids to build new ideas from previous knowledge.
  • Offering problems that necessitate analytical or logical thinking. Brain teasers can be used as a tool in this instance.

You can also help your child throughout the stages by catering to their specific learning style at the time:

Sensorimotor

  • Use real objects in play activities.
  • Connect play to the five senses.
  • Implement routines for the youngest children. They are predictable and may be highly useful with developing communication.

Preoperational

  • Children learn best by doing. Allow them to actively interact with a variety of things in their environments, including books, people, games, and objects.
  • Ask questions while children are engaged in daily routines and allow them to come up with their own ideas.
  • Point out new things and encourage children to question you about those things.

Concrete operational

  • Create timelines, three dimensional models, science experiments, and other ways to manipulate abstract concepts.
  • Use brain teasers and riddles to foster analytical thinking.
  • Focus on open-ended questioning.

Formal operational

  • Offer step-by-step explanations of concepts and utilize charts and other visual aids.
  • Explore hypothetical situations. You may relate them to current events or social issues.
  • Broaden concepts whenever possible. For example, if talking about the Civil War, discuss other issues that have divided the country since that time.

Cons of Piaget’s theory

There are some criticisms of Piaget’s stages. In particular, researchers in the 1960s and 1970s argued that Piaget may have underestimated children’s abilities by using confusing terms and particularly difficult tasks in his observations. In other studies, children have been successful with demonstrating knowledge of certain concepts or skills when they were presented in a simpler way.

Piaget’s theory also expects children of a certain stage to primarily be at that stage across the board with all tasks presented to them. Other researchers uncovered that there is a range of abilities with cognitive tasks. In other words, some children may excel or struggle in one area over another.

Piaget’s theory also explains that trying to teach children particularly advanced concepts would be unsuccessful. Yet in some cases, children may be able to learn advanced ideas even with brief instruction. Children may be more adaptable and competent than Piaget’s stages give them credit for.

Last, Piaget primarily examined white, middle-class children from developed countries in his work. As a result, his findings may be skewed to this subset of people, and may not apply as directly to other groups or locations.

Piaget vs. Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky developed his theory on child development at the same time Piaget was developing his own theory. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children develop through stages. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky believed that learning and development were tied to social interactions and culture. Whereas Piaget believed that children learn through doing, Vygotsky believed that they learn through being shown.

Piaget vs. Montessori

Maria Montessori shared some ideas with Piaget, including how children move through stages. Their theories are similar until children reach age 3. In school, Montessori classrooms are more child-directed. Piaget classrooms are more teacher-directed with a focus on routine, though there is flexibility and opportunity for child-directed activities.

The takeaway

Jean Piaget’s work has helped people understand how knowledge is developed at different stages of childhood, starting at birth. His philosophy is still used in prekindergarten through 12th grade classrooms today. Understanding the different stages may help you better understand your own child and assist their learning development.