Cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget for children

Table of Content


In our today’s society many psychologist tend to study behavior of individuals and development of these behaviors. However, it should be noted that understanding behavior development precedes studying behavior its self. In this connection, one vital tool for studying processes of behavior development and changes throughout one lifetime is through studying and understanding cognitive development of the individuals. This is in the light cognitive domain of an individual to great affect the behavioral pattern exhibited by an individual. Therefore, understanding cognitive processes of human being gives a good start into behavioral studies for all psychologists with its appropriate application.

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In this regard, Jean Piaget offers a good and well constructed and easy to apply theory of cognitive development in children that inform our society approach to understanding and designing instruction to children. To this effect, substantial evidence shows that Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is relevant to today’s society especially to education field. It is in this line of thought that this paper shall discuss exclusively Piaget’s cognitive development theory for children, from process of cognitive development to the cognitive development stages and how the theory is being applied to our academic society today.


Cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget attempts to explain the psychological phenomenon of mental processes, development and changes throughout the lifespan of an individual. In his theory construction, Jean Piaget based his cognitive development theory for children on normal processes of growth and development by which children develop intellectually. This means that the assumption that underlies this theory is that the children affected by Piajet’s theory do not include those children face d with abnormal growth trends. Furthermore, it is important to note that the theory focus on the development of thinking as a mental process as opposed to perception or memory (Piaget, 1990, p. 102).

In his attempt to explain how children think; Jean Piaget identified came up with two components in developing his cognitive development theory for children, which explain how children learn to think from infancy till when they grow old. The foundation of this theory lies on the argument that Piajet children think in the same way and process as adults but have limited knowledge compared to adults based on the responses and observation he made. To prove his argument, Jean Piajet used this cognitive development theory for the children to explain how children tend to think (Dewey, 1997b, p. 265). Therefore, he constructed this theory on two fundamental principles. These principles are: the way children acquire knowledge throughout their life time which he termed as process of cognitive development; and the cognitive development stages that children develop cognitively as they grow up.

Process of Cognitive Development

This part of the theory suggests that intellectual development come by as a process through which an individual actively explore the world, as a result, this individual construct a mental representation of reality based  on what one discovers in that active exploration. Through exploration of the environment, children are usually curious and inquisitive about their own abilities and holistic details of the world around them. As a result, a child develops some kind of knowledge basing on their inquisitive and curiosity. This newly attained details about knowledge gained is stored in mind in proposed two structures.


According to Piajet, schemas (Piaget, 1990) are mental structures that contain information which an individual have relating to the world aspects. In regard to this information, children have action, object and people schemas. Despite acquisition of schemas by children as a vital component of cognitive development process, the theory emphasize that children are born with innate schemas that facilitate individual’s interaction with others in society like schemas of anger and hunger. For instance, hunger would ignite mother child interaction due to drive for food to satisfy the child’s anger. The first and early schemas to develop in children’s mind are usually mum’s schema, since she is primary care giver to the new born.

The schemas are constructed through the process of equilibrium. In other words, by this process children usually experience unpleasant sensation whenever they meet something or situations they cannot explain or not familiar with. Therefore, as a result, children will either assimilate or accommodate their schemas in relation to this new situation. Thus, expands children’s knowledge leading to knowledge acquisition and definitely cognitive development.


In regard to operations (Vygotsky, Vygotsky, 1980) structure as a mechanism for cognitive development process, it affirms that knowledge is acquired by children structuring their thinking about rules which the world operates. Piaget reinforced this principle by pointing out that, children think differently at different stages of development because the operation which they are capable of change with age advancement. Therefore children operations develops the brain of a child matures in contrast to schemas which develop with increase in experience data bank expansion. The two processes of coming to know leads to ones cognitive structures to be complex, hence organized hierarchically from general to specific.

                             Children Cognitive Development Stages

            The children cognitive development stages were constructed and formulated basing on the logical errors children make in reasoning. In the processes of formulation, children at similar stage, made similar logical errors hence facilitated the grouping of this and thereafter categorization of developmental stages. These categorization of children who made similar logical errors in thinking, justified four cognitive development stages.

Sensory motor stage

            This stage occurs during the infancy stage of a child when an infant is between 0 to 2 years of age. In this stage, there are six sub-stages involved refer to table 1(appended documentation).  This stage encompasses intelligence, knowledge of the world, physical development and symbolic abilities development. Importantly, intelligence is illustrated through motor activities, while knowledge about the world is limited but still in the process of developing based on the physical experiences. Mobility (physical development) facilitates development of new intellectual abilities and child acquires object permanency that enhances the memory. Moreover, at the end of the stage as transition to the pre- operational stage the child develops language abilities (Slee, 2002, p. 193).

Pre-operational stage

            This cognitive development second stage, starts from two to seven years and is exhibited by toddler and early childhood, it has two sub stages which are preconception from 2 to 4 years dominated by geocentricism and animism. While the second sub stage is intuitive that reigns from 4 to 7 years when a child starts to employ thinking, solve issues and problems. Generally, intelligence of the child is depicted by symbols, advanced use language. Memory develops although thinking is done basing on non-logical manner.

Concrete operational stage

            This stage starts from 7 to11 years that encroaches elementary and early adolescence. Jean Piajet emphasize that this is a significant stage in child cognitive development, since it is characterized by 7 types of conservations; length, value, area, number, liquid: weight and mass. Whereby, failure of child to develop successful can lead to future difficulties in those critical aspects.  In addition to that, important cognitive processes occur and develop in this stage. For instance, seritation which is ability to sort objects in order of size, color and shape; classification abilities: decentering; reversabilityabilities; conservation and egocentric elimination. However, in this stage intelligence is demonstrated by logical and systematic manipulation of symbols which are related to concrete objects, while operational thinking develops fully (Piaget, 1972; Bruner, 1966).

Formal operational stage

            Despite being the fourth stage of cognitive development, this stage is also crucial and important stage in cognitive development. It starts from 11 years onwards, whereby intelligence is demonstrated by the use of logical symbols which are related to abstract ideas. This stage is greatly characterized by reasoning logically; thinking abstractly; and ability to draw conclusion from the thought of ideas. Young adult who has attained this stage is able to think and understand social domains like values, love and logical proofs. Sadly, research conducted in relation to this stage in Piajet’s cognitive development theory reveals that only 35% of children that reaches this final stage in cognitive development, especially in industrialized countries. This was research may prove a point of worth as parallel research conducted indicated that many adults today in the world do not think formal during their adulthood stage (Haan, 2007, p. 204).


            Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory is widely accepted as a constructive model for designing learning, especially in pre-school and primary programs that have proved to work well. Substantially, this theory is the foundation for the constructivists learning support developing interest of a child and basis for discovery learning ((Berk, 2006; Huitt, 2007) as it guide parents and tutors are to design instructions equivalent to the level of a child. Furthermore, its influence to instruction approach of children are in the area of curriculum to children or material present should challenge child’s ability and use of concrete experiences such as groups and manipulative are resultant recommendations from Piaget’s cognitive development. For full systematic stage application of theory table.2 (appended documentation) gives details.


            The tangible critique to the method is based on the method used for study, which was descriptive resulted that to the conclusions acceptable to others while to others is not acceptable. On the positive part of it, the notion of biological development being a drive for one cognitive development stage to the other; has been widely accepted. This acceptance was reinforced by research conducted by Stafford, Friot and Reanner (1976). In their study, they examined a cross-sectional of children in western cultures; there results supported stages of sensory motor, pre-operational and concrete operational.

            On contrast the data obtained from same studies in Western Europe in adolescence did not cohere with Piaget’s assertions on formal operational stage attained automatically as biological aspects mature. Empirically, it was found by Kohlberg, Kalin and Lange (1977), that only 30-35% of high school senior’s attained formal operational stages. This disagreement was based on the influence of special involvement to attain through cognitive stage.


            To sum up the paper, the main ideas and principles discussed in relation to Piaget’s cognitive theory were processes of cognitive development and stages that a child passes through as he or she develops cognital abilities. Furthermore the paper has examined some of the usefulness of the theory to our society in terms of its application, and then examined two strong criticisms to theory. In this light, more work has to be done to expand and to substantiate the theory on formal operational stage of cognitive development of Jean Piajet to embrace society current needs and dynamism.

Appended documentation

Table1.sensory motor sub-stages

The reflex scheme stage
0-1 month
Development of reflexes
Primary circular reactions
1-4 months
Habits development
Secondary circular reactions
4-8 months
Vision and prehension coordination development (hand eye development)
co-ordination of secondary course round modest circular reactions
8-12 months
Object permanence development
The tertiary circular reactions
12-18 months
Experimentation and creativity in the actions
Beginnings of symbolic representation

18-24 months
Mental combinations (achieving a goal without resorting to trial-and-error experiments)
Source: Stafford, D. & Kellogg, D. (2005) “Research, teaching, and learning with the Piaget model”: Educational psychology for teacher, vol. 13, p. 218-224

Table2. General characteristics of cognitive development stages

Sensory Motor (0 – 24 months)
Simple reflex activity such as grasping, sucking.

Reflexive behaviors occur in stereotyped repetition such as opening and closing fingers repetitively.

Responses become coordinated into more complex sequences

Discovery of new ways to produce the same consequence

Deferred imitation
The Preoperational (2-7 years)
Increased use of verbal representation but speech is egocentric.

Speech becomes more social, less egocentric
Period of Concrete (7-11 years)
Evidence for organized, logical thought

Ability to perform multiple classification tasks, order objects in a logical sequence, and comprehend the principle of conservation

Thinking becomes less transductive and less egocentric.

The child is capable of concrete problem-solving
Period of Formal (11-15 years)
Thought becomes more abstract, incorporating the principles of formal logic

Ability to generate abstract propositions, multiple hypotheses and their possible outcomes

Thinking becomes less tied to concrete reality
Source: Berk, L (2006).Development through the lifespan”: Educational Psychology Interactive, vol. 13, p. 43-51

Table2. Application of Jean Piaget theory to learning of a child

Mode of instruction
Preoperational Child
Use physical illustrations

Use drawings and illustrations

Provide opportunities to play with clay, water, or sand

Discuss what they are seeing on TV
Concrete Operational Child
Provide time-lines for history lessons.

Use three-dimensional models in science

Give learners separate sentences on slips of paper to be grouped into paragraphs.

Show craftwork to illustrate daily occupations of people of an earlier period

Give learners separate sentences on slips of paper to be grouped into paragraphs.

Use outlines, hierarchies, and analogies to show the relationship of unknown new material to already acquired knowledge
Use visual aids such as charts and illustrations, as well a simple but somewhat more sophisticated graphs and diagrams.

Utilize a well-organized materials that offer step by step explanations to a child

Use lyrics from popular music to teach poetic devices, to reflect on social problems currently
Source: Huitt, W (2007). Cognitive development: Applications. Available at retrieved on 12th November, 2008.


Berk, L (2006).Development through the lifespan”: Educational Psychology Interactive, vol. 13, p. 43-51

Bruner, J. (1966). Studies in cognitive growth: collaboration at the Center for Cognitive Studies. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Dewey, J. (1997b). How we think. New York: Dover Publications.

Huitt, W (2007). Cognitive development: Applications. Available at retrieved on 12th November, 2008.

Haan, N. S (2007), the development of formal operations: Genetic Psychology Monographs, vol. 9, p. 97-110.

Piaget, J. (1972). The psychology of the child: New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1990). The child’s conception of the world:  New York: Littlefield Adams.

Neisser, U. (1967) “Cognitive psychology”: psychological review, vol. 18, p. 281-293

Slee. P. (2002) Children adolescent and family development: Educational psychology for teacher, vol. 4, p. 261-275

Stafford, D. & Kellogg, D. (2005) “Research, teaching, and learning with the Piaget model”: Educational psychology for teacher, vol. 13, p. 218-224

Vygotsky, L. & Vygotsky, S. (1980). Mind in society:  Cambridge; Harvard University Press


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