Educational psychologist Jean Piaget has been one of the leading figures in the experimental research of cognitive development in children. A large part of his theory stemmed from his early biological interests and he turned this foundation into a lifelong quest to understand how people evolve. He delineates four stages or periods that children go through as they develop through adolescence: the Sensory Motor Period (0-24 months), the Preoperational Period (2-7 years), the Period of Concrete Operations (7-11 years), and the Period of Formal Operations (11-15 years).
This essay will discuss the basic characteristics of these stages as they relate to cognitive development in children. According to Piaget’s theory, children begin their cognitive development in the Sensory Motor Period. It is important to note that the length of time in each stage is dependent upon many factors, and oftentimes the stages overlap. This initial phase is characterized by simple reflexive actions in response to stimuli such as sucking a thumb or grasping a finger. This stage develops repetitive actions in infants as well, such as swinging their feet over a rocking chair.
Near the end of this phase, infants are learning how to imitate things as well as how to problem solve simple tasks, such as pulling a blanket toward them if they are cold. In Piaget’s terms, the infant progresses through primary and secondary circular reactions and then coordinates the two before developing the tertiary circular reactions. As infants become toddlers utilizing their cognitive capabilities, they begin to apply their reactions and imitative abilities during the Preoperational Period.
This stage is characterized by the preoperational phase and the intuitive phase. During the preoperational phase toddlers develop their verbal communication, mostly focusing on the ego. They also start to think in terms of the representational and symbolic, such as imagining playing with an object without it being physically present through the use of language. The intuitive phase marks the transition of speech becoming more social and less egocentric and they begin to recognize authority figures as they test the boundaries of what is right and wrong.
The third stage of Piaget’s theory concerns the Period of Formal Operations when children become accustomed to organized and logical thought. They can perform multiple classification tasks as they acquire more complex problem solving abilities, such as in areas of arithmetic and grammar. During this time children’s motor abilities become more refined as their actions are put to a specific purpose. In the final stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, the Period of Formal Operations, teenagers develop their reasoning and multi-tasking abilities.
As they become more influenced by the social environment, their language becomes more abstract and they can more accurately predict the outcome of certain situations through the use of prepositional logic. They can handle proportions of scale, formal logical solutions, and other algebraic formulations. Piaget’s foundational theory has been the basis for most cognitive developmental research. His biological underpinnings are key to his agenda and his precise observations and documentation strategy continue to set the standard for the field.