The 4 Stages Of Cognitive Development According To Piaget

The 4 stages of cognitive development according to Piaget elaborates on the stages and the characteristics of cognitive development on the whole, and explains how the Sensorimotor Stage happens in a child.

In this article:

  1. The 5 Main Characteristics of Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
  2. The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development according to Piaget
  3. The 6 Sub-Stages of Sensorimotor Development

The 5 Main Characteristics of Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

According to Jean Piaget, the 4 stages mentioned above have the following five characteristics:

  1. Each stage is a structured whole (well organized)
  2. Each stage is a continuation of the previous stage
  3. The stages follow a particular sequence (sequence never changes)
  4. The stages are universal (applicable to children across the world)
  5. Cognitive changes progresses gradually from one stage to another

The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development according to Piaget

Well known for his work on child development, he underlines that individuals go through four stages of cognitive development. They are:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (0 to 2 years)
  2. Pre-Operational Stage (2 to 7 years)
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years)
  4. Formal Operational Stage (beyond 11 years)

Let us now look at the first of Piaget’s 4 stages of cognitive development.

1. Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage extends for the first two years of a child’s life. According to Piaget, toddlers explore the environment with their senses (see, hear, taste, touch and smell) and motor skills (body’s ability to move). This is why he named the first stage as the Sensorimotor Stage.

Piaget observed his own children and found that there was a drastic advance in their thinking skills almost every day, in general, and in the first two years in particular.

Let us have a look at the sub-stages of the sensorimotor stage:

The 6 Sub-Stages of Sensorimotor Development

i) Simple Reflexes

It’s the first stage and is found during the first month of a child’s life. According to Piaget, reflexive behaviors are the building blocks of intelligence, and just after few days of birth, the infant is found to make the same reflexive behavior even in the absence of usual stimulus.

For example, a newborn initially sucks the nipple or the bottle only when placed directly in its mouth. It isn’t too long when the infant in fact starts sucking, even when the stimulus is present only nearby and is yet to reach the mouth. This indicates that the infant has started to structure its behavior based on the previous experience.

ii) Primary Circular Reaction

Between 1 and 4 months of age, the infant’s motor activities are centered on its own body, and the activities that occurred by chance initially are now reproduced repeatedly.

For example, an infant sucks its thumb initially by chance (accidentally). But later, in spite of poor coordination, manages to put a part of his hand in his mouth.

This second sub-stage is crucial, as it helps in establishing the first habits in a child. Reflexive responses that are similar, that are elicited even when completely separated from the reflexive stimulus, is called as habits.

Here is an example of primary circular reaction: Towards the end of stage one, an infant was able to suck only at the sight of the bottle. But in stage two, he shows a sucking response even in the absence of the bottle.

iii) Secondary Circular Reaction

The secondary circular reaction stage develops between 4 and 8 months of age. In this stage, infants become relatively more focused and develop a greater awareness of the environment around them. Their motor activity during this stage involves stimulus from the environment rather than by their own self.

Related Article: Piaget’s Theory of Constructivism and its Educational Implications

Gradually however, they begin to repeat an action deliberately, and trigger a response around them. An example for secondary circular reaction is when an infant picking up a toy with intention and putting it in its mouth, or shaking a rattle again and again, with the intention to hear the sounds produced by it.

Though the infant of the stage repeats certain activities, the patterns of repeated behaviour (schemas) are not necessarily intentional. In other words, the behaviours are not necessarily goal directed.

iv) Coordination of Secondary Circular Reaction

The fourth sub-stage of the secondary circular reaction extends from 8 to 12 months of age, when the coordination of vision and manual actions occur. This is a stage when the actions become more intentional and goal oriented.

An example of secondary circular reaction is when a baby hurriedly crawls towards the mother as soon as she’s seen opening the door to step outside the room or the house.

This is also a sub-stage during which the infant starts to develop the ability to imitate adults. Their activities therefore become intentional, deliberately changing behaviours (schemas) to fit into the actions they observe.

For example, a toddler may imitate action as if he/she is stirring something with a spoon after observing his mother.

v) Tertiary Circular Reaction

Between 12 and 18 months of age, infants will be able to explore new outcomes or variations, intentionally, as they become familiar with the properties of objects around them.

For example, an infant holding an object above the head and dropping it or pushing it down from the stairs, as the drop or push can result in various outcomes.

Piaget also concluded that the tertiary circular reaction stage is what sets the beginning for creativity and novelty in a child/individual.

vi) Mental Representation

The mental representation sub-stage spans from 18 to 24 months of age. This is typically an age when infants possess the ability to represent objects mentally by using primitive symbols, which help them to solve their problems, instantaneously, without any trial and error behavior.

Related Article: The Process of Cognitive Development according to Piaget

An example of mental representation is an infant playing with a toy car, who suddenly observes the car unable to move as it is stuck against a wall. Though the child may not have had a similar experience before, it still will be able to lift the car and turn it towards a new direction where there are no obstructions.

Other Capacities Developed during Sensorimotor Stage

There are three other capacities that get developed during sensorimotor stage of cognitive development. They are:

  • Object permanence
  • Deferred Imitation
  • Make-believe Play
Object Permanence

Object permanence is an understanding that an object exists even when not present. It is an awareness that gets initiated during the fourth stage of the Sensorimotor Stage. The awareness of object permanence occurs in the following sequence:

Sequence of Object Permanence

A – not B search error

The toddler watches an object being continuously moved from a place A to place B, but searches for it only in place A. This is because the toddler is unable to follow the image of the object and understand where it is hidden.

Accurate A – B Search

By 18 months the toddler is able to follow the place and find where the object is hidden, because he/she has now attained object permanence.

Deferred Imitation

During this sixth stage of the sensorimotor stage, the mental representation of a child permits the ability to copy behaviours of others – even when others are not physically present around the child. For example, a toddler expressing love and care for a doll by patting or kissing it, just like a mother does for her baby.

Make-Believe Play

At the end of the sixth stage, the infant engages more in make-believe play rather than functional play. Functional play refers to the pleasant motor activity of infants and toddlers, either with or without objects.

Make-believe play, otherwise called as pretend play, is when toddlers act out everyday activities; like brushing teeth, throwing a ball or beating a drum, in the absence of a toothbrush, ball or a drum respectively.

Related Article: Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development by Piaget and Their Implications on Education

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