The Process Of Cognitive Development According To Piaget

One of the most important aspects a parent, caregiver or teacher needs to know with regard to early childhood growth and development, is how a child thinks and learns. The process of cognitive development according to Piaget deals with how a child learns new concepts from his or her own perspective and life experience, which is discussed below.

In this article:

  1. What is Cognition?
  2. What is Cognitive Development?
  3. The 4 Key Processes that Aids Cognitive Development in a Child

Before we get into the process of cognitive development, we should first understand what is cognition and cognitive development?

What is Cognition?

Cognition refers to the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding, through the senses, thoughts and experiences. It includes all the activities of the mind, namely:

  • Attending
  • Remembering
  • Symbolizing
  • Categorizing
  • Planning
  • Reasoning
  • Problem-solving
  • Creating
  • Fantasizing

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. He became a cognitive theorist by observing his own three children during their early childhood.

Piaget presumed that every child born in this world learns about the things around them and the people within the vicinity of their environment, by investigating, discovering, and building stimulus through their activities.

Piaget, through his observation, found that a child’s thinking steadily changes from one stage to the other across his or her lifespan.

What is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development is the mental capacity of a child to problem-solve, acquire language, explore the environment around them, and interpret the relation of cause-and-effect by leveraging their inherent mix of attributes like inquisitiveness, fantasy and common sense.

The brain is the prime organ for cognition in humans (as we all know), and grows and develops at an incredibly rapid pace during the first six years of life.

Here’s the context: An average baby’s brain at birth is about one-fourth the size of an average adult brain. However, it doubles in size at an incredible pace in the first year, and keeps growing to about 80% of the size of an adult brain by age 3. By age 5, it is almost full-grown at 90%!

How to Measure Cognitive Development in a Child?

You may be curious to know whether it is possible to measure the development of cognition in a child by counting the number of neurons or synapses that are being established every day. The answer, as you may have guessed it, is: No. It is not possible.

Then how do you measure a child’s progression and its mental capacity? Well, the only possible way to do measure, is to rely on certain theories on intelligence, and to countercheck the milestones mentioned therein with that of a child’s activity and/or behaviours.

One such theory that gives you a clear understanding of how a child’s thought process develops, and what are the skills that need to be accomplished at every stage of life of a child, is Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.

The understanding of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development helps a parent, caregiver or teacher to choose the right type of activities for the child to develop his/her cognition, and provide a stimulating and enhancing environment for a steady development.

The 4 Key Processes that Aids Cognitive Development in a Child

The process of cognitive development according to Piaget involves 4 key processes:

  1. Schemas
  2. Assimilation and Accommodation
  3. Equilibrium and Disequilibrium
  4. Organization

To understand each of Piaget’s aforesaid four processes of cognitive development, let us taken an example of, say, a child’s perspective of thinking, learning and understanding a concept that is new from his or her experience of life – since birth.  The new concept the child is going to learn is:

What is a Dog?


What is a Cat?

On the outset, a child looks at a picture book with the mother beside him, and the mother identifies the picture for him as “Doggy”. The child’s mind constructs a schema of a Dog, as “a dog has two ears, four legs and a tail”.

Before taking it further from here, it is important that you first understand what is a Schema?

What is a Schema?

Schemas can be described as patterns of repeated behaviour in children, which allows them to explore and express, by developing thoughts and ideas through their activities, play and exploration.

Schemas are basically the building blocks of thinking in a child. It is the repetitive actions of schematic play that allows children to construct meaning in what they are doing.

Schemas change with age. To start with, schemas are sensorimotor actions, and are later followed by what is called as Mental Representations (which will be discussed soon).

Taking the Doggy example further, a few days later, the child get to see a real dog in the park. Immediately, the mind starts checking with the schemas already formed from the pictures and images seen in the books: “two ears, four legs and a tail”.

The child finds everything okay (as the real dog in the park too have them) and addresses it as Dog. By addressing the real dog, the mind of the child attains a state of Cognitive Equilibrium.

What is Cognitive Equilibrium?

Cognitive Equilibrium is a state of comfort of the mind of a child on learning new things.

Proceeding with the example, a few minutes later, the child goes near the dog and gets to see and feel its furry nature. Subsequently, the child also gets to see the dog barking. The barking of the dog gets the child confused, which results in the mind getting into a state of Disequilibrium.

What is Disequilibrium?

Disequilibrium refers to a cognitive conflict or discomfort in the mind of a child.

To resolve the state of disequilibrium as an outcome of the dog barking, the child starts to assimilate information gathered from the present environment and the parent (gathered earlier), and adds two new/additional schemas to a Dog, namely: ”A dog is furry” and “A dog barks”. (to the already existing schemas “two ears, four legs and a tail”)

What is Assimilation?

Assimilation refers to the process of applying of a concept learnt already, to a new concept.

After the process of assimilation, the mind is now in a state of equilibrium; but only until the child looks at a cat in the park the following day. The child now starts checking with the (latest) schemas developed for dog, namely “A dog has two ears, four legs, a tail, is furry and barks”. Since the first four schemas are true, the child addresses the cat as a dog.

The mother immediately corrects the child saying “No. This is cat, as it meows”. When the child listens to the meow of the cat, the mind gets into a state of disequilibrium once again. To resolve the state of confusion, the child’s mind starts actively revising the learned concept once again, and starts constructing a new set of schemas, known as Accommodation.

What is Accommodation?

Accommodation refers to the process of revising the concept already learnt, to fit the new information received and experienced. Through accommodation, the child gets back to a state of equilibrium once again, with the revised schema of cat, namely “A cat has two ears, four legs, a tail, is furry and meows”.

Through the learning experiences thus far, eventually, the child starts to identify the other differences, and picks out other similarities between a dog and a cat easily. This is done by a process called Organization.

What is Organization?

Organization is the internal rearrangement of schemas, exploring the connections and association between the schemas, thereby developing a strong and well interconnected cognitive system.

Piaget refers Organization as a higher order cognitive system.

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