What is Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory?

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and philosopher born in 1896. He is most well-known for developing the theory of cognitive development. His theory states that as children grow, they learn through four stages: the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage. Cognitive development continues to shape how we understand the minds of children and adolescents today. This article aims to give parents a clear understanding of Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory, as well as the opposing theoretical contributions. This should give parents a clear understanding of a child’s cognitive development and can provide the basis for parents to provide their child with healthy development.

Piaget’s theory and stages of cognitive development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development includes four stages. Within the theory, it is suggested that these stages will be completed at different rates by each child. Whilst there are guidelines for the ages these may be completed, they do not represent every child. Furthermore, each stage must be completed before a child can enter the next. The skills developed at each milestone are developed and expanded upon throughout the process. This allows for an understanding of a child’s full development from birth to adolescence.

· Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage encompasses approximately the first 2 years of life. During this phase, children learn the basic skills they will need to take care of themselves and interact with others through trial and error. They also learn about physical objects and how they behave in various contexts (i.e., when pushed, moved across a table, or set on fire).

· Preoperational Stage

The Preoperational Stage is the second stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory. All mental tasks now require thought and can be manipulated through speech, but the child cannot yet imagine things that are not present. The Preoperational Stage begins at around age 2 and ends at around 7 or 8 years old.

· Concrete Operational Stage

The Concrete Operational stage spans from age 7 through adolescence. It involves being able to use logic to deal with concrete events. Piaget demonstrated that this stage is when children learn to conserve numbers, length, and mass. A child in the Concrete Operational stage can understand simple logic and relationships between objects, which enables them to solve basic problems with a minimum of clues.

· Formal Operational Stage

The final Piagetian cognitive development phase is known as the Formal Operational Stage. This stage of cognitive development usually begins at about 11 years old and continues throughout adolescence. Formal operational thinking requires the creation of hypotheses, systematic planning, and making decisions using a logical process. A person in this stage can think about abstract ideas and hypotheticals but still struggles to apply logic to real-world events. This is a skill that some people never develop but would occur throughout adolescence and the rest of their life.

Opposing theories to Piaget’s cognitive development theory

Piaget’s theory is one of the most influential in developmental psychology. However, it also faces a number of challenges that have been presented by other psychologists.

Another theory was proposed by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who suggested that children learn through social interactions with their parents and other caregivers, as well as through play. Vygotsky’s theory focuses on the concept of “zone of proximal development,” which refers to the difference between what a child can do independently and what a child can achieve with assistance from an adult. The theory greatly challenges Piaget’s beliefs. Whereas Piaget considered children to be ‘Little Scientists’ who conducted experiments to experience the world independently, Vygotsky referred to children as ‘Little Apprentices’ who required scaffolding to be supported in their learning and development.

Advice For Parents

These theories have heavily influenced our comprehensive understanding of child development today. Parenting theories and guidance have taken plenty of influence from both psychologists. There is an understanding that each of the mentioned theories has valuable insight. It should also be considered that every child and parent interaction is different which means there is not a specific rule that applies to all. Whilst one child may be more independent in their learning, there are some children who require more demonstration or scaffolding to achieve certain things.

For parents, the most important thing to consider is the needs and development of their own child. The theories mentioned are not rule books for parenting, they only offer insight and guidance into how a child’s cognitive ability develops. There are several other factors that will influence their learning and several variations for what feels right to you as a parent.

Our best advice is to take advantage of the information available by informing yourself about theories of children’s cognitive development. This allows you to recognise certain behaviours or stages in their development. With this knowledge, you can guide and shape their growth by providing assistance or space when needed.