Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.5.1: Piaget

  • Page ID
  • Jean Piaget is the most noted theorist when it comes to children's cognitive development. He believed that children's cognition develops in stages. He explained this growth in the following stages:

    1. Sensory Motor Stage (Birth through 2 years old)
    2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years old)
    3. Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years old)
    4. Formal Operational Stage (12 years old- adulthood)

    In this cognitive chapter we will focus on his first stage which occurs in infancy.1

    Piaget and Sensorimotor Intelligence

    Piaget describes intelligence in infancy as sensorimotor or based on direct, physical contact. Infants taste, feel, pound, push, hear, and move in order to experience the world. Let’s explore the transition infants make from responding to the external world reflexively as newborns to solving problems using mental strategies as two years old.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Substages of Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage2
    Substage Age Description
    Substage One: Simple Reflexes Birth to 1 month This active learning begins with automatic movements or reflexes. A ball comes into contact with an infant’s cheek and is automatically sucked on and licked.
    Substage Two: Primary Circular Reactions 1 to 4 months The infant begins to discriminate between objects and adjust responses accordingly as reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. An infant may accidentally engage in a behavior and find it interesting such as making a vocalization. This interest motivates trying to do it again and helps the infant learn a new behavior that originally occurred by chance. At first, most actions have to do with the body, but in months to come, will be directed more toward objects.
    Substage Three: Secondary Circular Reactions 4 to 8 months The infant becomes more and more actively engaged in the outside world and takes delight in being able to make things happen. Repeated motion brings particular interest as the infant is able to bang two lids together from the cupboard when seated on the kitchen floor.
    Substage Four: Coordination of circular reactions 8 to 12 months The infant can engage in behaviors that others perform and anticipate upcoming events. Perhaps because of continued maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the infant becomes capable of having a thought and carrying out a planned, goal-directed activity such as seeking a toy that has rolled under the couch. The object continues to exist in the infant’s mind even when out of sight and the infant now is capable of making attempts to retrieve it.
    Substage Five: Tertiary Circular Reactions 12 to 18 months The infant more actively engages in experimentation to learn about the physical world. Gravity is learned by pouring water from a cup or pushing bowls from high chairs. The caregiver tries to help the child by picking it up again and placing it on the tray. And what happens? Another experiment! The child pushes it off the tray again causing it to fall and the caregiver to pick it up again!
    Substage Six: Internalization of Schemes and Early Representational thought 18 months to 2 years

    The child is now able to solve problems using mental strategies, to remember something heard days before and repeat it, to engage in pretend play, and to find objects that have been moved even when out of sight. Take for instance, the child who is upstairs in a room with the door closed, supposedly taking a nap. The doorknob has a safety device on it that makes it impossible for the child to turn the knob. After trying several times in vain to push the door or turn the doorknob, the child carries out a mental strategy learned from prior experience to get the door opened-he knocks on the door! The child is now better equipped with mental strategies for problem- solving.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): An infant sitting in a highchair. (Image by holycalamity is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Evaluating Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage

    Piaget opened up a new way of looking at infants with his view that their main task is to coordinate their sensory impressions with their motor activity. However, the infant’s cognitive world is not as neatly packaged as Piaget portrayed it, and some of Piaget’s explanations for the cause of change are debated. In the past several decades, sophisticated experimental techniques have been devised to study infants, and there have been a large number of research studies on infant development. Much of the new research suggests that Piaget’s view of sensorimotor development needs to be modified (Baillargeon, 2014; Brooks & Meltzoff, 2014; Johnson & Hannon, 2015).

    Object Permanence

    One necessary modification would be to when children develop object permanence. Infants seem to be able to recognize that objects have permanence at much younger ages than Piaget proposed (even as young as 3.5 months of age).

    The A-not-B Error

    The data does not always support Piaget’s claim that certain processes are crucial in transitions from one stage to the next. For example, in Piaget’s theory, an important feature in the progression into substage 4, coordination of secondary circular reactions, is an infant’s inclination to search for a hidden object in a familiar location rather than to look for the object in a new location. Thus, if a toy is hidden twice, initially at location A and subsequently at location B, 8- to 12-month-old infants search correctly at location A initially. But when the toy is subsequently hidden at location B, they make the mistake of continuing to search for it at location A. A-not-B error is the term used to describe this common mistake. Older infants are less likely to make the A-not-B error because their concept of object permanence is more complete.

    Researchers have found, however, that the A-not-B error does not show up consistently (Sophian, 1985). The evidence indicates that A-not-B errors are sensitive to the delay between hiding the object at B and the infant’s attempt to find it (Diamond, 1985). Thus, the A-not-B error might be due to a failure in memory. Another explanation is that infants tend to repeat a previous motor behavior (Clearfield & others, 2006; Smith, 1999).

    References and Attributions

    1. Children’s Development by Ana R. Leon is licensed under CC BY 4.0
    2. Children’s Development by Ana R. Leon is licensed under CC BY 4.0