If you were to observe children growing into their teenage years, you would notice their thinking and understanding develops over time. In this lesson, you will learn about the specific stages of mental growth in children and adolescents as outlined by Jean Piaget.
Preoperational Stage in Childhood
Childhood is a time for exploring the world and gaining some understanding of it. While infants stumble their way through new experiences and the use of their senses, children are at a place where they can attribute meaning and order to their surroundings. They start realizing how things work and operate. Perhaps no psychologist in history has explained the stages of childhood mental growth better than Jean Piaget. In another lesson, we looked at his stages of development during infancy. Today, we will be observing a little girl named Laura, who will show us Piaget's cognitive stages during childhood.
Laura is five years old. According to Piaget, she is going through a stage called preoperational, which occurs between the ages of two and seven. The defining characteristic of this stage is inquisitiveness and the use of mental representations for objects. There are two sub-stages within the preoperational stage that reflect these tendencies: symbolic function and intuitive thought.
Symbolic function refers to the use of mental representations for imagination and takes place between the ages of two and four. When Laura pretends she is having tea and holds her invisible tea cups, she is exhibiting symbolic function. Also present during this time span is what Piaget called egocentrism. This is the tendency to focus on oneself and to think only from one's own perspective. This means that if Laura has a friend over and she wants to play dolls, she thinks her friend does too, and she is not yet able to imagine how her friend may feel.
The second sub-stage, intuitive thought, refers to a growth in curiosity and basic reasoning. It takes place between the ages of four and seven. Laura has become fascinated and curious by the world. 'Daddy, why is the sky blue?' 'Mommy, why does our cat lick herself?' Laura asks her parents all sorts of questions every day. Piaget explained that in this stage, children are acquiring a great amount knowledge, but they don't yet know how to utilize it.
Concrete Operational Stage in Childhood
We've waited a few years before joining with Laura again. Now she is eight years old, and we're going to see how her development is coming along. According to Piaget, Laura is now going through the concrete operational stage, a time when children begin to think logically about objects and events. This takes place between the ages of seven and 11.
One of the ways they think logically is through conservation. This is the understanding that quantities don't change just because appearance is altered. For example, when Laura is served eight ounces of milk, she doesn't care what shape the glass is, because she knows there is still eight ounces of milk. Just a few years ago, however, she did not want her milk served in a short glass, because she thought there was less milk in it. On the other hand, she believed the tall glass had more than eight ounces. Now she realizes that the shape does not alter the quantity.
Another milestone for Laura is decentration. This is a way of considering matters from multiple perspectives, rather than just one. Laura's teacher gives her an exercise in class today that Piaget used to use with children. She shows her a few pictures of three mountains and asks her to imagine what the mountains look like for a person standing on the other side of them. This can be compared to guessing about another's perspective, and therefore shows a decrease in egocentrism.
Third, Laura is now exhibiting reversibility. This is the understanding that objects can be changed and then returned to their first state. For example, today when she goes to play basketball with her friends, she doesn't worry that the ball has gone flat. She knows that it can be changed back to a full ball, if she just inflates it again.
Formal Operational Stage in Adolescence
We've waited a few years again, and Laura has just turned 12. At the start of her adolescence, she is thinking in more complex ways than she did as a child. According to Piaget, she is now in the formal operational stage of development. This means that Laura's thinking has become more abstract and more detailed. She is then more able to solve problems and consider various ideas and perspectives. Laura will continue in this stage into adulthood.
Specifically, she can answer questions to hypothetical situations that her teacher brings up. She also enjoys her debate class, where she can anticipate how her peers will present their case before she plans how to share her own. Laura has a friend who her teachers think is lazy, but she knows comes from a difficult home life, and so she sees her situation as more complex. This illustrates the fact that Laura no longer thinks in black and white but recognizes there are shades of gray to situations.
When she walks around school, Laura feels very self-conscious at times, as if everyone were looking at her. The tendency toward egocentrism reappears, then, in adolescence, with regard to a focus on how one is viewed by others. Laura displays this happening as she often feels that her peers are an imaginary audience. An imaginary audience is a group of people that Laura feels are watching and critiquing her, even if they really are not. When her parents tell her they understand, she doesn't believe them and instead feels she is the only one in the world going through it. This belief is referred to as a personal fable, or the belief that one's situation is unique and not understood.
To review, there are major steps conquered in the cognitive development of children and adolescents. Within the preoperational stage, we have two sub-stages: symbolic function, which means children can use objects to represent others in pretend play, and intuitive thought, which means children are growing in curiosity and reason. Then we have the concrete operational stage: conservation, which means amounts remain the same even with changes in appearance; decentration, or the ability to think of multiple perspectives; and reversibility, or the understanding that matter can be reversed when it is changed.
The formal operational stage is taking place during adolescence, when teens think in more abstract and complex ways. They also become more focused on themselves and concerned about the viewpoints of others. Other people, then, are treated as an imaginary audience, or a group of people who observe and critique. This takes place while a teen feels he or she is living out of a personal fable, which means they feel misunderstood and unique.
Working through this lesson could enable you to:
- Detail aspects of Piaget's preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stages of development and identify the age ranges during which each occurs
- Write out the two sub-stages of the preoperational stage
- Explain the ways that children start to think logically during the concrete operational stage
- Provide the meanings of personal fable and imaginary audience