Jean Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

Jean Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development that described and explained the changes in logical thinking of children and adolescents. Within that theory, he identified four stages of cognitive development through which all learners must proceed. This lesson will introduce you to and differentiate between those stages.


Mark, a two-year-old, and Ally, an eight-year-old, are sitting at the table waiting for a snack. Their mom presents them each with a cup of juice, the same amount in each cup. Mark begins to cry and point, saying 'You gave her more.' Mark's mom tries to reason with the young child, explaining that the same amount of juice is in each cup, but he is insistent that he is being treated unfairly. What is happening in this situation? In this lesson, we will learn about the stages of cognitive development while watching Mark proceed through infancy to adolescence.

Piaget studied how cognitive development progressed in children and adolescents
Jean Piaget Image

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget proposed stages of cognitive development through which children and adolescents proceed based on maturation and experience. They are: sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operations and formal operations.

Sensorimotor Intelligence and Preoperational Thinking

The first two sequential stages deal with the cognitive development of infants and young children. They are sensorimotor intelligence and preoperational (prelogical) intelligence.

The sensorimotor intelligence stage occurs from birth to approximately 1-2 years. In the child's first year, the processes of intelligence are both presymbolic and preverbal. For the infant, the meaning of an object involves what can be done with it. These actions include pushing, opening, pulling, closing and so forth. In the second year of life, the young child develops the identity of his or her own body and others in time and space. The infant develops action schemes, such as reaching for an object or grasping something or pulling it towards them. At this stage of development, Mark can pull a string to reach the object at the end of it. He can pull a blanket to get an out-of-reach toy and so on. Another example is Mark putting objects into his mouth to determine the shape and structure. This is something that many infants and young toddlers do.

Our next stage is preoperational thinking. This occurs from around 2-3 years to approximately 7 years of age. Partially logical thinking or thought begins during these years. For example, the child recognizes that water poured from one container to another is the same water. However, the child reasons only from one specific item of information to another and makes decisions based on perceptual cues. Preoperational thinking can and usually is illogical. For example, Mark, based on his perceptions, thought that the taller, slender glass had more juice in it than the shorter, wider glass that he received. In other words, perceptual cues, such as the height of the juice in the glass, dominate the child's judgment. Also, children in this stage have difficulty accepting another person's perspective or point of view. Piaget referred to this as egocentrism.

Perceptual cues, which can be illogical, are dominant factors in preoperational thinking
Preoperational Thinking Glasses Example

Concrete Operational and Formal Operational Thinking

The basic units of logical thinking are particular kinds of cognitive activity that Piaget referred to as operations. The two levels of logical thinking identified by Piaget are concrete operational and formal operational thinking.

The concrete operational stage occurs from around 7-8 years of age to 12-14 or older. Concrete operational thinking is linked to the direct manipulation of objects. It involves situations that require an understanding of simultaneous changes in multiple characteristics of objects. An example is flattening a ball of clay into a hot dog shape - as the shape becomes longer, it also becomes thinner.

The child at the level of concrete operational thinking can demonstrate the following:

  1. A transformation in one feature or characteristic of a situation is exactly balanced by a transformation in another characteristic.
  2. The essential nature of the object or data remains consistent.
  3. The transformation in the object can be returned to the original form by an opposite or inverse action.

Let's discuss these more specifically and put some terms in. The capability of recognizing the unchanging characteristic of an object is referred to as conservation. The child can demonstrate conservation by returning the object to its original form or organization. For example, Mark has a ball of clay. It's first in a ball shape. He can flatten it out. He understands now that the same amount of clay exists whether it's in the ball form or the flat form. This is conservation.

Recognizing that the amount of clay is the same in the ball shape or flattened out is conservation
Concrete Operational Stage Clay Example

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