Jean Piaget

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Children’s Development: Focus on Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory


Understanding a child’s cognitive development is important for both parents and teachers since such understanding is critical for ensuring that the child’s academic, social and emotional needs are met. For instance, it is important to identify with why children do what they do in order to know how best to help them achieve their development goals. With a good understanding of a child’s cognitive development, it is possible to provide the child an environment that makes it possible for them to meet their different needs in regard to education and care. One of the theories that help in understanding the cognitive development of children is Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory. Here, we look at what the theory entails, how it relates to early childhood education and care, and what we can see in practice based on the theory.

Piaget’s cognitive development theory

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) offered some of the earliest groundbreaking insights into how children develop in regard to their ability to think (Coon & Mitterer,
2012, p. 123). He was of the view that children’s intellectual development occurs through a sequence of distinct stages. Many of Piaget’s thoughts emanated from making observations of his own children as they found solutions to different problems that required thinking. A brief summary of what Piaget found in his interactions with children is presented below.

Central to the cognitive development theory are the cognitive phases in development-sequential episodes in the growth of an individual’s capacity to think with regard to gaining knowledge, being aware of the self, and having an awareness of the environment around them (Slavin, 2005, p. 47).

Piaget was of the view that a child’s intellect develops through processes referred to as assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation denotes using existing mental patterns in new situations (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 97). For instance, let’s visualise a boy called Bernie who uses a plastic hammer, his favourite toy, to pound his blocks. When Bernie gets an oversized toy spanner on his birthday, he will most likely use the toy spanner to pound the blocks because this behaviour has been assimilated into an existing knowledge structure.

In regard to accommodation, existing ideas are adapted to fit new requirements (Coon & Mitterer, 2010, p. 97). For example, a girl called Alicia can realise that a book cover can be torn into small pieces to make ‘playing cards’.

Piaget’s cognitive development stages

Piaget came up with four key periods of cognitive development as:

  • The sensorimotor stage (birth ­– 2 years)

  • Preoperational stage (2 – 7 years)

  • Concrete operations stage (7 – 11 years)

  • Formal operations stage (11 – 12 years)

The table below illustrates the levels of development in each stage.

Table 1: The four stages of cognitive development


Sensorimotor (birth ­– 2 years)

Infants make use of their sensory and motor actions to discover and comprehend the world. Initially they have only innate reflexes, but later they develop more intelligent actions that enable them to create symbolic thoughts using word words or images and hence solve their problems mentally.

Preoperational stage (2 – 7 years)

Preschoolers make use of their capability for symbolic thought to create language, be involved in pretend play, and find solutions to problems. However, their thinking is yet to be logical; they are egocentric (not able to consider others’ perspectives) and can be easily deceived by emotions.

Concrete operations stage (7 – 11 years)

School-age children are able to solve practical problems through trial and error but face difficulty when it comes to abstract problems.

Formal operations stage (11 – 12 years)

Adolescents are able to think about abstract issues and try to find solutions.

Source: Sigelman & Rider (2012, p. 49) and Slavin (2005, p. 50)

How the theory relates to early childhood education and care

Our interest is primarily in how the theory of cognitive development relates to preschoolers. For instance, a parent would like to know why their child does what they do in school and how it relates to early childhood education and care. Based on Piaget’s theory, some of the signs of preoperational thinking that characterises preschoolers are as follows:

  • Children learn that words and objects can be symbols.

  • They learn through fantasy, dramatic and creative play

  • They view the world in a self-centred way

  • They find it difficult to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

  • They do not understand points of view and cannot reverse operations.

It is because of these characteristics of preschoolers that early children education teachers provide conditions that suit the child’s needs. For instance, they involve children in playing with materials such as sand, blocks, and water (Ojose, 2008, p. 27). Children are also taught to make sounds from different letters. They also sing and play, scribble, draw and paint to express their fantasy and creativity. Most importantly, one activity is introduced at a given point since preschoolers cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. The images below show some scenes of teachers interacting with preschoolers.

Jean Piaget

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Jean Piaget  1

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Where can we see the theory in practice in early childhood settings?

There are several instances in which we can visualise some aspects of Piaget’s theory in practice. For instance, because a child’s perception at the preschool age is restricted to one concept or dimension, the child will believe that a taller container is larger than a shorter one even if the two containers are of the same capacity. See figure 3.

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Figure 3: A child of age below 7 years will intuitively assume that a tall, narrow container is larger than a shorter, wider one – even if the two containers are of the same capacity – like in this image. The child makes judgement by basing on the height of the liquid, not the capacity.

Source: Coon & Mitterer (2012, p. 124)

Other examples of theory in practice are as follows:

  • Ojose, 2008, p. 27).Engaging in interactions or discussions with children can spur the children’s discovery of different ways of grouping objects, thus helping them to think about quantities and shapes (

  • p. 175). For example, see figure 4.Keenan, Evans & Crowley, 2016, Teachers use books that have pictorial illustrations. Since at the preschool stage children can link numbers to objects, the children benefit from seeing images of objects well as their respective numbers concurrently (

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Figure 4: Numbers and images of flowers



In summary, Piaget’s theory helps in understanding why children perform various acts at various stages of their lives. Understanding this behavior is important in ensuring that children have an environment that suits their cognitive development needs both at home and in school.


Coon, D., & Mitterer, J.O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behaviour (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Coon, D., & Mitterer, J.O. (2012). Psychology: Modules for active learning (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Keenan, T., Evans, S., & Crowley, K. (2016). An introduction to child development (3rd ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Ojose, B. (2008). Applying Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to mathematics instruction. The Mathematics Educator, 18(1), 26–30. Retrieved from

Sigelman, C.K., & Rider, E.A. (2012). Life-span human development (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Slavin, R. E. (2005). Educational psychology: Theory and practice (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Incorporated.