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Child development: Piaget

2015 July 16
by nannyjob

Jean Piaget (1896-1902) focused on a child’s cognitive development and was the first psychologist to study cognitive development closely. He used the term Schema to explain how a child learns to understand the world around them. What a child does influences how they think about the world, and the new information they gain from redoing the activity changes how they think, modifying or extending the schema. Development is a process of reorganising these schemas and allowing a child to progress to the next stage of development.

When a child is in a state of equilibrium their schemata can explain the world around them. Children have to have assimilate, or gather, information about the world to explain what is happening around them according to their existing schemata. As they experience new things they cannot explain using their existing schemata Piaget felt they were in disequilibrium and needed to modify their schemata to create equilibrium, a leap in development. The process of modifying schemata and finding equilibrium is called accommodation.

Piaget thought that children undergo 4 universal stages of development in the same sequence and that they think differently to adults. The pace that children move through the stages differs but stages cannot be skipped.


The first stage takes place between birth and 2 years of age. Children learn ‘object permanence’ – that something exists even when it cannot be seen.


The second stage is from around 2 years old until approximately 7 years old. Children start to think in terms of symbols rather than what is in front of them. They understand concepts such as imagining, the past and the future but cannot think logically and remain egocentric.

Concrete Operational

The third stage starts about 7 years old and lasts until around 11 years old. Children start to show that they can reason logically but cannot yet think in abstract terms. They take more interest in what is happening outside their own small sphere of influence and develop an awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, and that their own thoughts and feelings are unique to them.

Formal Operational

This stage starts in adolescence, but Piaget hypothesised that not all children would reach this stage. Adolescents show logical and abstract thinking by making, testing and discarding hypotheses, and start to understand relationships and abstract concepts.

How can Piaget be applied today?

Piaget’s idea of schemas can help us understand why children need to have a wide range of experiences in order to develop and make sense of the world. Even if the stages aren’t real and development is a smoother process it is clear that children move along in the same way and need to acquire fundamental concrete concepts before moving on to consider abstract ideas.

This is part of a series of blog posts on child development. You can find other posts using the child development tag or here: Freud, Gesell, Erik Erikson, Bowlby.

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