Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development Explained

Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is studied in the field of psychology and neuroscience. It focuses on the development of various cognitive processes, such as thinking, learning, and processing. In your classroom, you must have seen that not every child got the first rank because every child has their own learning abilities and has different cognitive skills. The process of cognitive development in children was explained in a well-organized and systematic way by the renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget was deeply focused on knowing that why children of different age groups make different kinds of errors while solving similar problems. He believed that children made different errors because children’s thinking abilities are different from that of adults due to their cognitive developments. Piaget’s study had a great impact on the early education of children, and his study inspired many other psychologists to work in the areas of cognitive development.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget is known for his works in the field of cognitive development of children. He was born in Switzerland on 9 August 1896, and he died on 16 September 1980. His father, Arthur Piaget, was a medieval literature professor at the “University of Neuchâtel.” Jean Piaget was a child psychology professor at Geneva University until 1929, and then he became the director of studies at the Jean Jacques Rousseau Institute, Switzerland. Piaget did his schooling at Neuchâtel Latin high school, and he had a great interest in biology. At the age of 11, he published his first ‘paper’ (consisting of a summary of sixty scientific books and hundreds of articles) on the ‘albino sparrow.’ He further pursued his studies in biology, and in 1918, he received his doctorate for his work on a thesis related to mollusks. Earlier, he was trained in natural science and interested in epistemology that eventually developed his interest in the study of cognitive development. He was fascinated by the development of the children’s knowledge and how children learn about what is wrong and what is right. To develop his theory of cognitive development, he started observing the behavior of children including his own children (Jaqueline, Lucienne, and Laurent). In fact, many of his intelligence and language development theories are the results of his deep observations on his own children, from their infancy to adolescence. After deeply observing the children’s behavior, he divided the stages of cognitive development into four stages, i.e., Sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage, these are discussed below in this article. Jean Piaget’s other publications have also received great attention that includes “The origins of intelligence (1952),” “The child’s conception of physical causality (1927),” and “The moral judgment of the child (1932).”

Key Concepts of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

Jean Piaget introduced some important concepts and ideas in his theory of cognitive development. These concepts help to understand the learning and growth process of the children and give a deep insight into their cognitive developments.


The term schema was first used by Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, in his learning theory, but it became popular due to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. A schema is a structure of cognitive concepts that helps us organize and interpret a vast amount of information by relating it with the previously stored information or knowledge, or simply, we can say that a schema is our background knowledge or experiences about a particular concept or event. According to Piaget, schemas can be modified or changed as we encounter various new things in our everyday life, so our experiences changes, and the newly gathered information adds up into the previously stored information, which modifies or changes the existing schemas. For example, when a child encounters an animal for the first time, say a dog, he develops a schema that an animal (dog) has four legs and one tail, but when he/she encounters a cow and observes and gathers new information like the shape and size of the cow, and how it looks different than the dog, the previously existing ‘animal schema’ of the child gets modified, and the child labels it as “cow” rather than a “dog.” Schemas are very useful for learning new concepts as they make it easier to interpret the new information. There exist various types of schemas, such as person schemas, object schemas, social schemes, event schemas, and self-schemas.

Schemas in Psychology


Assimilation is defined as the cognitive process of interpreting new information by relating it with the already present schemas. Whenever you encounter any new information, you observe, process, and interpret this new piece of information according to the previously stored schemas in your brain. For example, in the above example, seeing a cow and labeling it under the animal schema is an assimilation process as a child has a previously-stored schema that an animal has four legs and one tail; however, the process of assimilation is subjective as every child has their own way of learning new things, which is based on their previous learnings.


Accommodation is defined as the process of modifying the schemas on encounter with the new information, it is different from assimilation in the fact that the schemas are modified according to the newly gathered information instead of the pre-existing knowledge. Accommodation means that a child looks at the situation from a broader perspective instead of just relating it to their existing beliefs. For example, imagine your best friend who has always been kind, helpful, and polite to you, and then one day, you see your best friend trying to spoil your painting, how would you interpret this new behavior of your best friend? If you interpret this by using the assimilation process, then you might ignore your best friend’s new behavior and will still consider her as your best friend; however, if you interpret this by using the accommodation process, you may come out with a different attribute for your friend, and there are possibilities that he/she may not remain your best friend. So, assimilation and accommodation are two different ways of interpreting the new information.

Understanding Assimilation and Accommodation Processes


According to the cognitive development theory of Piaget, the learning processes of the children involve maintaining the balance between the process of assimilation and the process of accommodation, and this balancing mechanism is known as equilibration. Both assimilation and accommodation are important parts of the learning process because some kind of information is added to our pre-existing schemas through the assimilation process, while other kinds of information change our pre-existing schemas or develop new schemas through the accommodation processes, a good balance between the assimilation and accommodation helps the children improve their thinking pattern and understand any new information or event in a good way. The learning process of children involves that they try to learn or interpret new information by relating it to the existing information (assimilation), and if some information doesn’t relate to their pre-existing information, they make some changes to their pre-existing schemas to fit in the new information (accommodation), and finally, they adjust or change the existing schemas to understand the new information (equilibration). Equilibration is the main factor that describes the difference in the learning abilities of children.

Assimilation, Accommodation, and Equilibration Processes in Piaget's Theory

Four Stages of Cognitive Development

According to Jean Piaget, children understand things differently from adults not because they know less than adults; it’s just because their way of thinking about a particular task or event is different from adults. While investigating the children’s cognitive levels, Piaget observed that at certain points in a child’s life, the assimilation process takes precedence, while at other times, both accommodation and equilibration take precedence, and these levels of domination of various processes at different stages of life are almost similar with every child. Piaget believed that the thinking and reasoning abilities were different at different stages of their lives and divided cognitive development into four stages. According to his theory, every child passes through the sequence of these four stages and accomplishes cognitive tasks related to each stage, and then the child enters into the next stage of cognitive development. Let us discuss each stage in detail.

Jean Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

1. Sensorimotor Stage (Birth-2 years)

Sensorimotor is the first stage of cognitive development, it starts from the birth of the child and lasts for about two years. As the name of this stage suggests, infants and toddlers use their senses to understand their surroundings. In the sensorimotor stage, the child acquires experience or knowledge through their reflexes, motor abilities, or other sensorimotor skills. The cognitive development during this stage occurs for a short period of time, but the growth and learning during this stage are very sudden. Object permanence (The ability of the child to understand that objects still exist even if they are not directly seen or heard) is an important cognitive development that is achieved during this stage. This stage is divided into the following sub-stages.


Every child is born with the abilities of inborn reflexes like suckling, looking, and hearing. It involves responding to certain voices and looking towards them, opening of the mouth, looking towards colorful items, and closing the hand when you touch their palm. This stage lasts for around 0-1 month.

Reflexes in Sensorimotor Stage of Piaget's Theory

Primary Circular Reactions

In this period, the child works on their own actions, which act as stimuli to them, and they repeatedly respond to these actions. For example, when they suck their thumbs, it feels good to them, and they repeat this action again and again. This stage lasts for around 1-4 months.

Primary Circular Reactions Stage in Piaget's theory

Secondary Circular Reactions

In this stage, the child starts to focus on their surrounding world and starts repeating actions that bring changes to their surroundings. For example, when the child squeezes a toy that makes a sound, the child feels amused listening to that sound, and he/she will squeeze the toy repeatedly. Turning the lights on and off, again and again, is also a secondary circular reaction. During this period, the vision-prehension (to grasp) coordination improves, and the child voluntarily starts grasping objects. This stage lasts for around 4-8 months.

Coordination of Secondary Reactions

This stage primarily involves the development of eye-hand coordination. According to Piaget, this is a very important stage of cognitive development, he called this stage “First Proper Intelligence” because, during this period, the child starts planning the steps to meet some objectives, i.e., goal orientation begins. For example, they try to reach towards their toys or food. Another milestone of cognitive development, i.e., object permanence is achieved in this period, If you hide their toy from their sight, they won’t think that their particular toy does not exist, instead, they may try to find their lost toy. This stage lasts for around 8 to 12 months.

Development of Object Permanence in Sensorimotor Stage

Tertiary Circular Reactions

In this period, the child attempts to achieve their objectives, and he tries, again and again, to achieve it, even after committing mistakes. For example, if the child wants his favorite toy that is placed above the table, but he/she can’t reach it, the child tries to throw some things on that toy so that the toy falls from the table, and he/she can finally play with that. Piaget describes children at this stage as “young scientists” as they conduct pseudo-experiments to achieve their goals through different methods. During this stage, children enjoy listening to or making different sounds like hitting tabla and throwing utensils. This stage lasts for about 12 to 24 months.

Tertiary Circular Reactions Stage in Piaget's Theory

Early Representational Thoughts

This stage marks the end of the sensorimotor stage and the beginning of the proportional stage, and it lasts for around 18 to 24 months. During this period, the child can retain the images of the particular person or thing in their mind for a longer period of time after the encounter with that person or the thing. Development of the mental representation is largely observed in this period, and the child starts using various mental combinations to solve basic problems. For example, putting the food plate down to open the door. The child also learns to imitate and pretend in this stage.

2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

Preoperational Stage in Piaget's Theory

The preoperational stage begins around the age of 2 years and lasts up to around 7 years. During this stage, the children learn to speak. They learn to represent the objects using words and images and start thinking symbolically (symbolic thinking is the ability of the child to think about the events or objects that are not present in their surrounding environment). The children start understanding the events of past and future, for example, if the mother is going to the office, then the child starts crying as he/she remembers that the mother will come late, the child stays away from heights as he remembers that he fell down from the table. In the preoperational stage, children find it difficult to understand others’ points of view, and egocentrism is observed in them as they do not understand the perspective of others and see things from his/her own point of view, and they start thinking that they are always right. During this period, children do not fully understand the concepts of logic, and they often struggle to understand the mentally manipulated information and the idea of constancy. For example, if the researcher pours an equal quantity of water in two glasses of the same capacities, and one glass is taller than the other, and he/she asks the child to choose one glass. The preoperational child is more likely to choose the taller glass because the child thinks that it has more water than the other glass, though the quantity of water in both glasses is the same.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

This image shows that the Preoperational child thinks that the taller glass has more water than the wider glass. However, the quantity of water is the same in both glasses.

During this stage, children are often seen indulging in the activities of dramatic plays and symbolic games, this mainly involves manipulating the symbols such as papers as plates, a cardboard box as a table, and a banana as a mobile. All these activities of children may be considered absurd to general people, and they may term children’s activities unrealistic; however, according to children, all their activities are realistic, and they consider a paper still as a paper and not a plate. During this stage, they think about the events from two perspectives, i.e., imaginative as well as realistically, which represents the development of metacognition; it refers to the ability of an individual to be aware of their cognitive processes and the patterns behind their thoughts.

3. Concrete Operations Stage (7-12 years)

This stage begins around the age of 7 and lasts up to around 12 years of age. The term ‘operations’ in the concrete operations stage refers to the development of various logical operations to solve problems. The child learns to manipulate various symbols by using logic. During this period, children start observing things or events in a more flexible and logical way. They start following some basic rules unconsciously. For example, the child now understands that the amount of things remains the same if we do not add or remove anything from it, which enables them to do simple arithmetical calculations like subtraction and additions. At the end of this period, their ability to understand various mental operations increases, but they struggle to understand hypothetical things and abstract concepts, and as per adults’ standards, their logical skills are still basic during this period. The egocentrism that is mainly found in the preoperational stage starts disappearing during this stage as children become conscious that their actions may affect other people’s views towards them. The main qualities that develop during this period in the children are discussed below.

Concrete Operations Stage in Piaget's Theory


The concrete operational children are good at inductive logical thinking; inductive logic involves making out a generalized principle or rule about any concept or event from a specific observation or experience, i.e., some specific conclusions are drawn from the broad data. For example, “Henry is a professor. Henry has grey hair. Therefore, all professors are grey-haired.” Although all the statements are true, the conclusion is not necessarily true in inductive logic.


Another important feature that children now understand is that some qualities of certain objects do not change upon altering that objects in some way. For example, a paper does not change its identity if we tear that into different pieces, it will still remain a paper.


Children during this period start demonstrating the skills of organizing different items in a methodical way according to their length, width, shape, size, or color. If the researcher gives the child at the concrete operations stage of development marbles of different colors and asks them to arrange them and put them in the jar, then the children are more likely to add the same colored marbles in one jar.

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In this period, the development of the conservation process is observed in the children; conservation means that children understand that the quantity of the object or liquid remains the same even if their appearance has been changed. As we discussed in the above example that a preoperational child fails to understand that both the taller glass and the broader glass have the same amount of juice, but the concrete operations child can easily understand that both the glasses have an equal amount of juice.


During the concrete operations stage, the child shows an important development in understanding the reversibility process, i.e., they now recognize that it is possible to regain the original condition of some objects after it has been changed. For example, if the favorite football of the child gets deflated, then the child understands that its original shape can be regained by filling air into it. Another example of the reversibility process is that if the mother pours the milk into the glass from the bottle and gives it to the preoperational child, then the child will think that the milk in the glass is not the same as it was in the bottle, and he/she may cry to get the milk in the bottle. However, the concrete operational child understands the reversibility, and he/she knows that the milk remains unchanged if it is poured into the glass from the bottle. They also use reversibility in basic mathematical operations such as if we add 3 to 7, then the result would be 10, and we can again get 7,  if we subtract 3 from 10, i.e., 7+3=10, and 10-3=7.

4. Formal Operational Stage (12 years to adulthood)

The formal operational stage is the last stage of Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory. It starts from around 12 years of age and lasts up to adolescence. It is called formal operations because the children can now “operate” (think) about various representations or “forms,” i.e., the abstract and hypothetical thinking of the child develops at this stage. The improved hypothetical thinking helps them understand the experiments and concepts related to science and mathematics. Children, at this stage, start thinking about various philosophical, moral, social, and ethical concepts that require abstract reasoning. Let’s discuss some important qualities that develop in children during this stage.

Formal Operational Stage in Piaget's Cognitive Theory


During this period, the development of deductive logic is observed in children; deductive logic involves deducing a specific conclusion from a hypothesis or a generalized principle. Let’s understand it with an argument, “All grey-haired men are professors. Harry is a grey-haired man. Therefore, Harry is a professor.” The deductive conclusion will be logical and true if the statements are true.

Abstract Thinking

The development of abstract thinking is observed during this period, children begin to think about every situation not only from their past experiences but also from different perspectives like causes and consequences of the situation, and other possible outcomes. Counterfactual thinking is observed at this stage that mainly involves thinking about “what-if” situations. For example, “what if aliens landed on earth?” or “what if humans can fly like birds in the sky?” Piaget conducted a study called “Third eye problem, in this study, children of different age groups were asked if they have an extra eye then where they would like to put that eye? In response, children belonging to the concrete operations stage said that they would like to place the third eye on their forehead, but the children belonging to the formal operational stage said that it will be more useful to place the third eye on the hand as it will give the wider view in every direction.

Problem Solving Approach

The problem solving skills of the children are highly developed during this stage. The children become able to do complex tasks and systematic planning. Piaget had designed various tests to study the thinking of children during the formal operations stage, and one of the main tests was a ‘Pendulum task (Piaget & Bärbel Inheldar, 1958).’ In this experiment, the children were asked to determine what factor is more responsible for the speed of the swing of the pendulum; Is it the length of the string, the weight suspended to the string, or the strength with which the string is pulled? Participants were asked to solve this problem in their minds rather than calculating it in the notebook. To solve this mentally, the participants had to imagine all three-factors (length of string, suspended weight, the strength of the push) individually while considering other factors constant. Formal operations children were able to solve this mentally, which proved their ability to solve complex experimental situations by manipulating various outcomes or variables mentally.

Piaget's Pendulum Problem

Influence of Piaget’s Theory in Educational Sector

Jean Piaget never related his cognitive theory with the education of the children, but researchers studied this theory and explained that some features of Piaget’s theory are very useful in improving the teaching and learning in schools. In fact, Piaget’s theory played a crucial role in developing various educational policies. For example, in 1996, the famous publication “Plowden report” related to the primary education system; a study conducted by the UK government was strongly based on the concepts of Piaget’s theory. One of the important features of Jean Piaget’s study that is very helpful in the educational sector is that children learn better if they actively explore and do experiments on their own rather than just reading the theory about concepts, this idea transformed the curriculum of primary schools in the UK and boosted the idea of ‘discovery learning’ among children.

Influence of Piaget's Theory in Educational Sector

Berk (2001) outlined the important teaching implications that are drawn from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. These are briefly discussed below.

  • The teacher should always focus on the thinking process of the children that how the child has derived the conclusions of the problem, rather than just checking the validity of the answer. The thinking pattern of the child helps the teacher understand the level of cognitive skills of the child, and he/she can vary their teaching style as per their cognitive levels of learning.
  • The children should be encouraged to participate in various educational activities and discover new concepts and knowledge by interacting with the environment, instead of mugging up the theoretical concepts. The children understand better if they practically learn new concepts or ideas.
  • Teachers should de-emphasize the concept of forcing children to think like adults. Piaget said that there were adverse impacts on children of teaching them the concepts that they were not ready (cognitive developed) to understand.
  • Teachers should understand that every child is unique and have different levels of cognitive skills. The performance of the children should never be compared with the other peers belonging to the same age group, instead, their development should be analyzed from their own previous records.

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