December 2022 Newsletter – Keeping Child Development in Mind During the Holidays: Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

One of the first characteristics to keep in mind when working with children is the stage of cognitive development they are in.  Jean Piaget provides some insight into this with his theory of cognitive development, in which he attempts to explain how children think, process information, and build their understanding of the world.  The first thing to remember is that the way children think is much different than how adults think. Children have different reasoning skills, which mature and become more complex as they age.

Beyond that, Piaget recognized 4 distinct stages of cognitive development that children move through as they age. The ages associated with each stage of development are generally when you would expect to see most children enter into a new stage. Every child approaches these stages at their own pace.

Creating appropriate expectations depends on one’s understanding of how different aspects of cognition develop.

Sensorimotor stage (birth-age 2) – In the first stage of cognitive development, infants and toddlers make sense of the world around them through their senses and body movements. Things to remember about this stage:

  • Children in this stage are only able to focus on the here and now.
  • Abstract concepts, such as time, are incomprehensible to the young brain.
  • At some point, they recognize themselves as separate from others.
  • They will imitate what they see others doing.
  • Around 8 months, the idea that something exists even when it cannot be seen emerges. This is called object permanence.
  • Closer to two years old, children begin to show signs of representational thinking – the idea that something can be used to represent something else. A banana can be a phone. A word represents a thought or object.

Preoperational stage (between ages 2-7) – In this second stage of cognitive development, children use more language and their imagination begins to develop. They learn to use more symbols to represent other things, which is apparent as they begin to draw and write letters.  Other things to keep in mind about this stage of development include:

  • Children are not yet able to employ logical thinking. Thinking is still focused on what children can see, meaning hypothetical scenarios are difficult for children in this stage to comprehend.
  • Children are still focused on the present moment. Understanding the concept of time is still not fully developed.
  • Piaget used the phrase egocentric to describe children of this age, not because they are intentionally being narcissistic, but because their limited experience prevents them from recognizing that other people have different points of view. This skill develops throughout this period as children develop what Piaget called theory of mind.
  • Children don’t yet understand conservation. This is the idea that two equal amounts of an object presented in different shapes are still equal.  Children will tend to choose the option that looks bigger or is in a container that looks fuller.

Concrete operational stage (between ages 7 -11) – Around the age of seven, children will begin to think in a more logical way about the concrete world around them.  Abstract concepts are still challenging for children of this age. Things to know about this stage of development:

  • Children are able to understand that other people have their own perspectives.
  • Children begin to understand the concept of time.
  • They understand that equal portions remain equal, even if the shape changes.
  • Understanding is enhanced when children use real materials. For example, children learning about fractions may use manipulatives to see the difference between ¼ and ½.

Formal operational stage (ages 12 and up) – Once a child reaches this stage of cognitive development, they are able to think in a more abstract way.  Here are some features of this stage of development:

  • Children can apply reason and logic to both concrete and abstract situations.
  • Children in this stage no longer need manipulatives to help them with mathematical concepts such as division or fractions.
  • Hypothetical thinking becomes more common.
  • Children grasp the concept of time and how it passes, allowing them to become better planners.

One of the biggest challenges during the holidays is the idea that a big event is going to happen in 2 weeks, 2 days, or 2 hours.  The idea of time and how it passes is challenging for most young children.  Pair that with general impatience and anticipation and you can see why children might struggle during this time of year. Understanding this information can also help adults choose appropriate toys and games for children.


For the main article Keeping Child Development in Mind During the Holidays, CLICK HERE

For the article Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development, CLICK HERE

For the article Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, CLICK HERE

For the article Executive Functions, CLICK HERE