What does it mean?
Psychologist Jean Piaget first described young children as having a unique set of physical, cognitive, social and emotional attributes that differentiates them from any other age group. He described the constructivist theory-that children construct knowledge out of their exploratory actions on the environment. This theory forms the basis of the modern interactive, hands-on approach to learning.
Piaget also described how children’s thinking changed over time. By observing children’s behavior, he noted four distinct stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.
Why is it important?
Young children think differently than adults. Because of this, we have difficulty interpreting their actions, emotions and reactions. They have little concept of the past, present and future; they confuse reality with fantasy; they think that everyone feels, thinks and acts like they do. It is essential for us to understand not only how young children think but why they thin what they do and change our methods accordingly.
Piaget’s Four Stages of Development
According to this concept, there are four stages of cognitive development.
Babies and toddlers, birth to two
- Babies are a bundle of reflexes.
- Very little intention to their movements.
- Rely on adults and environment for stimulation.
- Cannot think of an object when it is out of sight.
- Increasing awareness of relations between own actions, objects and environment.
- Major milestone is object permanence-holding an image or event in memory.
Preschoolers, two to six
- Little knowledge of cause and effect.
- Difficulty taking another’s point of view.
- Think inanimate objects have human feelings.
- Cannot understand that something remains the same even though it changes form. For example, a peanut butter sandwich cut into four pieces is more than one cut into two pieces.
- Lack logical thought. For example, a child might think that the moon follows him wherever he goes.
- Major milestones is the emergence of logical thought-thinking is no longer limited by perception
Concrete Operational Stage
School age, six to eleven
- Begin to think more logically.
- Begin to reason and understand abstract concepts.
- Understand moral concepts of rules, intentionality and justice.
- Major milestone of this stage is the mastery of logical thought.
Formal Operational Stage
Adolescents, twelve to nineteen
- Can reason about the past, present and future.
- Can think about their own thoughts and feelings as if they were objects.
- Major milestone is the development of hypothetical and deductive reasoning abilities.
Want to know more:
Miller, Karen. 2001 Ages and Stages: Developmental Descriptions and Activities, Birth though Eight Years. Beltsville, MD: Telshare Publishing.
Used with Permission:
Oltman, M. Editor. 2002. Natural Wonders. A Guide to Early Childhood for Environmental Educators. Minnesota Early Childhood Environmental Education Consortium.