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Jean Piaget and Child Development

W. J. Rayment / -- Before Jean Piaget there was no body of theory on how intelligence develops in the progression from birth to adulthood. It was Jean Piaget who first worked this out. Piaget was born in Switzerland (Neuchatel) in 1896. He was a very intelligent child and had the advantage of a good education. His first love was biology where he studied mollusks. He had also dabbled quite deeply into philosophy, but found that strict deductive reasoning was insufficient to explain human development. For this he turned to a new field called...psychology.

Piaget was one of the first psychologists to apply the scientific method to his work. Previous work by Freud and others had relied on case studies, but Piaget actually performed experiments that employed measurable criteria and attempted to limit the variables.

In the course of his studies, he developed a theory about childhood development that still greatly influences behavioral psychologists and educators today. Beginning with infants he noticed a certain type of behavior that revealed something about the way children explore the world. He pegged specific skills to specific age groups and called them "schemas". The first level (0-2 year-olds) he called The Sensorimotor Stage. The child seems born with what he called "primary circular reactions", this does not imply that the babies actions move in a circle, rather the actions are self-reinforcing. The baby sucks its thumb and likes it, so it sucks its thumb again.

At about four months the baby begins to extend this reaction to outside stimuli. Instead of being attracted only to its self, it becomes attracted to toys and other objects, performing actions on these objects repeatedly to achieve the same reaction. It is at this stage too that they begin to understand that out of sight does not mean out of existence. This concept is called object permanence.

After going through several stages of circular reactions that extend farther and farther out, babies, by the age of 18 months begin to develop something called "mental representation", which is the ability to hold images in the mind longer than for a few moments and even to act on these short term memories.

At the age of two, the child enters what Piaget called the Preoperational Stage. This stage usually lasts until about age seven. Since a child can now pretend and remember, it can now begin to understand symbols more complex than simple words. It picks up these symbols and uses them to communicate and to play. Pretending now becomes easy for the child, but he or she tends to be extremely self-centered. A child in this stage may not understand, for example, that he can be seen when he has his eyes closed. He thinks because he is in the dark that everyone else must be too!

Getting away from this self-centered view marks a move to the next stage, Concrete Operations Stage. This stage generally begins at about seven years of age and ends at about 11. The child advances in his or her ability to use symbols, especially in a logical way. Mathematics becomes easier, but such concepts are used in a "concrete" way. Numbers are understood as applying directly to things, fingers, blocks, or lines scratched on a paper. Concrete problems can be tackled and successfully understood. "Conservation", the notion that even though an object changes it still has the same mass, becomes progressively seen as a reality. For example, water dumped from a short glass to a tall thin glass is still the same volume even though the water level in the thin glass appears higher. Putting things in order (seriation) and classification abilities are also learned at this stage.

From age twelve or thirteen through adulthood we live in the Formal Operations Stage. This means doing abstract thinking and applying that thinking to the real world. It means experimentation and understanding that experiments can have broad applications. Anthropologists have discovered that not all cultures educate their children in a way that brings them to this stage. Also, not all people in our culture reach this stage of development for varying reasons.

It is well to note that child development comes in fits and starts, moves faster at some times and slower at others. Also, all children do not hit the same bench marks at the exact same time. If a child has not started to talk by the time he is two, this does not mean he will never talk or even that he will be behind by the time he gets to school. Psychology attempts to explain the most complex thing we know about, the human brain. It can hardly be an exact science in the particular, even though it can often get the general correct.

Yes, Piaget was a pioneer and his work is the foundation of child psychology today.


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