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Analysis of Cognitive Development in Children: Jean Piaget's Theory

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Cognitive development is concerned with the stages of human development, which encompasses memory, rationale and the ability of making choices (Ahmad, Hussain, Battool, Sittar & Malik, 2016, 72). According to the cognitive development theory, developed by Jean Piaget, children experience various levels of cognitive awareness of their environment, and each child is developing at their own pace (Lefa, 2014, p.1). In other words, children form an understanding of what is known to them and anything out of the extraordinary from that familiar environment becomes new knowledge, which they apply to what is already known. However, since the development of Piaget’s theory in 1936 (McLeod, 2018), several researchers had expressed their critique on Piaget’s theory (Barrouillet, 2015, p.2). In order to understand cognitive development in children, this paper intent to evaluate Jean Piaget’s cognitive theory and to build and argument on the relevancy of Piaget’s cognitive development theory in the 21st century.

Jean Piaget’s theory

Jean Piaget’s theory is that of learning, and his theory is based on a child’s understanding of the world. Piaget argued that children had limited knowledge and as they grow older they broaden their knowledge span, in order to understand and to make rational decisions (Mcleod 2018). Piaget’s theory identified the four phases of children’s cognitive development:

Stage 1: Sensorimotor (0 to 2 years old)

The sensorimotor phase is considered as the process where children learn to quickly become with familiar with their environment (Mcleod, 2019). They start to recognize sound, faces and objects. According to Mcleod (2019), Piaget’s cognitive development theory break down the sensorimotor stage into sub divisions:

  • Reflex acts birth to 1 month

During this stage the infant is becoming attentive of its environment by responding to feeding, touching, hearing sound and looking around (Cherry, 2019).

  • Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months)

The infant is enjoying certain activities. Both Cherry (2019) ad Mcleod (2019) agrees that the infant finds it pleasing to suck their thumb and will repeat such behavior, in addition to kicking their legs or moving their fingers.

  • Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months)

The infant become increasingly aware of its surroundings. At this stage, the infant is choosing toys or objects to put in their mouth (Cherry, 2019), or they might play with a toy rattle to listen to the sound and amusement (Mcleod 2019).

  • Coordinating secondary schemes (8-12 months)

This stage demonstrates the infant’s ability to achieve a particular objective. Mcleod (2019) use the rattle as an example, and explains that the infant will use the skills gained in an attempt to reach the rattle using their own abilities.

  • Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months)

The infant makes use of sounds to get attention (Cherry, 2019). In addition, the infant is showing interest in building toys or will search for their favorite toy.

  • Early Representational thought (18-24 months)

Vocabulary is expanding and the infant recognizes certain objects and would point it out, as well as playing with imaginary friends (Cherry, 2019).

The next stage in cognitive development is the preoperational phase.

Stage 2: Preoperational (2 to 7)

According to Cherry (2019) the child continues to expand their vocabulary. However, new activities such as role play and imitating people are becoming an interest. The child is playing games where they would take on the mom or dad role or doctor, fireman etcetera. Furthermore, the child would use objects around the house that represents animals. Here, Cherry (2019) mention the example of a broom, and the child would pretend that it is a horse.

Mcleod (2018) highlights the following characteristics during the preoperational process. This include the following:

  • Centration

The child’s attention span is only on one activity. During this time, the child oblivious of the change in the environment around him/herself. The child is switching off from the real world and it is difficult to socially interact with the child when in the centration phase.

  • Egocentrism

Piaget’s egocentrism is influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theory (Kesselring & Müller, 2011, p. 328). The child become only aware of him/herself and, the child’s opinion is all that matters, thus showing a refusal of taking other’s opinions into account. Kesselring & Müller (2011, p. 329) argues that such behavior is common in autism.

  • Play

Mcleod (2018) points out that during play, the child shows some form of interaction with other children, although not playing with other children, but rather on the side, although other children is still around.

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  • Symbolic representation

Children is using non-verbal speech techniques when playing (Wu, 2013, p. 11)

  • Pretend play

Mcleod (2018) argues that the child become more socially interactive with other children and no longer in the self-awareness state. The child will play pretend games where they are for example a policeman or a superhero.

  • Animism

During the animism phase the child believes that objects such as toys have human feelings. Slee, Campbell and Spears (2012, p. 273) illustrates the four forms of animism as described by Piaget.

  • 4-5 years’ old

The child is under the impression that all objects are alive. For example, when the child gets injured, the child will blame ‘naughty’ the object.

  • 5-7 years’ old

The child view only objects that show some movement as something that has a function. Examples includes the wind blowing and it makes the trees move.

  • 7-9 years’ old

The child is making a distinction between, which is alive and not alive. In this case the movement of vehicles although its moving, the child recognizes as not alive.

  • 9-12 years’ old

The child forms an understanding that plants and animals are alive.

  • Artificialism

The child believes that natural occurrences is created by people (Mcleod, 2018).

  • Irreversibility

The child’s cognitive abilities are still limited. Thus, the child finds it difficult to understand that a particular sequence is reversible (Mcleod, 2019).

Stage 3: Concrete operations (7-11)

This is the stage identified by Piaget where the child learns to reason. Furthermore, while the previous stages, the child had difficulties to understand their environment, at this stage the child is utilizing his/her cognitive abilities. Cherry (2019) argues that the child has a better understanding of inductive reasoning, to recognize cause and effect, but that the child lacks deductive reasoning from general statements. Another change in the child’s cognitive ability is that in the preoperational process the child did not understand reversibility, the child is now grasping the concept of reversibility. Other distinguished cognitive features are that the child is no longer self-centered, and have learned the ability to acknowledge others’ needs.

The last stage of the brain development is the formal operations stage.

Stage 4: Formal operations stage (adolescence)

The final stage highlights higher ranking thinking skills. This is characterized by the ability to problem solve, critically think and to make decisions (Cherry 2019).

Piaget had managed to develop a theory, which understands human development. However, researchers had found several discrepancies in Piaget’s theory. Researchers had expressed concern on Piaget’s lack of explaining the methodology in his research. Piaget never indicated how he had selected his participants (Hopkins, 2011). Bond and Tryphon (2009, p.70) also mention Piaget’s unconventional method of collection data. They went as far as pointing out that Piaget mostly chatted with children and that some of the children supposed to be his research participants were in some cases his own children. In any research methodology is important, and you cannot base your findings on vague testing

Another shortcoming in Piaget’s theory is failure to recognized the intellectual skills of children (Slee, et al., 2012, p. 269; Hopkins, 2011). Vygotski differs from Piagets viewpoint and states that children learn skills through social interaction (Tudge & Winterhoff, 1993, p.62). A further area of critique is Piaget’s is artificialism in the Preoperational stage. According to Piaget, children see natural phenomena as something that is made by humans. Mcleod (2018) provide the cloud example. During the artificialism phases children believe that humans created the clouds. Thus, it is clear that Piaget is bringing his own believes into this theory (New World Encyclopedia, 2018).


The question remains, is Piaget’s theory relevant in the 21st century, when the lack of methodology is clearly visible in Piaget’s research. The answer remains yes. Piaget’s theory provides for a clear understanding of how the brain develops from infant to adolescent stages. In addition, the theory explains how children acquire information to make sense of their environment. Furthermore, Piaget’s theory is concerned with active learning. Thus, it can be argued that although Piaget’s theory plays a major role within the field of psychology. Above all, Piaget dominated the field on his studies of intellectual development of kids. Piaget delineated growth of kids from birth to adolescence. The idea of Piaget’s theory features the development of kids and he provides an outline the features of the cognitive development stages in the early ages. In addition, Piaget prompt that as kids pass through these stags they construct their information by interacting with their social surroundings. The acquired information encompasses expertise. Therefore, Piaget emphasized the importance of activities for adolescents, notably in an instructional scientific discipline. Piaget, brought a new methodology within the field of education, which is referred to as discovery learning. For example, children learn through actions, instead of observation. Thus, giving teachers a better understanding of how students learn. The contribution of Piaget’s cognitive development theory provides for a better understanding of the cognitive development of children.


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