Matilda: Cognitive Development And Social Interaction

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Cognitive Theories in 'Matilda'
  2. Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory Applied to Matilda
  3. Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory: A Comparative Analysis
  4. Matilda's Early Life and Cognitive Advancement
  5. Telekinesis as a Symbol of Cognitive Development
  6. Educational Environment and Social Interaction at School

Introduction to Cognitive Theories in 'Matilda'

Matilda follows the young Matilda Wormwood on the journey that is her life. Matilda is not like other children; she has a gift of telekinesis. Almost all of the adults in Matilda’s life have been cruel and crude toward her. Miss Honey is the ray of life that shines on Matilda’s life. Matilda will be analyzed according to Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory and compared to that of Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development.

To understand the movie better, the discussion of Piaget and Vygotsky’s different theories will take place first. Piaget is the main theory on which we will focus; Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory is a product by which we will compare the movie, Matilda.

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Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory Applied to Matilda

According to Schultz and Schultz, Jean Piaget is a Swiss psychologist who initially worked with Theodore Simon and Alfred Binet. While these two helped develop the first mental ability psychology test, Piaget helped with the administration of the tests. He became interested in child development through the use of cognitive stages in a time where Freud was big and used psychosexual stages (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).

Piaget focused on several elements that are important to understand in order to comprehend his theory. Schemas are what can be considered stepping stones of knowledge. Schemata are stores of knowledge that develop as the child encounters new objects and situations that further their mental development; note that schemata never stop growing, as the stores build upon each other as one develops. (Wadsworth, 1996). According to Huitt and Hummel, schemata ultimately start off as being reflexive and then grow to become more controlled. Assimilation is basically using schemata in order to adapt to new situations; this is constantly happening in coordination with each other as people grow and experience new things. Accommodation is similar to assimilation but differs in the fact that the schemata are tweaked so that it fits with the new situation that occurs (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). Equilibration is the balance of mental processes and situations that are unfolding in the present moment (Grondhuis, 2019).

Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory has four major stages. The sensorimotor stage occurs from birth to two years old. During this time, the newborn situates themselves with the new world. They use their primal skills such as looking and grasping to do so. They use their senses and motor skills to gain experience of the surrounding environment. During this stage of development, children learn object permanence, mobility, and the use of symbolism. Object permanence is where the child still knows that just because they cannot see something, does not mean it goes away (Grondhuis, 2019). A great example of this is playing peekaboo with a young child. Without object permanence, the child thinks the person who is playing with them has disappeared. This is why a child acts very surprised when you uncover your face while playing; they thought you disappeared because they could not see you. Symbolism gained is that of when children use simple devices in play to be used as something else (Grondhuis, 2019). This can be seen as a child uses an ordinary stick and calls it a sword during play.

The preoperational stage occurs from age two to seven; this is around the preschool stage for children. During this time, symbolic capacity is increased, language use is increasing, and memory is also being developed. Symbolism is strengthened and as they grow, they learn more advanced ways and terms to symbolize. Playing “House” is an important aspect of symbolism during this time. During this time, children still are not able to perform some tasks, but they try to mentally do what they should be able to do in the physical sense (Grondhuis, 2019). Piaget also coined the term egocentrism which states that children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot understand the emotions of others (Grondhuis 2019). During the preoperational stage, children also do not understand the idea of centration and splitting things into two pieces, and the two pieces still equaling the big piece it just was. The child lacks conservation; they neglect one variable while focusing on another salient variable.

The third stage is the Concrete Operational Stage which takes place from seven to eleven years of age; this is the middle childhood period. During this stage, the child will develop concrete logic through the use of logical use of symbols (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). During this time, inductive reasoning is also being developed. An example would be that a child notices that every time they pet the neighbor’s dog they get itchy and develop a rash; the child might then associate that with them being allergic to the dog. Reversible thinking is another major concept developed during this time. A child may know that one plus two equals three, but with reversibility, they will know that three minus two equals one. The ability of decentration is gained, as the child is able to focus on multiple variables at a time rather than one salient variable ('Cognitive Development: Piaget Part II', 2019).

The fourth and final stage is that of the Formal Operational Stage which occurs around twelve years old and goes through adulthood. At this point, thinking is advanced and beyond that of just the concrete. Systematic and scientific problem-solving skills are gained (Grondhuis 2019). The child is also able to think abstractly and use deductive reasoning now. This is the age where the most knowledge is primarily gained for most people; the child is persuaded to think about and solve hypothetical questions and ponder what options there are for their futures. This is also a time where egocentrism reappears (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). During this age range, people have a heightened sense of self and tend to think they are way more unique than they actually are (Grondhuis, 2019). The main thing to note about this stage is that not all people will develop to the same state for this stage of operation; many do not go past the concrete operational stage (Wadsworth, 1996).

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory: A Comparative Analysis

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian developmental who shared similar views with Piaget. Vygotsky’s theory will be more so used as a device that would make the analysis of Matilda more in-depth. According to Vygotsky, children learned best through social interaction and communication Demirbaga also made known that mediated perception, focused attention, deliberate memory, and logical thinking utilize social interaction and learning. In the Vygotsky theory, the physical and social environment of the child is important in the growth and development process; this goes for home life and in the classroom setting (Demirbaga, 2018). Vygotsky also insisted that children may learn mannerisms from teachers, parents, and other figures of authority. Vygotsky, like Piaget, pinpointed that you never stop developing, and culture is a major factor in development (Grondhuis, 2019). Different cultures have access to different technologies and resources, so in one country someone may learn math by calculator while another country might learn on an abacus (Santrock, 2011).

Matilda's Early Life and Cognitive Advancement

Matilda begins with introducing the birth of Matilda. Right off the bat, we see the family dynamic that is of the Wormwoods. After Matilda’s birth, the Wormwoods are shown griping about the medical bill. Mr. Wormwood then puts Matilda in the back of their old car which is essentially just open trunk space. She slides around in the back in her car seat while her brother distracts her with a rattling toy. Matilda is taking in her surroundings and staring at the rattle as if she was investigating where the sound is coming from. Later on, throughout this stage we see her grasping an apple on her own which shows that she has an ability to use her simple reflexes. Matilda was an advanced child, as she spread her spinach baby food around the table and wrote her own name in it; she was utilizing her tertiary circular reactions because she knew that her actions would grasp the attention of her mother. During what was supposed to be her preoperational stage, Matilda had already progressed to the formal operational stage. Matilda had the mentality of a thirty-year-old; she knew how to take care of herself completely on her own. Vygotsky’s theory applies here because Vygotsky believed that the physical and social environment was essential to the growth and development process. Matilda had no access to a parent as being someone to show her the ropes and really help her develop; her social and physical environment was fairly restricted. This led to her advanced cognitive development because she was forced to learn everything on her own for survival. Her parents neglected her and left this young child in the home alone all day so that Matilda would go out and fetch her dad’s illegal car parts that were shipped to their house. While alone, Matilda, a three-year-old had learned to clothe herself, read and write, buckle her own shoes, and make her own breakfast. She had mastered measurements and the ability to use a stove to cook her own pancakes and eggs. By four, she had read every magazine in the house; her social interaction was not really social; her interaction was mostly with books. She had to imagine social interactions because she was denied access to them. Matilda also used her advanced problem-solving skills and systematic thinking to be able to get to the library in order to obtain more books. She knew what time her mother left and came back, where the library was and how to get there, as well as what time to be back by. The interesting thing is the fact that the Wormwoods had an older son, Michael, who they treated well. Mike was very much treated like a kid who was able to have social interactions and communication with the outside world. They seemed to actually love Mike, as Mr. Wormwood even promised his business to Michael in the future. Matilda, on the other hand, was persuaded to just watch television and be a part of the family; she was also initially denied access to school. They thought she was four when she was actually almost seven. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory really shines through as the theme of punishment ensues. Matilda’s dad tells her that “when a person is bad, they need to be punished (DeVito, 1996).” From this one statement, Matilda learns from her father that she could punish her parents if they were bad. Matilda’s dad buys stolen car parts and attaches them to junky cars so that he can sell them for high prices. Matilda calls her dad a crook and later puts Super Super Glue in his hat while he was not looking. Matilda has learned behavior through the teachings of her father. She later puts peroxide in his hair oil to teach him a lesson as well. The family’s level of interaction throughout the movie furthers the idea that the Wormwoods do not give Matilda the level of social interaction that she needs. The family eats TV dinners in front of the Television; they allow no time to socially interact, yet hate when Matilda decides to read while they watch TV. The social interaction she gets from them is always that of a negative connotation; they ignore her and neglect her until they want to bully her or if it is in favor of them.

Telekinesis as a Symbol of Cognitive Development

Matilda eventually figures out that she has the power of telekinesis, as she broke the television after getting in trouble for reading; she does not yet know the full strength of her powers. In Matilda, telekinesis can be seen as a constructor symbol for Matilda’s advanced cognitive development and the effects of her power gained from lack of interaction; she has surpassed her peers’ development because she was forced to think about social interaction in a different light than others. Social interaction and care are the true powers and themes of the film.

Educational Environment and Social Interaction at School

By the time Matilda was seven years old, she had reached college-level advancement. Matilda was finally able to attend school after Mr. Wormwood gave the principal, Agatha Trunchbull, a car in turn for Matilda to be able to attend her school. Miss Trunchbull was yet another adult in the film who tried to strip the children of proper interaction and developmental properties. The culture of the school was very much restrictive; Miss Honey’s class was the only one that was that encouraged development fully. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development can be inspected in terms of the classroom life for Matilda. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is basically what the children are capable of doing with the help of a teacher or guardian rather than be direct help or indirect help. Vygotsky thought that ZPD set out a guideline of a child’s capability to learn (Ungvarsky, J., 2019). Miss Honey seemed to be the best teacher for Matilda to learn from because she valued the students and their ability to have fun while learning; she wanted all of her students to have access to the interactions that would make them successful. Miss Honey regularly goes from the bland course regimen by teaching the children advanced spelling, poetry, and the arts. Miss Honey went through great lengths to hide her attempts at a true learning environment from the principal; when Mrs. Trunchbull approaches the class, Miss Honey Miss hides the colorful posters she has put up, the artwork that surrounds the class, and the pet fish. Trunchbull would never approve of Miss Honey’s actions, as she was very much the opposite of Miss Honey; Agatha valued her cruel and unusual punishments.

Miss Trunchbull put students in the chokey, a closet-sized room filled with broken glass and nails. She also threw young Amanda by her pigtails because she did not like them. Miss Trunchbull loved to use mental abuse tactics to frighten the children. She called all of the students to the auditorium to force-feed Bruce's cake because she thought he ate a piece of her cake; in many ways, the students, including Matilda, had an environment that did not promote social interaction in a positive way to develop. Matilda tried to keep positive in light of all the negative and cheered Bruce on so that he wouldn’t be defeated by the hands of Agatha. Trunchbull realizes her plan has backfired, so she holds the children after school for five hours.

As the movie progresses, we continue to see how far ahead cognitively Matilda is of the adults. The parents think that speed boat salesmen are sitting outside of their house when the men are actually undercover policemen on a stakeout. As Matilda strengthens her telekinetic ability (cognitive development) she is even able to outwit Miss Trunchbull and the police. The undercover cops entered the Wormwoods’ home without a search warrant; Matilda, a minor, knew the laws surrounding entering without a warrant which was able to distract the cops while she used her powers to put the cop car in neutral, sending it down the hill and past a stop sign. Matilda uses abstract thought and deductive reasoning to buy her dad time to react to the police’s conquest. Matilda later frightens Miss Trunchbull with her powers after learning that she is the abusive aunt of Miss Honey who may have killed Honey’s father, Magnus. This film eludes to the thought that Miss Honey is a symbol of what Matilda’s life was to become. They have a similar back story of an abusive caretaker who restricted them from regular development; they also look alike – brown hair and eyes – and have similar mannerisms. Miss Honey’s doll also seems to shadow the life of Matilda; she was ignored and left on the backburner the way that Miss Honey’s doll is. To get Miss Honey’s things back and get back at Trunchbull, she uses her powers to scare Miss Trunchbull into thinking that Magnus had come back to haunt her. Matilda ultimately gets Agatha to resign, give Miss Honey her father’s house and money back, and leave town. Miss Honey becomes the new principal and ends up adopting Matilda; we finally see the brightness in midst of so much darkness.

Overall, Matilda is a film that focuses on cognitive development, social interaction, and the power of both elements. Lack of interaction at an early age changed the mindset and mannerisms of Honey and Matilda. To fully analyze the movie, the utilization of Vygotsky and Piaget was essential. Vygotsky was the better comparison piece, as Matilda simply skipped some of the stages of development for her age range in Piaget’s theory; Vygotsky’s theory is not age-oriented. In the end, social interaction and lack thereof impact the development of children as seen through Matilda.

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Matilda: Cognitive Development And Social Interaction. (2021, October 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
“Matilda: Cognitive Development And Social Interaction.” Edubirdie, 03 Oct. 2021,
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