S.T.E.A.M. Day

What is Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development?

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development plays an important role in determining developmental milestones. His theory covers how children acquire new knowledge and interact with the world around them. According to Piaget’s theory, children are not less intelligent than adults, but simply think about things differently. He argued that as children age, there are only quantitative changes to development which are defined below:


Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years old) 

Children in this stage learn through their sensory experiences while manipulating objects. At this stage children use their mouth as a primary vehicle to understand new objects and sensory experiences. While children might not be able to make sense of an object, they are able to represent it in their mind. As they gain more familiarity with an object, they begin to build an understanding of it, contributing to their sense of object permanence (knowledge of the object even if it is out of sight). 

Characteristics and developmental milestones

  • Begin to understand and grasp the concept of object permanence
  • Learn about the world around them through their senses and actions 
  • Learn about the idea of self-recognition- that they are a separate being from others
  • Display some degree of deferred imitation- a delayed repetition of a past behavior 


Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years old) 

While there is no logic or reasoning behind the way toddlers represent objects in their mind, they develop this area through dramatic or imaginative play. While they engage in dramatic play, they train metacognition (dual thinking skills) as they compare their imaginative experiences with real life. During pretend play toddlers will enjoy being around others, but struggle to see things from others’ point of view. 

Characteristics and developmental milestones

  • Toddlers are egocentric and struggle to see things from others’ perspectives 
  • Large strides in language development but still thinks in largely concrete terms 
  • Tend to exhibit animism, or the idea that inanimate objects have feelings 
  • Thinks in terms of face value and what they see, struggles with constancy and logical reasoning


Concrete operational stage (7 – 12 years old) 

In this stage children think in largely concrete terms (surprise, surprise!). They struggle mentally representing objects but make strides in logical thinking. Children become more adept at utilizing the concept of reversibility, the skill of manipulating the order of a process. Reversibility helps children understand multi-step instructions. Children also acquire the ability to decenter, which allows them to view things more holistically and analyze from more than one perspective. 

Characteristics and developmental milestones

  • Become more familiar with conservation; even if an object changes its appearance, certain qualities stay the same
  • Are less egocentric and are capable of developing empathy 
  • Begin using inductive reasoning; drawing a general conclusions from a set of observations 


Formal operational stage (12 years old and above) 

In the final stage children are capable of using logic, reasoning, and abstract ideas to understand the world around them. They are able to think scientifically to hypothesize situations and predict outcomes. 

Characteristics and developmental milestones

  • Are able to use deductive reasoning 
  • Reason about complex social, political, philosophical, and ethical issues that require abstract thought
  • Can deal with hypothetical problems and solutions