≡ Menu

Jean Piaget – Stages Of Cognitive Development

Our brains are often called the control centers of our bodies. Our brains have been growing and developing since the time of conception and will continue to do so until we die. It can store several years’ worth of memories and information. This is due to the brain’s neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to create new neurological pathways in order to change, and adapt as a result of experiences and learning.

This neuroplasticity occurs due to our cognitive processes.

What Is Cognition?

Cognition is the mental activity that occurs when a person is presented with information this includes organizing, understanding/processing, and communicating it to others.

Cognitive abilities include:

  • Thinking
  • Reasoning
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Language skills
  • Memorization and recall
  • Perception

Cognition is an extremely important aspect of our lives as we use cognitive skills throughout every day, even unconsciously. Cognitive psychology has advanced the understanding of behavior and discoveries in this field have grown exponentially.

Such discoveries have also led to the creation of famous therapeutic models such as REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy), and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

These models use the foundation of cognitive psychology to understand the reasoning behind the client’s behavior, thoughts and feelings.

Who Founded Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive Psychology first came into the spotlight in the early 1950s. It was introduced as the Behaviorism theory failed to explain the connection between internal mental processes and the impact it has on behavior.

Ulric Neisser is considered the father of Cognitive Psychology, as he was the first person who proposed that behavior occurs due to the mental processes that occur internally.

Jean Piaget is another famous cognitive psychologist, who built upon Neisser’s ideas and introduced his Theory of Cognitive Development.

He stated that everyone passes through a fixed pattern of universal stages of cognitive development. He proposed that quantity and quality of information increase as one moves from one stage to another. He focused on the cognitive changes that occur in children as they move through stages.

Piaget’s study helped psychologists understand the mental processes that occur as an infant and how they develop, as the individual gets older. He believed that schemas (mental concepts) are formed by the child in order to sort out and process information.

He believed that children attempt to understand information in 2 ways. These two ways are known as assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation occurs when the child attempts to sort out new information in schemas that already exist to them. For example, an infant might see an apple and call it an orange. This is because both objects are round.

If the child is corrected, this may lead the child to identify the apple as red and round, causing an alteration in the schema form. The alteration of an old schema into a new one is called accommodation.

assimilation and accommodation

What is the Theory of Cognitive Development?

Piaget also proposed that development occurs in stages. His theory proposes four different stages of Cognitive Development. They are:

piaget’s stages of cognitive development theory

1. Sensory-Motor Stage (Birth- 2 years):

This is the earliest stage of cognitive development. These sub-stages describe their cognitive development.


  • Simple Reflexes: This sub-stage occurs during the first month of an infant’s life. During this stage, the baby focuses on innate reflexes (sucking) to interact with the world. The innate reflexes, such as sucking, provide information about objects.
  • First Habits And Primary Circular Reactions: This sub-stage occurs from 1-4 months of age. During this stage, the infant combines singular activities into an integrated activity. For example, they may stare at someone while grasping their finger. Additionally, if an activity interests them, they continue to repeat it over and over. This leads to forming a cognitive schema for the activity through the process of circular reaction. A primary circular reaction includes schemes displaying an infant’s repetition of the activities they enjoy. These activities mostly focus on an infant’s own body and bring pleasure and enjoyment.
  • Secondary Circular Reactions: This sub-stage occurs from 4-8 months of age. The activities of the infant become more purposeful during this time. In this stage, the infant focuses on activities in the outside world (playing with toys). In this stage, vocalization also increases as infants realize that if they make noises, other people will respond to them with their noises. They also start imitating sounds made by others. This further leads to the development of language and social relationships.
    Coordination of secondary circular reactions: This sub-stage occurs from 8-12 months of age. This stage involves goal-directed behavior, in which the infant will try to solve a problem through their acts. They also start anticipating further events. These behaviors lead to the development of object permanence. It is the ability to understand that hidden objects still exist, even if not in view. This is a crucial stage in development as object permanence helps in language development and abstract thought formation.
    For example, a child may begin to play hide and seek with his/her parents. Initially, if the parents attempted to play hide and seek, the child would not bother because they were out of sight. However, after the development of object permanence, the child is able to identify that they still exist even if they aren’t visible.
  • Tertiary Circular Reactions: This sub-stage occurs between 12-18 months of age. During this stage, the infants do activities to observe the consequences. They are interested in unexpected events during this time. They want to understand these consequences and it could lead to new skills or chaos at home.
  • Beginnings Of Thought: This is the last sub-stage that occurs between 18 months-2 years of age. During this stage, infants have mental representations of objects and understand object permanence completely. They also learn the ability to pretend. Piaget refers to it as a deferred imitation. It refers to infants imitating an individual who is not physically present at that moment. They pretend to cook, or water plants, any activity that they have seen before.

2. Pre-operational Stage (ages 2-7):

This is the stage in which the child begins to form mental images and symbols. They use these mental images and symbols to categorize and comprehend the world around them. By this age, the child has developed a fair amount of language skills and uses these skills to explore their world further.

The child may begin to gain curiosity and thus may begin to question how and why things work. These questions, help them understand the way things, people and the world works.

During this stage, the child begins to display skills that they were not able to do before. This includes Symbolic Play. This is when the child begins to imagine people; objects or scenarios and can create stories and activities based on imagination. They may even take an ordinary object and turn it into an imaginary object (for example, a log becomes a ship).

Symbolic Play is determined by 3 shifts in the child’s cognitive abilities. These three stages are:

a) Decentration

This occurs when the child makes other objects or people the recipients of play. This is often seen when the child “feeds” his/her doll.

b) Decontextualization

This is when some objects are made as a substitute for others. This can be seen when a child uses objects such as twigs and sticks in replacement for objects like kitchen utensils.

c) Integration

This is the final shift of the symbolic play. This occurs when the child begins to combine play actions into increasingly complex situations.

For example, when you were younger, you may have been a teacher or a doctor to your younger siblings. You may have even used your dolls as students or patients.

This stage is also the stage in which they believe whatever they see and hear. They tend to believe in imaginary characters such as Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny.

Children tend to see images and videos of Santa Claus and when they see a man dressed in Santa Claus clothes, they believe it is Santa Claus.

However, in this stage the use of logic is not yet visible. Egocentrism is the child’s inability to understand and perceive anything from another person’s point of view. They believe that the world runs in the way they perceive it to.

Principle of Conservation is a principle in which attributes of an object don’t change even if the physical appearance does. This can be seen when water is shifted into different containers. Although the container is different, the volume of the water remains the same. This principle remains absent in this stage.

piaget’s conservation task

3. Concrete Operational Stage (7-12 years):

During this stage, the use of proper logic emerges. Children start applying logical operations or thoughts to understand and explain concepts. They are less ego-centric, so they can consider different opinions. However, the shift from the pre-operational stage to the concrete operational stage does not happen in a day. It happens gradually and children can shift back and forth between these stages.

The child can be able to solve simple problems. This stage is marked by the child’s ability to understand and grasp the principle of conservation.

The child is now able to understand how to put things in serial order and is now able to understand relational terms. It is at this age that the child is also able to understand the concept of reversibility. This concept states that some things and motions can be reversed to go to their original state.

For example, children understand that a clump of clay can be transformed into other things and then back to its original form. They also start to understand the concept of time and speed and the relationship between these two concepts.

4. Formal Operations (ages 12 and above):

This is the stage in which the child displays patterns of adult-like thinking. This will continue throughout adulthood and will help the individual understand and solve problems. At this stage, one can able to solve things in a concrete, logically manner but can also engage in creative and abstract thinking.

This stage sees two types of reasoning; these are hypothetico deductive reasoning and inter propositional reasoning.

Hypothetico Deductive Reasoning occurs when the individual can see something and predict what the outcome would be. The individual will be able to deduce a hypothesis based on what they have been observing. This includes the ability to logically think about and understand symbols, ideas and propositions.

Inter Propositional Logic/Reasoning is something that occurs when the individual attempts to test the validity of different propositions. Essentially, the individual “tests the theory.” This can be done by experimenting with what they wish to prove. Although this kind of reasoning can be identified in children as early as Concrete Operational Stage, the child is only able to test the validity of a single proposition. Whereas an individual in the Formal Operation Stage can test the validity of several propositions.

In this stage, the individual can engage in higher levels of cognitive thinking and processing. But it is important to remember that not everyone can do so.

According to Piaget, individuals reach the end of the stage at around 15 years of age. There has been evidence that some people reach the formal operational stage later in life and some may never reach this stage completely. It could be due to cultural differences.

Individuals who reach this stage change their behaviour. Initially, they could have accepted rules and regulations but now their thinking abilities could make them question these rules. It could also lead to greater expectations for perfection and idealism. They tend to become more opinionated and use abstract reasoning to notice inconsistencies in others’ arguments.

Related Studies

Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development has transformed the ideology and understanding of human behavior. It has given birth to many other theories such as Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory, and still plays a major role in today’s modern society.

Ghazi, Rehman et al conducted a study in 2014 called “Formal Operational Stage of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory: An Implication in Learning Mathematics”. The sample was 200 students from the ages of 12-16 who took a survey. The results indicated that the students between the ages of 12- 16 were able to do classification, intersection, ratio, proportion and geometry to some extent in the Formal Operation Stage as stated by Piaget. This indicated that Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development is accurate to the age group and their cognitive abilities.


  • Some cognitive skills develop earlier than Piaget suggested in his stages.
  • Piaget seems to have a narrow idea about thinking and knowledge. He assumes thinking to be about solving problems. But, as displayed by Gardener, thinking and intelligence have multiple factors.
  • The universality of the theory has been questioned. The research found that some cognitive skills develop according to a different timetable in non-western cultures. Additionally, in every culture, some people do not seem to reach the highest level of cognitive development- formal, logical thought.
  • Some critics have argued that formal operations are not the end of thinking stages. A lot of cognitive development can occur during early adulthood as well.


Piaget’s contribution to the field of Cognitive Psychology has been a major steppingstone in the understanding of cognition and its effect on behavior. His contributions have led to the development of several learning theories and methodologies that change the way education is viewed. This theory continues to hold weight and will continue to do so for years to come.

Therefore the next time you look back on your childhood, I urge you to identify the cognitive stages you have overcome. Observe children around you and identify their stages of development. Identify the patterns of cognitive development that occur around you daily, and raise a toast to Piaget.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Teklehaimanot December 7, 2022, 9:46 pm

    Very nice lesson specially the tips in related studies.
    How can I relate the cognitive level in Blooms taxonomy and cognitive psychology?

Leave a Comment