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A Teacher's Guide to Piaget's 4 Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget's stages explain how children learn and develop logical thinking. Read on to learn how to apply this theory in an early education setting.

A Teacher's Guide to Piaget's 4 Stages of Cognitive Development

A Teacher's Guide to Piaget's 4 Stages of Cognitive Development

In the 20th century, children were believed to think just like adults. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed an alternate theory that claimed that children's minds are fundamentally different from adult minds and that everyone moves through four stages of cognitive development from birth to adolescence.

Early childhood educators can use Piaget's theory to gain insight into how children learn at different stages of their development. These insights can help you develop a curriculum informed by how children understand their environment during each developmental stage.

Read on to learn more about Piaget's four stages of cognitive development and how you can apply this theory in an early education setting.

What is Piaget's theory?

Piaget’s theory centers on how children learn and gradually develop logical thinking. His theory states that children's understanding of their environment gradually increases over time, and their cognitive development occurs in four stages from birth to adolescence:

  • Stage 1: The sensorimotor stage (from birth to two years old)
  • Stage 2: The preoperational stage (from two to seven years old)
  • Stage 3: The concrete operational stage (from seven to eleven years old)
  • Stage 4: The formal operational stage (twelve years old and up)

Piaget’s cognitive development theory provides early childhood educators with a roadmap that they can use to track children’s cognitive development. Piaget’s theory includes milestones that children should be able to accomplish at each stage of their development.

By tracking children’s progress in each stage, early childhood educators can assess their children’s cognitive development and adjust their curriculum to provide extra support to children struggling to reach certain cognitive development milestones.

The four stages of Piaget's cognitive development theory

Piaget's cognitive development stages roughly correlate with childhood age periods. Piaget believed that the developmental stages always happen in the same order, and no stage is ever skipped. Each stage builds upon the stages that come before it. 

Sensorimotor stage (birth to two years)

The first stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory is the sensorimotor stage. This stage lasts from birth until a child is about two years old. In this stage, children depend on their senses to learn about the world. The main goal of the sensorimotor stage is for children to develop object permanence.

An infant wearing a pink shirt with white hearts lying down and looking at the camera.Source

Major characteristics and developmental changes of the sensorimotor stage:

  • Children learn things about themselves and their environment by seeing, touching, sucking, and feeling.
  • Children learn the concept of cause and effect.
  • Children realize that they’re separate from the people and objects around them.
  • Children learn object permanence, or the idea that things continue to exist even when they cannot be seen.


The sensorimotor stage has six sub-stages:

  • Reflex actions: Within the first month of an infant's life, they develop reflex actions, such as sucking and grasping. These instinctive actions help infants survive, and they gradually disappear with time as the child matures and gains more control over their muscles.
  • Primary circular reactions: Within the first four months of an infant's life, they begin to intentionally wiggle their fingers, kick their legs, and suck their thumbs.  
  • Secondary circular reactions: From four to eight months old, an infant will begin to interact with the external world and perform actions with objects that give them pleasure, such as continuously shaking a rattle to hear the sound it makes. 
  • Coordinating secondary schemes: From eight months to a year old, infants begin to show interest in objects and use acquired knowledge to reach their goals. For example, they may move an object that is in the way of an object they want.
  • Tertiary circular reactions: From 12 to 18 months old, young toddlers begin to explore the world using trial and error and experimentation. For example, they may make messes by taking things apart and putting them back together repeatedly in a quest to know what happens every time.
  • Symbolic thought: In the last sub-stage, from 18 months to two years old, imaginative play typically begins, and young toddlers' vocabulary develops significantly. They might ask short questions and make requests with one or two words. In this stage, they also begin to understand that symbols can represent objects and realize that objects continue to exist even when they can't be seen.

Preoperational stage (two to seven years)

The second stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory is the preoperational stage. This stage lasts from age two to seven. During the preoperational stage, children develop language and abstract thought. However, they haven't begun to use logic to manipulate information at this stage. By the end of the preoperational stage, children can use their imagination and play make-believe.

Two young toddler girls playing with clay at a small tableSource

Major characteristics and developmental changes of the preoperational stage:

  • Children can't see a situation from another person's point of view.
  • Children have difficulty thinking about multiple aspects of a situation simultaneously.
  • At five years old, children begin to understand conservation, the concept that a quantity stays the same even if you change the size, shape, or container it's in.
  • At the beginning of this stage, children engage in parallel play. They play alongside other children but don’t interact with them.
  • Once children move on from the parallel play stage, they begin including other children in games and engaging in pretend play. Pretend play helps children solidify concepts.
  • Children believe that people manufacture certain aspects of the environment, such as clouds and rain.
  • Children can't reverse the direction of a sequence of events to their starting point.

The preoperational stage has two sub-stages:

  • Symbolic function: Children's symbolic thinking improves from age two to four. They can mentally represent objects that aren’t present and depend on perception to solve problems.
  • Intuitive thought: From age four to seven, children begin to think intuitively rather than relying on perception. They also ask many questions as they try to understand the world around them.

Concrete operational stage (seven to eleven years)

The third stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory is the concrete operational stage. This stage lasts from age seven to age eleven. Children begin to think logically and rationally about physical objects during the concrete operational stage. By the end of the concrete operational stage, children can use inductive reasoning to solve problems related to their experiences but have not developed the ability to solve hypothetical or abstract problems.

Two young children writing in notebooksSource

Major characteristics and developmental changes of the concrete operational stage:

  • Children can identify the properties of categories, relate categories to one another, and use categorical information to solve problems. They also understand that categories can contain sub-categories.
  • Children realize that something can stay the same in quantity even though its appearance changes. For example, when water is transferred from a tall glass to a shallow dish, the amount of water has not changed.
  • Children can concentrate on many aspects of a situation at the same time.
  • Children understand that some things that have been changed can be returned to their original state. For example, water can be frozen to create ice, and ice can be melted to create water again.
  • Children can mentally arrange a group of items into a sequence, such as organizing items from tallest to shortest or thinnest to widest.
  • Children can understand that other people have their own thoughts and unique perspectives, but they might not be able to guess exactly how or what other people are experiencing.
  • Children can follow instructions with multiple steps.

Formal operational stage (12 years and up)

The final stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory is the formal operational stage. This stage starts at age twelve and lasts until adulthood. During the formal operational stage, children begin to think abstractly and use deductive reasoning to devise creative solutions to problems.

A teenager reading from a notebook.Source

Major characteristics and developmental changes of the formal operational stage:

  • Children can develop solutions to problems using logic and general principles.
  • Children can approach problems systematically.
  • Children can consider possible outcomes and develop efficient, logical approaches to solving problems.
  • Children can think about hypotheticals and formulate various solutions to solve them.

Application of Piaget's theory in early childhood education settings

Children who attend early childhood education programs are in the sensorimotor and preoperational stages of cognitive development. You can use information about Piaget's stages of cognitive development to create lessons and activities that help to guide your children through each developmental stage.

Infants and young toddlers (sensorimotor stage)

Children in the sensorimotor stage of development rely on their senses to learn about the world. You can guide children through this stage by developing a curriculum of lessons and activities that engage their senses and help them develop object permanence.

Activities for children in the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development:

  • Peek-a-boo: This activity helps children develop object permanence.
  • Container play: Have the children put objects into containers and dump them out. This activity helps children develop object permanence and encourages cause-and-effect thinking.
  • Stacking blocks: This activity provides visual and tactile stimulation, helps children develop motor skills, and encourages persistence, problem-solving, and interactive play.

Toddlers and preschoolers (preoperational stage)

Children in the preoperational stage of development start to use abstract thinking. You can guide children through this stage by developing a curriculum of lessons and activities that encourage parallel play and engage their imaginations.

Activities for children in the preoperational stage of cognitive development:

  • Dress-up and role play: Pretend play can help children overcome egocentrism by allowing them to see the world from other people's perspectives. Keep a box of costume items handy, so your children can dress up and pretend to be someone else and learn to put themselves in other people's shoes.
  • Sorting: Have your children sort objects such as buttons, game pieces, or blocks. This activity helps children begin to develop logical thought. Have your children separate a group of similar objects based on their differences, such as by color or size. This will teach them to group items based on shared characteristics rather than putting everything together because they’re all the same type of object.
  • Drawing family portraits: Ask your children to bring a photo of their families and use it as a reference to help them draw family portraits. Look at a family picture together and discuss the characteristics of each person in the photo to encourage the children’s observational skills.

Criticisms of Piaget's theory

Piaget's theory of cognitive development has faced criticisms:

  • Contemporary psychologists claim that children meet developmental milestones sooner than Piaget laid out in his cognitive development stages.
  • Piaget assumed children unable to perform various cognitive tasks lacked the underlying cognitive structure needed to complete the tasks. In addition, his studies neglected to consider the effects that social and cultural factors have on children's cognitive development.
  • Piaget studied his own children, and when studying other children, he used small sample sizes. Both of these circumstances do not meet rigorous scientific study protocols.

Despite the criticisms of Piaget's theory, it remains an influential theory in the field of psychology and early childhood education. Its framework has provided a useful tool for understanding how children think and learn, and its insights continue to be relevant today.

Final thoughts

Despite its flaws, Piaget's cognitive development theory provides insight into how children think, learn, and adapt their knowledge. A general understanding of Piaget’s stages can help inform your program’s curriculum and support children’s cognitive development at various stages.

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