Cognitive development is the process by which we come to acquire, understand, organize, and learn to use information in various ways. The late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was a major figure in the study of cognitive development in children. He believed that it occurs in four stages—sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
This article discusses Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, including important concepts and principles.
History of Cognitive Development
In the 1920s, a psychologist named Jean Piaget was given the task of translating English intelligence tests into French. During this process, he observed that children think differently than adults do and have a different view of the world. He began to study children from birth through the teenage years—observing children who were too young to talk, and interviewing older children while he also observed their development.
Paiget published his theory of cognitive development in 1936. This theory is based on the idea that a child’s intelligence changes throughout childhood and cognitive skills are learned as a child grows and interacts with their environment.
Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s theory suggests that cognitive development occurs in four stages as a child ages. These stages are always completed in order, but last longer for some children than others. Each stage builds on the skills learned in the previous stage.
The four stages of cognitive development are:
- Concrete operational
- Formal operational
The sensorimotor stage begins at birth and lasts until 18 to 24 months of age. During the sensorimotor stage, children are physically exploring their environment and absorbing information through their senses of smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound.
The most important skill gained in the sensorimotor stage is object permanence, which means that the child knows that an object still exists even when they can't see it anymore. For example, if a toy is covered up by a blanket, the child will know the toy is still there and will look for it. Without this skill, the child thinks that the toy has simply disappeared.
Language skills also begin to develop during the sensorimotor stage.
Activities to Try During the Sensorimotor Stage
Appropriate activities to do during the sensorimotor stage include:
- Play peek-a-boo
- Read books
- Provide toys with a variety of textures
- Sing songs
- Play with musical instruments
- Roll a ball back and forth
The preoperational stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development occurs between ages 2 and 7 years. Early on in this stage, children learn the skill of symbolic representation. This means that an object or word can stand for something else. For example, a child might play "house" with a cardboard box.
At this stage, children assume that other people see the world and experience emotions the same way they do, and their main focus is on themselves. This is called egocentrism.
Centrism is another characteristic of the preoperational stage. This means that a child is only able to focus on one aspect of a problem or situation. For example, a child might become upset that a friend has more pieces of candy than they do, even if their own pieces are bigger.
During this stage, children will often play next to each other—called parallel play—but not with each other. They also believe that inanimate objects, such as toys, have human lives and feelings.
Activities to Try During the Preoperational Stage
Appropriate activities to do during the preoperational stage include:
- Play "house" or "school"
- Build a fort
- Play with Play-Doh
- Use building blocks
- Play charades
Concrete Operational Stage
The concrete operational stage occurs between the ages of 7 and 11 years. During this stage, a child develops the ability to think logically and problem-solve but can only apply these skills to objects they can physically see—things that are "concrete."
There are six main concrete operations that develop in this stage. These include:
- Conservation: This skill means that a child understands that the amount of something or the number of a particular object stays the same, even when it looks different. For example, a cup of milk in a tall glass looks different than the same amount of milk in a short glass—but the amount did not change.
- Classification: This skill is the ability to sort items by specific classes, such as color, shape, or size.
- Seriation: This skill involves arranging objects in a series, or a logical order. For example, the child could arrange blocks in order from smallest to largest.
- Reversibility: This skill is the understanding that a process can be reversed. For example, a balloon can be blown up with air, then deflated back to the way it started.
- Decentering: This skill allows a child to focus on more than one aspect of a problem or situation at the same time. For example, two candy bars might look the same on the outside, but the child knows that they are different flavors on the inside.
- Transitivity: This skill provides an understanding of how things relate to each other. For example, if John is older than Susan, and Susan is older than Joey, then John is older than Joey.
Activities to Try During the Concrete Operational Stage
Appropriate activities to do during the concrete operational stage include:
- Use measuring cups (for example, demonstrate how one cup of water fills two half-cups)
- Solve simple logic problems
- Practice basic math
- Do crossword puzzles
- Play board games
Formal Operational Stage
The last stage in Piaget's theory of cognitive development occurs during the teenage years into adulthood. During this stage, a person learns abstract thinking and hypothetical problem-solving skills.
Deductive reasoning–or the ability to make a conclusion based on information gained from a person's environment–is also learned in this stage. This means, for example, that a person is able to identify the differences between dogs of various breeds, instead of putting them all in a general category of "dogs."
Activities to Try During the Formal Operational Stage
Appropriate activities to do during the formal operational stage include:
- Play board games
- Learn to cook
- Solve crossword and logic puzzles
- Explore hobbies
- Play a musical instrument
- Read books
Piaget's theory of cognitive development is based on the belief that a child gains thinking skills in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. These stages roughly correspond to specific ages, from birth to adulthood. Children progress through these stages at different paces, but according to Piaget, they are always completed in order.
A Word From Verywell
Piaget's theory of cognitive development is just one of many different developmental theories in the world of psychology. Even if you don't completely agree with Piaget, his stages of development can provide practical ways for you to encourage your child's cognitive development.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some examples of cognitive skills?
Cognitive skills include memory, attention, thinking, problem-solving, logical reasoning, reading, listening, and more.
Why is cognitive development important?
Cognitive development helps a child obtain skills needed to live a productive life and function as an independent adult.
What are some ways to improve cognitive development?
Activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing games, learning a new language, and exploring new hobbies can all help improve cognition.
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
National Library of Medicine. Cognitive testing. MedlinePlus.
Oklahoma State University. Cognitive development: The theory of Jean Piaget.
SUNY Cortland. Sensorimotor stage.
Marwaha S, Goswami M, Vashist B. Prevalence of principles of Piaget’s theory among 4-7-year-old children and their correlation with IQ.J Clin Diagn Res. 2017;11(8):ZC111-ZC115. doi:10.7860%2FJCDR%2F2017%2F28435.10513
Börnert-Ringleb M, Wilbert J. The association of strategy use and concrete-operational thinking in primary school.Front Educ. 2018;0. doi:10.3389/feduc.2018.00038
By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.
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As children progress through the stages of cognitive development, it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behavior to account for new knowledge (accommodation).What is the most important stage of cognitive development? ›
Piaget considered the concrete stage a major turning point in the child's cognitive development because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought. This means the child can work things out internally in their head (rather than physically try things out in the real world).What are the concepts of cognitive development? ›
Cognitive development means how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, problem solving and dispositions, which help children to think about and understand the world around them. Brain development is part of cognitive development.Why is it important for teachers to understand cognitive development? ›
Cognitive development theories and psychology help explain how children process information and learn. Understanding this information can assist educators to develop more effective teaching methods.Why is it important for teachers to understand the cognitive levels? ›
Teachers can see and understand complex cognitive development and how lower-level skills build into higher-order thinking (e.g., recalling facts and comprehending previous problems allows a student to apply their experience to similar problems).What is cognitive development and its stages? ›
Cognitive development is how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of their world through the relations of genetic and learning factors. There are four stages to cognitive information development. They are, reasoning, intelligence, language, and memory.What is an example of cognitive development theory? ›
One of the best-studied examples of cognitive development is language development. While some theories propose that language development is a genetically inherited skill common to all humans, others argue that social interactions are essential to language development.How cognitive is develop in each stages? ›
Cognitive development refers to how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world through the interaction of genetic and learned factors. Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence , reasoning, language development , and memory.Why is cognitive important? ›
Cognitive skills occupy a vital role in an individual's overall development, as they include some of the brain's core functions such as thinking, reading, learning, retaining information, and paying attention and are used to solve problems, remember tasks and make decisions.What is the concept of cognitive psychology? ›
Cognitive psychology is defined as the study of individual-level mental processes such as information processing, attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, decision-making, and thinking (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002).
1 : of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering) cognitive impairment. 2 : based on or capable of being reduced to empirical factual knowledge.What have you learned about Piaget's stages of cognitive development? ›
Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development, and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking. Each stage is correlated with an age period of childhood, but only approximately.What is cognitive theory of learning? ›
Cognitive learning theory focuses on the internal processes surrounding information and memory. Jean Piaget founded cognitive psychology in the 1930s as a reaction to the prevalent behaviorist school of psychology. According to Piaget, a schema is the basic unit of knowledge, and schemata build up over a lifetime.Who created the stages of cognitive development? ›
The stages were named after psychologist and developmental biologist Jean Piaget, who recorded the intellectual development and abilities of infants, children, and teens. Piaget's four stages of intellectual (or cognitive) development are: Sensorimotor. Birth through ages 18-24 months.How can students improve their cognitive skills? ›
- Engage Learners in Physical Activities.
- Tickle Students Curiosity.
- Use Brain Training Games in Classrooms.
- Nurture Students Creativity.
- Introduce Students to New Skills and Experience.
- In Conclusion:
When teachers understand how children develop, they'll know to separate the child from the behavior to prevent children from internalizing harmful messages. Looking at how children grow and what they need at different stages of development will also help teachers see a bigger picture of education.How do cognitive skills affect learning? ›
Cognitive skills are mental skills that are used in the process of acquiring knowledge; according to Oxfordlearning.com the skills that “separate the good learners from the so-so learners.” In essence, when cognitive skills are strong, learning is fast and easy.How is cognitive theory applied in teaching and learning? ›
Examples of cognitive learning strategies include:
Encouraging discussions about what is being taught. Helping students explore and understand how ideas are connected. Asking students to justify and explain their thinking. Using visualizations to improve students' understanding and recall.
Supporting Cognitive Development
Encouraging problem-solving in the classroom. Making planful choices when arranging the classroom environment. The value and importance of play. Using active music and play experiences to support infant and toddler thinking.
Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development, and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking.
Cognitive development is how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of their world through the relations of genetic and learning factors. There are four stages to cognitive information development. They are, reasoning, intelligence, language, and memory.Is Piaget's theory of cognitive development still relevant? ›
How has Piaget's Theory of Development used Today? Jean Piagets theory of cognitive development in children has shaped the way we understand still today. His theory is used widely in school systems throughout the world and in the development of curriculums for children.What is the importance of Vygotsky's sociocultural theory? ›
Vygotsky's sociocultural theory asserts that learning is an essentially social process in which the support of parents, caregivers, peers and the wider society and culture plays a crucial role in the development of higher psychological functions.What are the factors affecting cognitive development? ›
The opportunity a child gets to learn affects the cognitive development. The more opportunities he gets the better is the cognition, because he will be able to add to his mental capacities by learning through these opportunities. Economic state of the family also helps in the development of cognition.What is an example of cognitive development theory? ›
One of the best-studied examples of cognitive development is language development. While some theories propose that language development is a genetically inherited skill common to all humans, others argue that social interactions are essential to language development.What is cognitive theory of learning? ›
Cognitive learning theory focuses on the internal processes surrounding information and memory. Jean Piaget founded cognitive psychology in the 1930s as a reaction to the prevalent behaviorist school of psychology. According to Piaget, a schema is the basic unit of knowledge, and schemata build up over a lifetime.What's meaning of cognitive? ›
1 : of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering) cognitive impairment. 2 : based on or capable of being reduced to empirical factual knowledge.How do you develop cognitive development? ›
One important way to improve cognitive development for your kids is to regularly expose them to new environments. Don't just stick to your regular routine. Schedule field trips to new places in town, like museums, parks, zoos, aquariums, playgrounds, and more.What is the concept of cognitive psychology? ›
Cognitive psychology is defined as the study of individual-level mental processes such as information processing, attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, decision-making, and thinking (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002).How is cognitive theory used today? ›
Cognitive theory is an approach to psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by understanding your thought processes. 1 For example, a therapist is using principles of cognitive theory when they teach you how to identify maladaptive thought patterns and transform them into constructive ones.
Cognitive development theory can affect teaching in the classroom as it encourages teachers to use concrete props and visual aids whenever possible (appealing the tangible and visual learning development of students). It helps them to make instructions relatively short, using actions as well as words.Why is Piaget so important? ›
Piaget's Contributions to Psychology
Piaget provided support for the idea that children think differently than adults and his research identified several important milestones in the mental development of children. His work also generated interest in cognitive and developmental psychology.
There are three interrelated ways that culture contributes to cognitive development: social processes that support and guide learning, participation in everyday activities, and symbolic and material artifacts that support and extend thinking.What are the main concepts of Vygotsky's theory? ›
As such, Vygotsky outlined three main concepts related to cognitive development: (i) culture is significant in learning, (ii) language is the root of culture, and (iii) individuals learn and develop within their role in the community.What is the importance of Vygotsky's theory to child development? ›
Vygotsky's theory places importance on guiding children's learning through their interaction with a more knowledgeable other (MKO). The more knowledgeable other could be anyone with a greater understanding of the task or concept that the child is trying to complete or learn.