The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development (And How They Work)
By Dr Becky Spelman
According to the Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development during a child’s early life. His theory focuses not only on how children learn, but also the mental functions behind their intellectual process. Piaget’s assertion was that infants are ‘experimental observers.’ They spend time testing out various ways of performing tasks before settling on their preferred way of getting results. He theorised that the learning process itself goes through several phases before we reach full maturity and have our full cognitive abilities.
The four stages that he put forward in his studies were:
Sensorimotor Stage: From birth to the age of between 18-24 months
Preoperational Stage: Toddler Years 2 – 7 years.
Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 – 12
Formal Operational Stage: Teenage years to adulthood
Here are what the stages mean in more detail:
This stage is all about sensory input. A new-born child doesn’t have proper cognitive functions, and so they can only interact with the world that is directly in front of them. This involves touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing. At this stage in an infant’s development, they’re testing the waters with everything they encounter. They also learn that objects continue to exist even when they’re not present. This is called ‘object permeance.’ As the child near the end of the sensorimotor stage, they start to develop early speech patterns.
During this stage, a child begins to develop their language skills in earnest. Their thinking becomes more complex as they’re able to engage in basic problem-solving situations. This cognitive increase also allows an infant to tap into their imagination for the first time. In fact, this is one of the most fertile times during a child’s life. They respond to world in a symbolic way. As they don’t yet possess a true sense of logic, they act more on impulse and intuition. It is a very egocentric time during a child’s development. There is the notion – especially in the early years – that everything revolves around them.
Concrete Operational Stage
At this stage, a child begins to have a greater appreciation of their actions affect those around them. Although they think logically about concrete events, there is still a limit to how much they can process on an intellectual level. They still can’t think hypothetically or metaphorically. Everything exists as an absolute for them. But as they lose the egocentric nature of the previous stage, they become more adept at conversation. The child begins to understand that everyone has a different point of view.
Formal Operational Stage
This is the final stage in a child’s development. It is where true intellectual thought starts to take root and views of the world can finally be formed. At this point, abstract thinking and deductive reasoning becomes part of the cognitive repertoire. The child is able to take pieces of loosely connected information and bring them together to create a synthesis of several ideas. This increase in logic allows the young mind to mature and see that there is often more than one solution to a problem.
What This Means in Context
Piaget’s theory remains so relevant today because it doesn’t simply state that we get smarter the more information we take on. Our cognitive abilities have more to do with the qualitative change that takes place. It is how we learn to process knowledge that allows us to progress intellectually. And it doesn’t stop once we reach the age of 12. It’s a continuous process that carries on right into our later years.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
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Webmd. (2018) Piaget Stages of Development. Retrieved on 11th December, 2019 from,
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