Cognitive Development in Childhood

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Cognitive Development in Childhood

From the perspectives of Piaget and today’s researchers, how does a child’s mind develop?

Somewhere on your life journey, you became conscious. When was that? Jean Piaget [pee-ah-ZHAY] was a pioneering developmental psychologist who spent his life searching for the answers to such questions. He studied children’s cognitive development—all the mental activities associated with thinking, knowing, remembering, and communicating. His interest began in 1920, when he was in Paris developing questions for children’s intelligence tests. While administering the tests, Piaget became intrigued by children’s wrong answers, which were often strikingly similar among same-age children. Where others saw childish mistakes, Piaget saw intelligence at work. Such accidental discoveries are among the fruits of psychological science.

The point to remember Piaget’s core idea was that our intellectual progression reflects an unceasing struggle to make sense of our experiences.

A half-century spent with children convinced Piaget that a child’s mind is not a miniature model of an adult’s. Thanks partly to his careful observations, we now understand that children reason differently than adults, in “wildly illogical ways about problems whose solutions are self-evident to adults” (Brainerd, 1996).

Piaget’s studies led him to believe that a child’s mind develops through a series of stages (Table 1), in an upward march from the newborn’s simple reflexes to the adult’s abstract reasoning power. Thus, an 8-year-old can comprehend things a toddler cannot, such as the analogy that “getting an idea is like having a light turn on in your head,” or that a miniature slide is too small for sliding, and a miniature car is much too small to get into.

Table 1

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Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development Typical Age

Range Description of Stage Developmental


Birth to nearly 2 years

Sensorimotor: Experiencing the world through senses and actions (looking, hearing, touching, mouthing, and grasping)

-Object permanence -Stranger anxiety

About 2 to about 6 or 7 years

Preoperational: Representing things with words and images; using intuitive rather than logical reasoning

-Pretend play -Egocentrism

About 7 to 11 years

Concrete operational: Thinking logically about concrete events; grasping concrete analogies and performing arithmetical operations

-Conservation -Mathematical transformations

About 12 through adulthood Formal operational: Abstract reasoning

-Abstract logic -Potential for mature moral reasoning

Piaget’s core idea was that our intellectual progression reflects an unceasing struggle to make sense of our experiences. To this end, the maturing brain builds schemas, concepts or mental molds into which we pour our experiences. By adulthood we have built countless schemas, ranging from cats and dogs to our concept of love.

To explain how we use and adjust our schemas, Piaget proposed two more concepts. First, we assimilate new experiences—we interpret them in terms of our current understandings (schemas). Having a simple schema for dog, for example, a toddler may call all four-legged animals dogs. But as we interact with the world, we also adjust, or accommodate, our schemas to incorporate information provided by new experiences. Thus, the child soon learns that the original dog schema is too broad and accommodates by refining the category. Many people whose schema of marriage was a union between a man and a woman have now accommodated same-sex marriage, with a broadened marriage concept.

Multiple-Choice Question

The first time that 4-year-old Sarah saw her older brother play a flute, she thought it was simply a large whistle. Sarah’s initial understanding of the flute best illustrates which of the following processes?

conservation maturation assimilation

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Correct. When children see something totally new and try to account for it by using a current understanding (or schema), they are engaged in assimilation. This is why Sarah thought the flute was a large whistle.

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Reflecting on Piaget’s Theory

What remains of Piaget’s ideas about the child’s mind? Plenty—enough to merit his being singled out by Time magazine as one of the twentieth century’s 20 most influential scientists and thinkers and his being rated in a survey of British psychologists as the last century’s greatest psychologist (Psychologist, 2003). Piaget identified significant cognitive milestones and stimulated worldwide interest in how the mind develops. His emphasis was less on the ages at which children typically reach specific milestones than on their sequence. Studies around the globe, from aboriginal Australia to Algeria to North America, have confirmed that human cognition unfolds basically in the sequence Piaget described (Lourenco & Machado, 1996; Segall et al., 1990).

However, today’s researchers see development as more continuous than did Piaget. By detecting the beginnings of each type of thinking at earlier ages, they have revealed conceptual abilities Piaget missed. Moreover, they see formal logic as a smaller part of cognition than he did. Piaget would not be surprised that today, as part of our own cognitive development, we are adapting his ideas to accommodate new findings.

Implications for Parents and Teachers

Future parents and teachers, remember this: Young children are incapable of adult logic. Preschoolers who block one’s view of the TV simply have not learned to take another’s viewpoint. What seems simple and obvious to us—getting off a teeter-totter will cause a friend on the other end to crash—may be incomprehensible to a 3-year-old. Also remember that children are not passive receptacles waiting to be filled with knowledge. Better to build on what they already know, engaging them in concrete demonstrations and stimulating them to think for themselves. Finally, accept children’s cognitive immaturity as adaptive. It is nature’s strategy for keeping children close to protective adults and providing time for learning and socialization (Bjorklund & Green, 1992).


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