The Cognitive Stages According to Piaget

Jean Piaget was the author who described the different cognitive stages from early childhood to adolescence. In this article, we're going to tell all about the different cognitive stages according to Piaget.
The Cognitive Stages According to Piaget

Last update: 24 May, 2021

Piaget’s cognitive stages form a theoretical framework within developmental psychology. Piaget studied child development based on a very small sample of three children, his children Laurent, Lucienne, and Jacqueline. He followed their progress intently from birth to the end of their childhood.

However, the conclusions he reached about later development were drawn from studying thousands of children.

Piaget devoted himself to observing his children with his wife Valentine. They combined the method of naturopathic observation with experimental manipulation.

A limited sample

Many people have stated that the sampling used by the author is a significant limitation of his method. We understand that a sample of only three subjects isn’t sufficiently representative to be able to draw conclusions that can be applied to all human development.

This has led to the need to replicate the findings with larger and more representative samples. The results of these studies have shown that Piaget’s conclusions were quite accurate.

From the observations he made, Piaget formulated his theory of intellectual development in the sensorimotor period and the different cognitive stages. We should highlight three books that he wrote on the subject: The Origin of Intelligence in the Child, The Construction of Reality in the Child, and The Psychology of the Child.

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with all the creativity and inventiveness that characterizes children before they’re deformed by adult society.”


Jean Piaget.

The cognitive stages according to Piaget

Piaget described human development using two main concepts:

Cognitive functions

These are innate biological processes that are common and unchanging throughout the life cycle. Their purpose is to build internal cognitive structures. The two main functions described by Piaget were organization and adaptation.

Organization allows schemas to acquire greater complexity by integrating information.

Adaptation involves the body interacting with its environment – and both are modified in order to achieve a balance for survival. This, in turn, involves two processes: assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation, the child takes new experiences with previous schemes and integrates them.

In accommodation, on the other hand, the child has to modify their own cognitive structures in order to include the new knowledge.

Cognitive structures

They vary with the growth of the child’s development. An example would be the concept of schema. Schemas are basically organized patterns of behavior that can be repeated in similar situations. It’s a continuous process of organization and reorganization of individual structures. Piaget described three schemas: action, symbolic, and operant.

Cognitive stages of development

Piaget described three general cognitive stages of development.

The first stage or sensorimotor stage

This occurs during the first two years of life. Children experience the emergence of sensorimotor skills as a way of getting to know the world, but this is limited to a physical interaction with objects and people.

The schemas are related to actions. In this cognitive stage, the two main achievements are intentionality and object permanence. We can divide this into six sub-stages:

  • Substage 1. The exercise of reflexes predominates.
  • Substage 2. At this stage, schemas and the primary circular reaction appear. The child performs unintentional actions related to their own body. Passive expectation appears, which consists of the child following a moving object with their gaze.
  • Substage 3. At this point, secondary circular reactions appear, which are accidental actions but directed to the exterior. This way, the child can repeat interesting events. There are also deferred circular reactions because, if the child is interrupted during a task, then they’re able to return to and continue it.

The latter substages

  • Substage 4. This is when the child achieves intentional behavior. The infant is able to perceive the goal that they want to accomplish and imagine how to carry it out. Therefore, the child is able to separate the means from the ends and, thus, coordinate schemas. Here, we can come across the sub-stage 4 error, or A-not-B error. For example, if we hide an object under a cushion, then the child is able to look for it underneath. However, if two cushions are placed and the object is moved from one cushion to another in front of them, then they continue to look for it in the first place.
  • Substage 5. At this point, tertiary circular reactions appear. The child experiments motivated by pure pleasure and explores new possibilities by repeating actions. Here, we can get the transposition error, in which the child isn’t able to look for the object when someone hides it without them seeing it.
  • Substage 6. Now the child is able to adapt to the world through direct behavior. The difference with substage six is the emergence of the symbolic function. This involves acquiring the ability to use mental representations or symbols. Object permanence is now complete. The child can understand that the object continues to exist even when it’s out of their visual field.
A child in a box.

Period of pre-operation and organization of specific operations

This consists of two substages:

  • Preoperational substage. This encompasses ages two to six and features the emergence of symbolic functions that will materialize in activities such as imitation, drawing, play, and language. The child is full of egocentrism, whether physical, logical, or social. There are a number of biases in their lives, such as the inability to classify, conserve, or specify. They have no notion of irreversibility. Regarding the notion of causality, the child commits errors such as finalism (they think that everything is the cause of something), artificialism (they believe that everything that exists has been built by human beings), or animism (ascribing life to all objects).
  • Operational substage. This encompasses ages seven to 11. Children have the capacity to operate mentally by using knowledge and this is evident in the resolution of conservation, seriation, and classification problems.

The period of formal operations

From the age of 12 until adulthood, we acquire the ability to think abstractly and logically through the formulation of hypotheses, contemplating not only what’s real but also what’s possible.

At this stage, friendships start to form and become more important. Identity also starts to form. In this process, adolescents need to go through some crises until they achieve a definite identity commitment.

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  • Papalia, D.E, Olds, S.W., y Feldman, R.D. (2005). Psicología del desarrollo de la infancia a la adolescencia. McGraw-Hill. Madrid