Cognitive theory of Jean Piaget includes four stages of development that children move through during which the explanatory behaviors of infants transform into the abstract, logical intelligence of adulthood. There are three important specific characteristics of Piaget’s theory of which the first one is being a general theory, that is, cognition’s all aspects undergo a similar course of change. Another characteristic is that children move through the stages in an invariant sequence. Piaget believed that there is a same order that children follow. Third, the stages are universal. Stages in cognitive theory assume the theory to include all children everywhere (Berk, 2003). Biological concepts are used in a limited way in Piaget’s theory. However, he stated the importance of genetic and environmental factors on the way that children move through the stages (Crain, 2005). He emphasized that the speed of children while passing those stages is affected by differences in genetic and environmental factors.
Jean Piaget used the term scheme while explaining human beings’ organized way of making sense of experience (Mark, 1969). Traill (2008) explains that the term scheme used by Piaget is different from people’s everyday usage of scheme. The term can be any pattern for exploring and learning from the environment and it has three different intellectual structures. Piaget calls first intellectual structures to emerge as behavioral schemes, ones that appear after 2 years as symbolic schemes, and structures that appear after 7 years as operational schemes (Piaget, 1972, as cited in Traill 2008). For instance, dropping scheme of an 8 month old baby and a 25 months of will not be the same, as sooner it will become more deliberate and creative. Toddlers, different from infants, begin to think before acting and Piaget identifies that transition from sensorimotor to cognitive approach to the world which depends on mental representations. (Piaget, 1926, as cited in Berk 2003) Images and concepts are the two powerful mental representations.
Especially, the shift from sensorimotor to cognitive approach is accounted for two processes; adaptation, consisting assimilation and accommodation, and organization. Interpretation of new structures into already existing schemes is called as assimilation and modification of existing schemes into adaptation of new experiences is called as accommodation. Cognitive adaptation aims to adjust to the environment and is a result of the equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation (Block, 1982). While trying to grasp an object, a baby is experiencing the assimilation process, while removing an obstacle and grasping an object, a baby now accommodates the scheme (Crain, 2005). During the organization process more complex intellectual structures are combined with existing schemes by children. For instance, after the baby experienced and covered dropping movement, then he/she will relate it with throwing movement as well as understanding the concepts of near and far (Berk, 2003).
The Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 Years)
Jean Piaget observed his children during their developmental period and constructs the stages based on his observations. His books mostly involve many examples from his dialogues and interactions with his children. The sensorimotor stage consists of six substages.
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That stage starts with the use of reflexes from birth to 1 month. Newborn reflexes take important place in sensorimotor stage. According to Piaget inborn reflexes are consisted from first schemes. He states that as children use inborn reflexes and experience assimilation, they desire to put them to active use (Crain, 2005).
After one month, children begin to repeat their chance behaviors and primary circular reactions period (one to four months) starts. A baby experiences the thumb sucking by bringing her hand to her mouth by a chance, when the hand falls she wants to get it back and experiences many failures until she gets it back (Crain, 2005). At that example the child organizes the hand movement and sucking which is a kind of circular reaction. Piaget also states that children at that period indicate the first efforts at imitation (Berk, 2003).
The next substage is secondary circular reactions and is observed between fourth and eighth months. Infants start to experience motor achievements that encourage them to play attention to their environment. Infants begin to get enjoyment from the response of the environment to their attempts and they repeat their movements that get reaction from their surrounding (Santrock, 2004).
Coordination of secondary schemes substage takes place during eight to twelve months. At this stage infants begin to coordinate tow or more actions to achieve simple objectives. In addition with an intentional purpose, babies try to imitate behaviors after watching a person. One may be able to observe a baby at this stage trying to stir with a spoon. In addition, a baby may begin to cry when she sees her mother wearing her coat in order to stop her mother leaving (Berk, 2003).
In substage 5, tertiary circular reactions (twelve to eighteen months), children are interested with different outcomes. Piaget had observed one of his children hitting on a table at different rates in order to listen different sounds that he creates (Crain, 2005). It should be noted that all experiences are results of children’s intrinsic curiosity about the environment around them that Piaget emphasizes within his cognitive development theory.
The last substage of the sensorimotor period is named as beginnings of thought or internalization of schemes lasting from eighteen to twenty months. During that substage children have the capacity to remember the behaviors that are not present (deferred imitation). Their efforts on imitation also indicate progress and they experiment with actions inside their heads. Besides, children can be observed to engage in make-believe play during that period (Santrock, 2004).
Piaget and many researchers concluded that infants appreciate concepts of permanence objects. Up to four months, children do not make any attempt to an object leaving in front of their eyes. During secondary circular reactions stage children are more able to explore their surrounding and they have a better sense of permanence of objects. At stage four children have the ability to find the hidden objects. If an adult takes a toy behind a box, the baby will look at the behind of the box and find the toy. During the stages five and six children are able to follow displacements and follow invisible shifts (Crain, 2005).
Beginnings of Categorization:
Before the capability of mental representation children are not able to categorize objects. During the first year of their life, children experience perceptual categorization. For example they can categorize the legs of an animal. Conceptual categorization begins with the end of first year; they are now able to categorize similar characteristics and behaviors. Active categorization period starts with the beginning of the second year. It is stated that sorting objects into two classes can be observed in eighteen months babies. In the second year babies can group two different kinds of objects without grasping them (Berk, 2003).
When the observed milestones of research and the description of substages of Piaget are compared from birth to two years, both similarities and differences are seen. There are points that seem to occur earlier than Piaget accepted such as categorization, deferred imitation, and analogical problem solving. Those differences are explained differently from many researchers. Some of the surveys indicate that some children born with different intellectual capacities and some of them with a set off limits which causes those differences. The latter argue the theory of Piaget in terms of biological considerations.
The Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 Years)
Preoperational stage is lasting from two to seven ages in which the child is more capable while dealing with the environment. Although the reasoning of child is still unsystematic and illogical, that is the period that children begin to use symbols and rapidly develop representation. One of the important symbols that indicate increase during that period is language (Santrock, 2004). Piaget believed that experience of internal images occurs before labeling words and he did not take language as an important tool in cognitive development of children. Berk (2003) argues that Piaget had misadjusted the role of language in early intellectual development. She proposes that conceptual abilities of children are highly affected from the dialogues of children with adults. Moreover, there are many psychologists that believe as children develop their language ability, they begin to think more logically.
Children experience transductive reasoning during that stage which means shifting from one particular to another. Children place two unrelated situations into the same case as if they have a relationship. One of Piaget’s children had concluded that she hadn’t had her nap yet so it wasn’t afternoon (Piaget, 1924). Piaget (1924) explains that statement as an example of transductive reasoning, because the child did not catch the understanding that afternoons include many different events and having nap is only one of them.
An important milestone of the increase in mental representation is make-believe play during preoperational stage. The differences in make-believe play between sensorimotor and preoperational stage can be clearly observed. By the middle of preoperational stage make-believe play of children indicate real life conditions. In addition, by preoperational stage children begin to engage in sociodramatic play, they coordinate variety of roles and story lines during their play.
One of the criticized points of cognitive theory of Piaget is based on the belief of Piaget that play reflects children’s cognitive and social skills, however there are many recent studies indicating the contribution of play on those skills. Especially during sociodramatic play, children interact with their peers longer and they are more cooperative. Many psychologists believed the role of strengthening of make believe play on a wide range of mental abilities and logical reasoning (Berk, 2003).
Piaget stated that children look at their surrounding from their own viewpoint and they ignore perspectives of others. Three-mountains study is one of the famous observations of Piaget explaining egocentric behavior of children at preoperational stage. He had used a model of three mountains and taken a child for a walk around the model in order to give opportunity for the child to look at the model from different view. Piaget had placed the child from one point of the model and placed a toy to another place. The child had been asked what he/she saw while looking at the model and what the toy would be seen while looking at it. All the children could correctly explain what they were seeing, however children at preoperational stage gave the same answer with their own view (Crain, 2005).
Studies emphasize on the relation between egocentrism and social communication. Children at preoperational stage, according to Piaget, fail to recognize the needs of their peers during verbal interaction (Rubin, 1973). As they look only from their own view, they are able to understand view of the person interacting with them. They think that they can be seen from everywhere, everybody see and hear them. An adult may observe a child at this period telling that nobody could see him/her while closing his/her eyes with hands.
Piaget (1951) proposes that the child recognizes no limits between himself and the external world and it is expected that the child would see many nonliving and non acting things as living and conscious and he explains this phenomenon as animism. In his book “The Child’s Conception of World”, 1951, he identifies the reason for him to use the term “animisim”. He accepts that animism was term used for primitive human beings and responds the criticisms by telling that he had used that term as a generic term and emphasizing on the different types of animism in psychological origins (Piaget, 1951).
Children at preoperational stage have a belief that objects are alive because they move and grow. For example, a child may tell that “there are not any cars on the road, because they are sleeping”. Piaget described animism inside four stages. Initially children accepted useful things as living. At this first stage broken or damaged objects were not alive for them. At the second stage, moving objects, whether are moved by an external factor or by themselves, were considered as alive. In stage three, to be categorized as living, things should move by themselves. Lastly, at the fourth stage, adults know that plants and animals are living things only (Moriarty, 2005).
Going through a series of steps and after changing direction is difficult for children at preoperational stage. Another well known experiment of Piaget indicates that problem in a way that there are children shown 16 boxes, 6 of which are yellow and 10 of which are red. When children are asked whether red boxes are more or boxes, children at this stage responds as red boxes and fails to be aware of that both yellow and red boxes are boxes. In his book “The Child’s Conception of World”, 1951, Piaget gives examples about irreversibility. There are dialogues indicating their inability such as, asking a child about her sister, the child responds that she has a sister named A, then Piaget asks the child whether A has a sister or not, the child responds that A has not a sister. (Piaget, 1951)
Inability to Conserve:
Piaget propounds preoperational child’s lack of conservation by applying experiments of liquids and number. He shows two same size glasses to the children and fulls the glasses with water. He asks children which of the water was more. All the children respond that they were equal in amount. Then he puts the water in one of the glasses into a different size glass (wider or taller) and repeats his question. Children at preoperational stage tell that they are now different. They have not the capability to perceive that certain physical features of objects remain same, even their physical appearance changes.
Based on experiments of Piaget, at the beginning of seven children begin to give the correct answer to the conservation tests. Before that age children indicates at conservation but not totally achieve it. They give answers like one is more because it is taller and then change their answers the other one is more because it is wider.
Besides, irreversibility of the child can be concluded based on the conservation of liquid experiment. The child cannot understand the end result as a reverse of the original one.
Jean Piaget also had thought about the failures of children from the linguistic point. Terms such as “taller”, “more”, “wider” takes time to be understood. He suggests ways to overcome that problem and tells adults to apply experiments by using different sentences and establishing questions by using different words within a particular case.
Piaget experimented conservation of children also with using number.