Steve Mynard opens a series of articles on educational thinkers who have influenced our approaches to early education.

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) researched the development of intelligence in children. Although many of his theories have been contested by subsequent psychologists, they have strongly influenced educational practice for nearly a hundred years.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

At the start of life, a baby has a set of basic reflexes and a set of innate ‘schemata’. A ‘schema’ is a store of information about previous experiences and can be used to evaluate future experiences and make decisions about them.

Piaget proposed two ways in which schemata become more complex:

  • Assimilation: new information and experiences are fitted into existing schemata.
  • Accommodation: schemata are changed when new information cannot be assimilated.

Assimilation and accommodation are forms of adaptation, whereby the developing intellect makes changes as it learns new information.

Piaget’s view stands between nature and nurture: the child is born with certain innate abilities and these develop and mature in a set sequence under the influence of the environment the child grows up in.

Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development:

Stage one: the sensorimotor stage (from birth to two years)

Everything starts with reflexes, such as sucking or throwing out arms and legs when startled.

Steadily the child begins to coordinate sensory information with motor information (such as seeing its own hand moving) and new schemata develop.

An important development in this first stage is object permanence – understanding that an object still exists even if it can’t be seen. You hide the toy, and if the child looks for it, he knows that it exists even though he can’t see it.

Stage two: the pre-operational stage (two to seven years)

This stage begins when the child starts to use symbols and language. He is still unable to use ‘operations’, ie logical mental rules, such as the rules of arithmetic.

It is divided into two sub-stages:

  • Preconceptual sub-stage (two to four years): Here, cognitive development becomes increasingly dominated by symbolic activity. The child can use symbols to stand for actions; a toy doll stands for a real baby or the child role-plays mummy or daddy. Language also develops during this stage.
  • Intuitive sub-stage (four to seven years): This stage is characterised by the way in which children base their knowledge on what they feel or sense to be true, yet they cannot explain the underlying principles behind what they feel or sense.

This is the sub-stage that Piaget studied most intensively, identifying three principal cognitive structures employed by the child at this time:

  1. Egocentrism: viewing the world from a self-centred, subjective point of view.
  2. Centration: focusing on one aspect of a situation or task and ignoring other, possibly relevant, aspects. Conservation is an example: if a child is shown two balls of modelling clay of the same size and agrees that they are the same size she will be unable to see that they remain the same in amount when one is rolled out into a sausage shape.
  3. Irreversibility: the inability to work backwards to your starting point.

Stage three: the concrete operational stage (seven to 11 years)

Intuition is replaced by the use of logical rules. The child now recognises that the clay remains the same in quantity, whatever shape you mould it into.

Piaget considered that a child’s understanding was still limited by actual experience of the ‘concrete’ world and believed that at this stage children struggled to grasp ideas that were hypothetical or abstract.

Stage four: the formal operational stage (11 years onwards)

The child is capable of abstract and systematic thought and will construct a plan of action when confronted with a problem to solve, taking into account various factors and exploring possibilities.

Piaget in your setting

Piaget’s theory can be seen in the children we work with every day. Do you agree with his findings?

  • If you have very young children do they look for a toy if you hide it – make sure they see you do the hiding, of course. Do they look for something that they have dropped from their buggy?
  • Can your children describe a view of the classroom seen by another child sitting on the other side of the room?
  • Take some identical balls of clay and roll one of them out into a long sausage shape. Distribute the pieces of clay to the children to work with. Do your children understand that they each have the same amount of clay, or do they think that the child who gets this long piece to work with has more than the others?
  • Collect a variety of transparent containers, some short and fat, some long and thin. Use a cup and ask the child to put exactly one cupful of water into each container. The amounts will look different. Does the child accept that they are actually the same?


Piaget J (1975) A Child’s Conception of the World, Toitowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.
Piaget J (2001) The Psychology of Intelligence, London: Routledge.
Fontana D, 3rd ed, (1995). Psychology for Teachers, London: Macmillan/BPS Books.
Cardwell M, Clark L and Meldrum C (2004) Psychology for A2 Level, London: Collins Educational.
Cardwell M, 3rd ed (2003) Complete A-Z Psychology Handbook, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Schaffer, HR (2004) Introducing Child Psychology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.