Jean Piaget's Cognitive Theory - A Research Paper Example

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University of California, Santa Barbara
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Research paper
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Jean Piagets theory of cognitive development explains how a child develops mentally as they grow. His work is one of the most classical explanations of the cognitive development in children. According to him, intelligence can be developed. He also believed that the mental structure of a child at birth is basic but eventually develops as they learn and gain knowledge. The influence of education in cognitive development is heavily emphasized in the theory. Through Piaget's theory, one can easily understand the learning process of children and how they interact with the world. The impact of environment on the cognitive development of a child will be examined in this article since it plays an integral role in the learning process of a child. Basically, young children through the sensorimotor stage learn through imitations and use of memory.

The primary objective of this paper is to discuss Jean Piaget's cognitive development and explain the key concepts of his theory in terms of assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, play, and imitation. The article also discusses the stage theory and its four major components; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. The four stages will be explained using real-world examples. Ultimately, the paper will provide a conclusion to the cognitive development process in children and the four major stages in a child's growth.

Piagets cognitive theory is made up of three components. These components are; schemas, adaptation process (assimilation, play, accommodation, equilibrium and imitation) and stages of cognitive development (sensorimotor, concrete operational, preoperational and formal operational) (Piaget, Elkind, & Flavell, 1973). Cognitive development describes the mental growth in children. The theory has several concepts which can be summarized into the four key concepts: assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, play and imitation (Piaget, Elkind, & Flavell, 1973).


It is the process by which a person adds new information into their previously existing schemas. The process is subjective since one has to modify their experience to be accommodative with the preexisting beliefs. Assimilation plays an integral role in the cognitive development of a child. It helps a child in early childhood to constantly add more information and experiences about the world to their already existing schemas. Assimilation is continuous process since even adults continue to add more information into their existing schemas. Assimilation can be explained when a child sees a zebra and confuses it with a hoarse that he saw earlier. He assimilates this information into their schema for a hoarse. During accommodation of the information, he will be in a position to note the difference between the two animals.


Accommodation is the process by which people modify their schemas in order to add more information. As children grow, they assimilate different information that might be similar to them at the moment but eventually be different after accommodating the information. For instance, small children learn about different animals by first assimilating the general features of the animals. A young child who has a schema for dogs assumes that all four-legged animals are dogs. When they learn that even cats have four legs, they will undergo a process of accommodation where their existing schema for dogs changes and they develop a new schema for cats. Schemas are constantly modified as new information is accommodated into the current ideas and beliefs of a child about how the world operates. A child will only achieve stability with their environment when they reach a state of equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation processes.Equilibration

An equilibration is a force which propels a learning process in children. A child's cognitive abilities are said to be in a state of equilibrium when their existing schemas are capable of understanding the environment. It occurs when schemas of a child can deal with new information through assimilation. Once the balance is achieved, the assimilation process will continue until it requires adjustments. It is imperative to note that at times an unpleasant state of disequilibrium might occur in the cognitive development of a child when new information cannot be fitted into existing schemas.


A play has different definitions but its most basic definition is something that is not required but the enjoyment derived from it may be needed emotionally. Hence, a play is autotelic-it is necessary for its own sake, with the benefit inherent in the activity itself. According to Piaget (2013), there are a series of developmental stages of play in cognitive development in children. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. Play is very useful in brain development. It allows children to engage and interact with the world at an early age. This allows them to assimilate and accommodate information hence enlarging their schemas.


Imitation is the ability to learn from the actions of other people. Infants and toddlers contain proclivity that sets them apart from animals and enables them to reproduce the actions of others and above all to understand the meaning of such actions. Imitation plays an integral role in cognitive development. Imitation of other people's actions accelerates and supports cultural learning. The social routines and instrumental innovation can easily spread through communities through imitation. This might result in the maintenance of the replicated behaviors across generations. According to Piaget (2013), high fidelity imitation increases opportunities for learning. It enables children to gain opportunities f discovering a deeper meaning and cognitive understanding of the actions imitated even if the children do not understand the acts fully.

Stage theory

Stage theory is a theory that divides the development of a child into distinct stages which are marked by qualitative differences in behavior. The stages are; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. According to Wadsworth (1989), psychological and physical development of children proceed in a stepwise manner throughout their lifespan. Each child goes through the stages in the same order. However, their development is determined by biological maturation and interaction with the environment. No stage can be bypassed in the development process but there are children who might not attain the later stages.


Sensorimotor is the first stage that Piaget uses to define cognitive development. During this stage, a childs knowledge of the world is restricted to their sensory perceptions and motor activities. The main achievement during this stage is object performance (the ability of a child to understand that an object exists even though they cannot see or hear it) (Piaget & Inhelder, 1997). This requires the kid to form a schema of the object. This stage covers the first two years of a baby when they are busy discovering the relationships between their bodies and the environment. A child experiences tremendous growth and change during this stage. They develop physically and cognitively and begins to think about their behaviors and react to different stimuli. There are substages of the sensorimotor stage. They include; reflexes, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination of reactions, tertiary circular reactions and early representation thought. An example of a sensorimotor stage in real life is when babies understand the world through their senses. They put all types of objects in their mouths, shake things and rattle objects to produce sound.


Preoperational is the second stage of cognitive development. During this stage, children think about things symbolically. Children learn by attaching meanings to symbols that might not really relate to what they have understood. It is imperative to note that during this period, kids still do not understand logic. Thinking is still egocentric and the kids experience difficulties in taking other peoples viewpoint and cannot manipulate information mentally. This period occurs between the ages of 2 and 7. An example of behaviors of a child in the preoperational stage is when Ian goes with his parents to a park where there is a small tree house big enough for two small children at most. Later in the day, he asks his parents if they still remember that huge tree at the park. He makes assumptions that his parents perceived the tree house as huge since that his perspective. Due to his egocentric thinking, Ian will not be able to understand his parents when they tell him that the tree house is little.

Concrete operations

Concrete operational stage is the third stage of Piagets theory of cognitive development. It occurs in the middle childhood and it is characterized by the development of logical thoughts. The stage marks a transformation in how kids work things out, moving from physical means to internal means of understanding concepts. Kids still struggle with abstract ideas despite being more logical about concrete things. Kevin who is 9 years old is able to sort and name a pencil, book and a ruler.

Formal operations

Formal operation stage is the last stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This phase of development is characterized by abstract thought and hypothetical reasoning. It begins at approximately age 12 and lasts into adulthood. This stage is also characterized by the development of skills such as logical thought, systematic planning, and deductive reasoning. Thinking advances and becomes more sophisticated at this stage. Kids begin to think about abstract and theoretical concepts and apply logic to finding solutions to problems. For example, Irene is a young girl who has turned 13. She wants to go and visit her friends but before she does that she must ask permission from her parents. Because she is in the formal operational stage of cognitive development, her reasoning and critical thinking abilities influence her argumentative skills. She informs her parents that she has finished all her duties in the house and she has also done her assignment. She may effectively present her case since she is able to demonstrate reason.

In summary, Jean Piaget's cognitive theory plays an integral role in understanding the cognitive development of a child. The theory is composed of several concepts that help in understanding the development in the thinking process of a kid. The cognitive development process is also divided into four stages that cannot be bypassed by any kid. However, some kids fail to reach the later stages.


Flavell, J. H., Miller, P. H., & Miller, S. A. (2002). Cognitive development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Piaget, J. (2013). Play, Dreams, And Imitation In Childhood. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Piaget, J., Elkind, D., & Flavell, J. H. (1973). Studies in cognitive development: Essays in honor of Jean Piaget. New York: Oxford University Press.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1997). Mental imagery in the child: A study of the development of imaginal representation. London: Routledge.


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