Swiss psychologist and constructionist thought leader Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that humans create knowledge at the interaction of ideas and experiences. Piaget believes that learning is not a passive process of absorbing information, but an ongoing active progression that continuously guides ever-increasing capabilities.
Constructionist View of Learning
Naturally curious and motivated, interactions within a child’s environment help them reason their way through things as they continuously build upon prior learnings. As children construct knowledge (rather than having a correct answer imposed on them), they naturally begin to form their own ideas.
With less knowledge and more imagination, children see the world differently than adults. To appreciate the beautiful perspective of a child’s reasoning, let’s try to see the world through a child’s eyes. As we begin to grasp how they might see things, we can more adeptly consider ways to help them interpret and understand the lessons we are trying to help them learn.
The Importance of Play
As children learn to balance themselves within their environment, playtime helps them take their skills to the next level. Through hands-on play, children fit new knowledge into what they already know (assimilation) and alter existing knowledge as they learn new information (accommodation). Much to their satisfaction, balances between assimilation and accommodation bring out the equilibrium children need to make better sense of the world.
Confrontation is of major importance for growing young children, helping them see things less egocentrically and more from other’s point-of-view, inspiring social development and holistic understanding. As perceptions of right vs. wrong take shape, children learn to self-regulate in ways that align with their emerging value system.
Within a socially interactive classroom driven by cooperative, spontaneous play, engagement fosters creativity and autonomy as children develop their own mental models of the world. According to Piaget, “the principal goal of education should be to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”
Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development
Given their innate capacity for understanding, children progressively cultivate intellect as they interact with the environment. Piaget’s theory states that all children go through the same stages in the same order, using their minds in new and more developed ways during each stage of cognitive development.
- Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 years old)
Infants first learn by crying, then by grasping and crawling, then by standing and walking. As they move faster and further, they discover new experiences through their five senses. When infants find something new, they look at it, try to hold it, and put it in their mouths. Relying on sensory and motor functions, infants learn through reflexive perception, viewing toys and objects as extensions of themselves. As the end of infancy approaches, a new method of interpretation evolves; language starts to reflect thought while thought simultaneously starts to determine language.
- Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years old)
Throughout this stage, most thoughts are self-centered and most language is egocentric: “I, me, mine, etc.” Cognitive development is fast and furious; children are rapidly learning how their environment tends to respond to their initiative. Children center their perception on the most obvious—thoughts are largely bound by what they can physically see. While they are starting to think symbolically, they still struggle to combine several ideas simultaneously.
- Concrete Operational stage (7 to 11 years old)
Inherent with increased exposure to social situations, children gradually develop critical thinking skills. Each interaction triggers positive or negative feelings, guiding personality development and influencing future behaviors. If children in this stage have cooperative reciprocal relationships with adults, they tend to develop quality connections with their peers. Through interactions, repetition, and experience, all children learn and many master social reciprocity.
- Formal Operational Stage (12+)
During the formal operational stage, children can understand abstract considerations without needing a physical reference point. No longer limited by what they can see or hear, teenagers can embrace deeper concepts such as beauty, freedom, and morality. Capable of considering several possibilities simultaneously, children have finally learned the importance of systemically testing their environment before making choices.
Three Stages of Moral Reasoning
During the first stage, premoral development, children are not concerned with moral reasoning; behavior is motivated by either pain or pleasure.
During the second stage, moral realism, children submit to authority and show absolute respect for rules. Preschool children believe that today’s rules have always existed (rather than having been invented), viewing them as unchangeable. Punishment for breaking rules should be automatic—every transgression must be punished—forgiveness is not yet in their domain.
During the third stage, moral relativism, absolute obedience becomes less important. Children begin considering multiple perspectives, such as contrasting the damage of violating a rule—relative to the rule’s purpose. Guided by their own internal moral compass, conformity to rules and regulations becomes increasingly situational.
In helping children construct knowledge, hands-on interactions are far more effective than direct instruction. Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development that children ascend, a sequential progression from infancy to adolescence, driven by interactions within the social environment. As we grow, our moral compass evolves from relative indifference to blind obedience to morality as guided by our value system. Piaget’s insights into cognitive development can help mothers better understand childhood growth and development, including when children might be most receptive to learning certain lessons.
Jean Piaget’s influence on psychology has been profound. The theories presented in The Psychology of The Child detail each stage of the child’s cognitive development, over the entire period of childhood, from infancy to adolescence.
The Moral Judgement of the Child traces children’s moral thinking from preschool to adolescence, offering important insights into how they learn—or fail to learn—the difference between right and wrong.
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