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Piaget’s stage theory of
cognitive development
The sensorimotor stage
Object permanence
Distinguish between
gradualist and stage
Describe and criticise ways
of investigating infant
Invent mnemonics to help
you remember facts in
Today’s session
• Piaget said that children’s cognitive
development unfolds in stages.
– Where have we encountered stage theories
– What does a stage theory imply about
Piaget’s stage theory
Psychological attribute
Gradual change
over time
Abrupt change
Relative stability
How might the line
representing a stage
theory be different?
Gradualist vs. Stage theories
• Development is discontinuous
• Each stage is qualitatively distinct
• The sequence is universal and invariant
• These statements are true of all stage theories
of development. What might they mean as
applied to cognitive development?
Stage Theories
• Children’s ability to understand, think about
and solve problems in the world develops in a
stop-start manner.
• At each stage of development, the child’s
thinking is qualitatively different from the
other stages.
• All children go through the same stages in the
same order (but not all at the same rate)
Piaget’s stage theory
Sensorimotor stage
Preoperational stage
Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development
Typical Age
Substages 1-3
Ability to deal with situations is
0-8 months
limited to:
i) Having sensations and producing
actions; ii) The ‘here and now’
Substages 4-6
Intentional actions emerge; trial
and error behaviour; object
concept – object permanence
develops; simple pretend play;
language acquisition
8-24 months
Symbolic thought develops;
egocentrism; animism; centration
2-4 years
Intuitive period
Judgements based on appearance 4-7 years
not logical thought; less egocentric;
unable to conserve
Concrete operational stage
Conservation; seriation;
transitivity; class inclusion
7-11 years
Formal operational stage
Abstract concepts; hypothetical
thinking; flexibility in thinking
12+ years
• Invent a mnemonic to help you remember the
names and order of Piaget’s stages.
Homework pt. 1
• In the first stage, the child ‘thinks’ by sensing
(‘sensori-’) and by performing actions on (‘motor’) the world around it.
• It does not think by manipulating mental
representations, like an adult does.
Sensorimotor stage
• During the sensorimotor stage a range of
cognitive abilities develop. These include:
– Object permanence
– Self-recognition
– Deferred imitation
– Representational play
• They relate to the emergence of the general
symbolic function, which is the capacity to
represent the world mentally
General Symbolic Function
• Infants do not realise that objects exist
independently of them
• ‘Out of sight, out of mind’
• Object permanence is the understanding that
objects continue to exist when the child
cannot see them
Object permanence
• How could we investigate whether a child has
object permanence?
Piaget (1963) – search tasks
Typical age
Search behaviour
Before 8m
Does not search for hidden object at all.
Searches for hidden object in initial hiding
place even if the object is moved to a second
hiding place while the child watches (the ‘A
not B error’)
Searches in most recent hiding place.
Object permanence
• Is Piaget’s search task a valid test of whether a
child has developed object permanence?
– Does a child’s failure to search mean that it has no
idea that the object still exists?
– Might this task be measuring something else
• Two students will be presenting their views to
the class at the start of next lesson, so be
Homework pt. 2
• Pair up. Decide who will be infant and who
will be investigator.
– Investigator must test infant’s object permanence
using the two hiding place method.
– Infant must decide which stage of development
she is at and respond accordingly.
– Investigator must identify child’s likely age and
explain why.