Children develop cognitively in four stages. Knowing what to look for can help you track your child’s progress.

If you’re a parent or guardian, you can often rely on visible signs to let you know how your child is developing physically. Still, it can be hard to understand what healthy development is at each age and stage of a child’s life.

It can be even trickier regarding cognitive development, which refers to the changes in your child’s thinking and memory processes.

This is where Jean Piaget comes in.

Piaget, a psychologist in the 20th century,outlined four stages of cognitive development that all children go through. Understanding the characteristics and goals of each stage can help guide and reassure you as you watch your child learn and grow.

Jean Piaget was a renowned psychologist who made significant contributions to the study of child development. He is best known for his theory of cognitive development.

Piaget believed a child’s knowledge and understanding of the world wasn’t innate but something that developed over time. This happened naturally as a child interacted with the world around them.

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development

Piaget proposed that a child’s cognitive development occurs in four major stages. The stages occur in order and build upon one another.

Each stage has a goal a child should achieve as they progress through the stages.

Sensorimotor stage0-2 yearsobject permanence
Preoperational stage2-7 yearssymbolic thought
Concrete operational stage7-11 yearsoperational thought
Formal operational stage12+ yearsabstract concepts

During this stage, a child uses sensory (sensation) and motor (movement) abilities to experience and learn about the world around them.

They learn about cause and effect. For example, observing how shaking a rattle makes a sound. Toward the end of this stage, the child begins to develop problem-solving skills and uses mental images to represent objects. This is known as mental combination.

The main goal of the sensorimotor stage is understanding object permanence, which is the concept that objects exist even if you can’t see them. For example, a child understands that when a parent leaves the home, the parent continues to exist.

In the preoperational stage, a child continues to use mental representations, such as symbolic thought and language. They:

  • develop memory and imagination
  • learn to imitate
  • engage in make-believe or pretend play

Children in this stage are egocentric, meaning they have little awareness of others and think everything is connected to themselves. They aren’t able to grasp the idea that others can think differently.

The main goal at this stage is symbolic thought. For example, a child imagines they’re a character in a book or pretends a stick is a magic wand.

The concrete operational stage marks the end of egocentrism. The child begins to develop an understanding of the outside world and others’ perceptions.

It’s also when a child begins to use logical operations when problem-solving. This includes inductive reasoning, going from the specific to the general, and mastering conservation.

Mastery of conservation is the concept that the value or mass of an object doesn’t change even if it is altered in some way.

For example, when water is transferred from a short glass to a tall glass, the child understands the amount of water remains the same; it’s the container that has changed.

The main goal at this stage is operational thought.

Finally, in the formal operational stage, adolescents develop abstract logical and moral reasoning. They start to analyze their environment and move beyond concrete facts. They learn to:

  • make hypotheses
  • understand theories
  • grasp abstract concepts like morality and beauty

For example, when faced with a problem, an adolescent can come up with several possible ways to solve the problem. They can then select the most logical, probable, or potentially successful solution.

The main goal at this final stage is understanding abstract concepts. This stage continues as an adolescent moves into adulthood.

Piaget believed children move at their own pace through the stages of cognitive development. For this to happen, certain processes must take place.

1. Schemas

Most famously, Piaget recognized that children create schemas, which are cognitive structures that shape their perceptions, cognitions, and judgments of the world.

2. Assimilation

As a child experiences a new object or situation, they use an existing schema to help them understand it. This is known as assimilation.

3. Accommodation

It can be more challenging when an existing schema doesn’t work in a particular situation.

The child must take a different approach, adapting a pre-existing schema to fit or accommodate the new object or experience. This is called accommodation.

4. Equilibration

Equilibration is the act of stabilizing or balancing the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

A child is in a state of disequilibrium until they accommodate the new object or experience into their existing schema. This helps move development forward.

Jean Piaget suggested children go through four stages of cognitive development to help understand the world around them. These include:

  • sensorimotor
  • preoperational
  • concrete operational
  • formal operational

The goals of each stage are understanding:

  • object permanence
  • symbolic thought
  • operational thought
  • grasping abstract concepts

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development occur in order, with each stage building upon the next. For development to occur, children assimilate new information into an existing schema, or cognitive structure.

If the existing schema doesn’t work, they change their schema to accommodate the new information. Equilibration is the balancing of these processes, which helps move development forward.