People all over the world, through every generation, have watched in awe as infants that lack any real ability blossom into emotional, social, intelligent children. Many have wondered how it is that infants make this amazing transformation but few have moved past their wonder into a search for answers. Even fewer have found answers to these questions that are so profound that they have shaped how the world views children’s developmental processes. Jean Piaget is
one of those few; he has shaped our understanding of the journey that children make. It is our desire to discover, explore, play with, and share Piaget’s theories in this essay.
At the outset of researching Piaget, we hoped to gain knowledge of who he was as a person, but his work is so compelling that history remembers Jean Piaget’s work rather than Jean Piaget the man. The only item that we found regarding Piaget as a person was “The children favored being tested by Piaget in preference to anyone else, because he had an easy and informal manner, and really seemed interested in their responses. His behavior was a big change from the standard testing methods of that time, in which the answers were the only thing of importance. I believe that Piaget had strong inter-personal skills, as he was able to interact well with others and put them at ease.”(www.users.muohio.edu)
Without the benefit of obtaining personal knowledge regarding Piaget we will remand our information in this regard to historical fact. Piaget was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and in his childhood developed many scholarly interests including the study of mollusks, sea shells and animal life. Piaget pursued these interests in earnest, writing his first scientific paper at age 10 regarding his observations of an albino sparrow. Quite an impressive accomplishment! It was to be the first of hundreds of papers and over 60 books that Piaget would write on various fields of scientific study. These early interests in animal life proved to be a lifelong pursuit and led Piaget to obtain a degree in zoology from the University of Neuchâtel in 1918 at the age of 22. Seeking to broaden his areas of study, Piaget moved to Zürich and under the tutelage of Carl Jung, explored the field of psychology. Having developed an interest in this field, Piaget once again moved; this time to Paris to study at the Sorbonne with Alfred Binet. It is all well and good to know the history of Piaget’s life but up to this point in his history there was nothing that would tie him to the study of children. Finally, we arrive at our destination, the question of why Piaget studied children. He found his impetus in work that he did evaluating the results of children’s intelligent tests and he was intrigued to find that children consistently failed at certain questions at certain ages. And that was that, he was hooked and shifted towards studying children in an effort to find the origins of knowledge, otherwise known as epistemology.
People choose careers of interest everyday and in most cases; it is of little consequence to the world as a whole when they do so. Piaget’s career choice in contrast, was to have deep and lasting effects on what we know about how children learn. Through many years of observation and interaction with children Piaget formed theories that based children’s cognition on their interaction with the world at large. To us, this means play; because that is the main way in which children interact with the world.
To say that Piaget’s major contribution to the world of child development is that they play would be an oversimplification and would do him a disservice so we will elaborate. According to the website Open Learn (http://openlearn.open.ac.uk) “Piaget played a central role in the development of the view that play may be of crucial importance in children’s cognitive development. Piaget’s theories about learning emphasized the need for children to explore and experiment for themselves. For Piaget, play was a means by which children could develop and refine concepts before they had the ability to think in the abstract. Play was something that older children who have developed abstract thinking no longer needed.” This gives us an overview of part of Piaget’s theory but we must explore the stages set forth in the theory to obtain a better understanding.
Piaget observed various stages within a child’s journey towards higher levels of cognition as follows:
Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years): Child is purely a physical being and has no ability to understand or reason. All reactions that the child has are reflexive, meaning that there is no thought to them. Physical actions that occur naturally during this time expand the range of responses of the child through assimilation. Assimilation is a term that describes taking external stimulus and internalizing it and simplifying it to fit categories already developed in the child’s head rather than creating new categories as necessary. During the latter part of the sensorimotor stage the child has learned that people and objects continue to exist outside of their line of sight, a concept called object permanence. This is demonstrated in the good old game of peek a boo. Children act surprised when a person disappears behind their hands and laugh when they reappear. Even as adults we would be quite entertained or frightened if we truly believed that a person had actually disappeared! As the book Theories of Childhood states “This is the first burst of the joy of learning” (pg. 65). As you can see, this explains the necessity of play as a tool of learning in the sensorimotor stage when children are purely physical beings and have no concept of anything abstract. Physical stimulation is the most valid form for children under two years of age to learn. Therefore, without play a child would not learn much in the first two years of life and their progression into other stages of cognitive development would be adversely affected.
Preoperational Stage (2-7): The preoperational stage is so named because one of the major functions that a child is lacking it the ability to mentally “apply the operation of identity” (Martin & Fabes 2009) which is to ascertain that a shape can be reversed back into its original shape. Through symbolic representation, children begin to be able to mentally assign representations to objects and people. Although the child can represent things mentally, they have yet to obtain the ability to form abstract thoughts. Children in this stage are egocentric and can’t understand the world as others might see it. To prove egocentrism, Piaget developed a test in which children sat in a chair and looked at three mountains of progressively increasing heights with a stuffed animal sitting in a chair directly across from them. The child was then asked to view the mountains from the stuffed animal’s vantage point and to state which view the stuffed animal saw. The child would most often respond that the view that the stuffed animal saw was that of their (the child’s) original vantage point. Another key point in development comes when children’s understanding begins to expand through accommodation. Accommodation occurs when new information is taken in and existing ideas or categories are changed, accommodated, to fit that information. In previous stages of development children do not change their ideas to fit external information; they assimilate the information to meet preexisting categories.
Concrete Operational Stage (7-11): Piaget theorized that in this stage children begin to use logic and reasoning. Abstract reasoning becomes possible which allows children to problem solve using an ever growing set of symbols. Children gain the ability to form concepts of their own accord and to accept concepts that demonstrate logic and reasoning. The ability to perform conservation tasks is formed. One of the methods that Piaget used to prove conservationism was to set out two rows of the same type of coins for children to explore. The rows of coins contained the same number of coins but one row was spaced differently, creating the illusion that it contained more coins. A child that has not reached the concrete operational stage when asked which row had more coins would respond that the row with the greater spacing has more coins. When a child reaches the concrete operational stage and understands conservationism would respond that both row had an equal number of coins. This type of experiment aids in development by taking an abstract idea and making it real to the child. We propose that this would aid in bridging the gap from abstract theory by introducing symbolic play. Those coins act as symbols that a child can learn to understand which would eventually lead to children using symbols in their own mind to bring to life abstract ideas.
Formal Operational Stage (12+): In this stage of cognition children come very close to the reasoning and logical abilities of an adult. Children do not require concrete symbols to form reasoning and instead use a process of deductive thinking, in which they use logic to deduce outcomes. Children are now able to think hypothetically and abstractly. In addition children can now think in terms of future developments, including their own future life possibilities.
The information listed above is a broad overview of Piaget’s theories and explores some of the key elements and events of cognition in childhood. Piaget spent a good portion of his life dedicated to this study and made many more discoveries than we are able to mention here. One additional piece of information that should be considered in regard to the stages of cognition is that “A chief tenet of Piaget’s theory is that these stages do not vary in order, cannot be skipped, and should not be rushed.” (www.nndb.com). what a wonderful way to state that a child should progress in their own time without undue pressure to perform.
Now that we have introduced Piaget’s theories of cognition we are free to explore how they interface with play and social and emotional development. To begin with we should note that “Play is NOT the same as learning; cognitive development requires both assimilation and adaptation, while play is assimilation without accommodation.” (www.uwgb.edu). While we agree that play is not learning, we would like to propose that it facilitates learning by guiding children through real life experiences which they can begin to use as symbolic representations of different scenarios. This is evidenced in the following quotes from Piaget regarding play:
“It is primarily affective conflicts that appear in symbolic play. If there is a scene at lunch, for example, one can be sure that an hour or two afterward it will be recreated with dolls and will be brought to a happier solution. If the child has been frightened by a dog, in a symbolic game things will be arranged so that dogs will no longer be mean or children will become brave” (www.uwbg.edu)
“Initially imbued with play symbolism but tend later to constitute genuine adaptations or solutions to problems and intelligent creations” ( www.uwbg.edu)
In a module regarding Piaget, Weber State University (WSU) (www.weber.edu) sets forth some compelling demonstrations that endorse Piaget’s belief in play. Included in those demonstrations are that children use play to overcome egocentrism through repeated social interactions which allow the child to become conscious of others needs, interests and goals. In addition “assimilation and accommodation are both included in the interaction which unites the individual child to the environment and the child’s reality. The give and take in play and imitation is one way that the child learns about the child’s world.” Children can use play to understand symbols, a good example of this is dress up, when children play dress up they are using physical symbols to play out their inner world. In our view, one of the most important things that WSU sets forth is that play gives children first hand experiences and we believe that experience creates understanding beyond what can be spoken. The senses are attached to memory; touch, taste and smell in particular create lasting impressions and concrete memories for children, which they can use in the journey towards assimilation and accommodation. Anyone that has ever spent any length of time with a child knows that you can talk to them until you are blue in the face without transferring understanding; but show a child something and they will grab that new knowledge and run with it and build on it.
The last subject that we have to explore is how Piaget’s theories addressed social and emotional development. We must remember Piaget’s background at this time and understand that cognition, particularly the origin of knowledge, was Piaget’s attraction to studying children. In this being Piaget’s focus, we find that he did not place any great emphasis on the topics of social and emotional development. There is some evidence that Piaget believed that social development was gained through the stages that he theorized. For example, the website Education.com states “Although Piaget (1962) felt that play has a primary role in the child’s development, he placed little emphasis on play as a factor in the child’s responses to the social environment. Nevertheless, he saw a role for peer interactions within play for social-cognitive development. More specifically, play interactions helped children understand that other players have perspectives different than their own. Play, for Piaget, provides children with opportunities to develop social competence through ongoing interactions.” (www.education.com) The absence of emphasis on social and emotional development has been cause for some to be critical of Piaget’s work. We must agree that to discount the emotional and social development of a child is to have only part of the story. We believe that analyzing children as whole beings would be greatly advantageous and may have enhanced Piaget’s theories. That being said, we recognize and respect that Piaget’s passion was the origin of knowledge, not of emotion or social relations and we are grateful that this passion compelled him to make advances in the field of child development that had not been explored previously. The lack of depth in these areas has given rise to some criticism of Piaget’s work.
Indeed, there are several areas that modern research has found that Piaget may have improved upon, such as better distinguishing competence versus performance and further exploring the stages of development in relation to necessary milestones for development.
In closing, we find that Piaget was a pioneer in child development studies and that his research has had profound and lasting effects on our understanding of children and on our interactions with them. Indeed, this is strongly stated in a quote from an anonymous scholar that stated “assessing the impact of Piaget on developmental psychology is like assessing the impact of Shakespeare on English literature or Aristotle on philosophy – impossible.” We have found that this sentiment is widely felt and we too, employ this as our view.
Discovering Child Development; 2009, Carol Lynn Martin & Richard Fabes