Piaget Stages of Cognitive Development – Study Coach Blog

What is Developmental Psychology? A brief answer is that it sets out to explain various aspects of human development during childhood, what is known as the developmental stages (according to theorists such as Jean Piaget). In this Blog, Study Coach takes a look at Piaget’s stages of Cognitive Development, and the development of intelligence.

According to Piaget there are 4 major stages of cognitive development:

Sensorimotor Stage 0 – 2 years
Pre-Operational Stage 2 – 7 years
Concrete Operational Stage 7 – 11 years
Formal Operational Stage 11- 15 years


This stage is essentially practical. The focus is on hearing, grasping, pulling. For example, a baby will examine a rattle for its colour and feel – the young child thinks through acting upon the objects and perceiving them. At the Sensorimotor stage the baby has no ‘object permanence’. To understand ‘object permanence’ consider the game of peek-a-boo. The young child is fascinated how people can apparently disappear and then reappear. At some point during the Sensorimotor stage, the child will eventually develop ‘object permanence’; meaning that the child comes to understand that things don’t just disappear, without leaving a trace. The child therefore develops ‘object permanence’.

The Pre-OPERATIONAL STAGE (2 – 7years)

According to Piaget, at the Pre-Operational stage, the child is still primarily concerned with how things look. Piaget further divide this stage into two (a) the pre-conceptual stage, 2- 4 years (b) the intuitive stage, 4-7 – The child’s thinking is relegated to ‘big’ ‘biggest’ – but he/she is likely to have difficulties understanding the terms – ‘bigger’ or ‘stronger’ – ‘shorter’ or ‘taller’.

The child might be able to put all red apples or green apples together – but have yet to grasp the concept of all ‘big’ apples. At this stage all men are ‘Daddies’ and women are ‘Mummies’ (this is not to infer that the child cannot recognise his/her father or mother). It is simply that the young child assumes that all men and women will have children. Young children are likely to believe that all four legged animals are ‘doggies’. A cat is likely to be called a dog, until the child is able to distinguish, between cat and dog. Piaget also refers to ‘animistic thinking’ – the child believes that the sun is alive, and it follows us when we walk.

Here children develop an action – performed mentally. For example a 7 year old might be able to conserve numbers but not weight. At this stage children develop the mental structure called an operation. The child develops the ability to conserve – example: If David is taller than Rita and Rita is taller than Simone who is taller?


While the concrete operational stage is still concerned with manipulating things (even if this is done in the mind), the formal operational thinker can manipulate ideas and propositions and can reason solely on the basis of verbal statements. The adolescent can also think about hypothetical situations.

Do remember that each of Piaget’s stages represents a stage in development of intelligence. The stages are only approximate, meaning that there will be children who are advanced for their age. Example; some young children, are able to reason solely on verbal statements. On the other hand there are many adults who cannot manipulate ideas and propositions.

The stages of intellectual development are based on biological maturation; the stages are universal. They are not based on culture.

Intelligence Testing

The first type of intelligence tests to be developed were tests based on age-correlation: the idea that people can be expected to know different things and to have different skills at different ages.

The very first intelligence test was developed by Alfred Binet, in France in 1905 (Binet and Simon, 1905). The French education department had established special schools for learners with needs, and Binet was commissioned to develop an objective test which could identify such children. Binet reasoned that intelligence in children was a developmental process, and so might reasonably be identified in terms of what could be expected of a child at a given age. For example, you wouldn’t expect a 2 year old to be able to recite the days of the week, but it would be reasonable to expect an 8-year-old to be able to do so. Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon, collected a series of such developmental tasks, and by sampling large numbers of children, they were able to develop a test which matched these tasks to different ages. They also devised a technique for expressing how a child matched up to its peers in a single numerical figure (Binet and Simon, 1911). This became known as the intelligence quotient, or IQ.

IQ was calculated by comparing the child’s mental age (as assessed by the developmental tasks) with its real, or chronological age, according to the formula:

Mental Age
IQ = ————————————— X 100
Chronological Age

If a child’s mental age is exactly the same as its chronological age, then its IQ will come out as exactly 100; a child with a mental age lower than would be expected for its chronological age will come out with an IQ less, and one which is mentally ‘advanced’ for its age will come out with more.

There is a view that intelligence is a fixed quantity. The counter argument is that intelligence is open to change, irrespective of one’s social group/class or race. The question of whether intelligence is inherited or acquired through life experiences, is a long running debate – Nature versus Nurture.

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