What Are the 4 Stages of Piaget's Cognitive Development?

4 stages of Piaget's cognitive development
Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that young children go through four stages of cognitive development

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that as children grow, they move through four different stages of mental development. The theory focuses not only on understanding how children acquire knowledge but also on the nature of the child’s intelligence. 

Piaget studied his children from infancy to adolescence. Based on his observations, he determined that a child’s cognitive development is not just about acquiring knowledge, but about constructing a mental model of the world. 

Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development are:

  1. Sensorimotor
  2. Preoperational
  3. Concrete operational
  4. Formal operational

Each of the stages of cognitive development reflect the increasing sophistication of a child's thoughts, and all children go through the stages in the same order. Piaget also believed that:

  • Child development is determined by biological maturation and environmental interaction.
  • At each stage of development, the child’s thought process is qualitatively different from the other stages. 
  • Each stage involves a different type of intelligence.

Stage 1: Sensorimotor (birth to 2 years)

Major characteristics and developmental changes:

  • The infant learns about the world through their senses and actions (moving around and exploring its environment).
  • During this stage, a range of cognitive abilities develop: object permanence, self-recognition, deferred imitation, and representational play.
  • They relate to the emergence of the general symbolic function, which is the capacity to represent the world mentally.
  • At about 8 months of age, the infant will understand the permanence of objects and that they still exist even if they can’t see them.

Stage 2: Preoperational (2-7 years)

Major characteristics and developmental changes:

  • The emergence of language is one of the major hallmarks of this stage.
  • During this stage, children begin to think symbolically and learn to use words and pictures to represent objects.
  • Children at this stage tend to be egocentric and struggle to see things from the perspective of others.
  • While they are getting better with language and thinking, they still tend to think about things in concrete terms.

Stage 3: Concrete operational (7-11 years)

Major characteristics and developmental changes:

  • During this stage, children begin to think logically about concrete events.
  • They begin to understand the concept of conservation. For example, that the amount of liquid in a short, wide cup is equal to that in a tall, skinny glass.
  • Their thinking becomes more logical and organized, but still very concrete.
  • Children begin using inductive logic or reasoning from specific information to a general principle.

Stage 4: Formal operational (12 years and above)

Major characteristics and developmental changes:

  • The final stage of Piaget's theory involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, and an understanding of abstract ideas.
  • At this stage, the adolescent or young adult begins to think abstractly and reason on hypothetical problems.
  • Teens begin to think more about moral, philosophical, ethical, social, and political issues that require theoretical and abstract reasoning.
  • They begin to use deductive logic or reasoning from a general principle to specific information.


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Ojose B. Applying Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development to Mathematics Instruction. The Mathematics Educator. 2008; 18(1): 26-30. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ841568.pdf

Wood KC, Smith H, Grossniklaus D. Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development. In M. Orey, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology. 2001. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/psych406-5.3.2.pdf