Early last century, it was assumed children reasoned like mini-adults. Ha! That must have been a time when children were seen and not heard. Then along came Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) with research that concluded children have their own way of thinking. That’s stating it mildly.
Piaget’s contributions to the fields of cognitive development and genetic epistemology (or the study of the roots of knowledge) are still valued today, particularly his work with children. While studying how kids process knowledge, Piaget discovered our “mini-me’s” go through four critical stages of development spanning from birth to adulthood. The following stages help us understand children where they are and what they’re going through all the more.
- The Sensorimotor Stage: (birth to approx. age two) This is the stage where children are learning all about their world through sensory perceptions and motor activities. That explains why everything goes in they’re little mouths.
- The Preoperational Stage: (approx. age two to seven) This is the stage where children learn through their imagination via pretend and creative play. Their ability to reason logically is still underdeveloped, as is being able to understand points of view different from their own. If you’ve ever said to a child in this stage, “Think about it from Mommy’s or Daddy’s perspective,” and gotten a blank stare, now you know why.
- The Concrete Operational Stage: (approx. age seven to eleven) In this stage, children develop the ability to think more logically, but they don’t yet understand abstract ideas. Their logic is predominantly black and white — little room for grey. This explains why they prefer their heroes to be all good, and villains to be all bad; they’re not ready for complex moral characters just yet.
- The Formal Operational Stage: (adolescence to adulthood) This is the “fun” stage for parents! Teenagers and young adults are better able to apply logic (compared to the previous stage, anyway — it’s a process), comprehend abstract concepts, and even use deductive reasoning.
Although, according to Piaget, the fourth stage is the final one, recent studies have concluded that the human brain is perpetually “plastic.” That means though we may stay in the formal operational stage, our brains never stop developing. Old dogs can learn new tricks; bad habits can be broken; and people can change . . . if they truly want to.