Child Psychology – Jean Piaget

1st draft, ready for comments

Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.

Jean Piaget, 1934

The founder of scientific child psychology in the 1920s and 1930s was the Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). As the father of three children, he studied the development of his own children carefully and looked for patterns in their development, and as a psychologist, he conducted several controlled scientific studies of the development of children’s psychology and their inner worlds in all age groups.

Early on, Piaget believed that biological development played a significant role in psychological, emotional and cognitive development; the child’s mind only becomes ready for certain types of learning and cognitive activity as the brain grows. Neural science later proved him right. – Luckily, though, our mind does not stop its development as the brain stops growing. The process of rewiring the brain, growing new connections and pruning existing ones, continues even when we and our brain have ceased physically growing. As the rewiring continues, the complexity of the brain increases and it may do so throughout life.

Piaget’s studies brought him to the conclusion that along with this physical development, the child’s mind evolves through an on-going process of assimilation and accommodation of so-called schemata, i.e. mental models of the world. When a child encounters a new event that is consistent with an existing schema or mental model of the world, the schema is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when a child encounters a new event that is not consistent with an existing schema, something unexpected, the child must either modify this faulty model of the world or form an entirely new one.

A schema could be, for instance, that mom and dad always tell the truth, and as long as Santa Claus turns up every Christmas with presents, this is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when the child suddenly discovers that Santa is really Uncle Chuck, there is an inconsistency with the existing schema of trustworthy parents, and the schema must be revised through accommodation. However, a new schema evolves: “Mom, dad and I share a secret about Santa that my little sister does not know!” – Until the sister also finds out and this leads to accommodation too.

These specific schemata each depend on other schemata that are more general. In the above case, the first general schema is that mom’s, dad’s and my knowledge are one and the same; the replacing schema, that mom’s and dad’s knowledge is different than mine and always will be, and lastly, that I can share a secret with somebody and that somebody knows less than me. These three latter schemata serve as organizing models or meta-schemata for the more specific ones.

From the above examples, it should be possible to see how the mind develops in stages as new schemata replace old ones, that these stages are related to age, and that the development is one-directional or progressive because one stage must develop before the next. Some stages and schemata may last longer than others, but they correspond with a certain age period and evolve in a certain order, always evolving towards higher levels of complexity of mind.

Based on his research, Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development, according to which children develop in four stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational periods. – We are not going to dwell on child psychology as such but it helps explain adult developmental psychology.

The sensorimotor period is from birth to 2 years of age; the child learns from physical experience, and gradually learns that it is separate from the world, i.e. what is self and what is other. Towards the end of the second year, it acquires object consistency, which means that it realizes that objects may still exist when not visible, which in turn means that peek-a-boo is no longer a fun and surprising game.

Piaget divided the sensorimotor period into six sub-stages during which the infant goes from simple reflexes to voluntary actions (0-6 weeks); develops its first habits and voluntarily reproduces actions that originally happened by chance (6 weeks to 4 months); coordinates vision and action (4-8 months); shows intentions (8-12 months); becomes curious (12-18 months): and internalizes schemata and begins using primitive symbols (12-18 months).

Through these sub-stages, it is relatively easy for the adult observer to see how loops of repetition evolve to become increasingly complex loops of repetition, variation and choice until, eventually, we see the child as an individual who acts and makes choices.

The pre-operational stage is from 2 years of age when the child begins to speak until around age 7. Piaget noted that during this stage of cognitive development, the child cannot mentally manipulate information and does not understand concrete logic, but it can form magical beliefs and understands the world as animistic, believing that inanimate objects have feelings and intentions. The child begins to play and to think symbolically; it roleplays and pretends that it is somebody else or that furniture is dinosaurs, but the thinking is egocentric and the child cannot see things from different points of view. From around 4 years of age, the child wants to know things and begins to ask questions.

The concrete operational stage is from 7 to 11 years of age. As the name suggests, the child still thinks in concrete terms and is, on the on hand, letting go of magical thinking, on the other hand, not ready for abstract or hypothetical thinking yet. Children this age begin to solve problems using logic, and they begin to understand that others have perspectives and agendas of their own.

The formal operational stage is from around age 11 into adolescence and early adulthood, age 15-20. This big child or teenager uses symbols related to abstract concepts, learns to think about abstract concepts and can handle assumptions that have no necessary relation to reality, i.e. “Who would be the better friend, Superman or Batman?” The abstraction may relate to reality too, of course, as in: “Which is more just: sharing so that everybody gets the same, or sharing so that everybody receives according to personal effort?” In younger children, problem-solving is done through trial-and-error, but at this stage they develop the ability to systematically solve problems in logical and methodical ways.


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