Piaget’s Cognitive Theory and Motor Development

Jean Piaget is a Swiss developmental psychologist and genetic epistemology who is known as one of the most influential researchers during the 20th century. Piaget was interested in the intellectual development of children and how they come to know the world around them. It was through various observations that led to his Theory of Cognitive Development, which states that as children mature they go through a series of four stages of intellectual development: the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage. According to Simatwa, “Each stage in this sequence of development provides the foundation for the next stage permitting progressively complex and effective adaptations to the environment” (2010). This means that the child cannot skip or bypass a stage. They must develop through each stage in a regular sequence. It is clear that Piaget’s theory focuses on the phases of cognitive development.

However, is motor development implicated during the phases of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development? In this paper, I will look at each phase in Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development and determine if and how motor development plays a role throughout the phases of cognitive development.

The first cognitive development stage is the sensorimotor stage, which occurs from birth to around two years old. According to WebMD, “During the early stages, infants are only aware of what is immediately in front of them. They focus on what they see, what they are doing, and physical interactions with their immediate environment ( 2015). Their first cognitions are sensory and motor oriented and rely on senses to acquire knowledge. David Gallahue states in his textbook that, “During the sensorimotor phase of development, the major developmental tasks of infancy are coordination of the infant’s actions or movement activities and his or her perceptions into a tenuous whole” (2012). Reflexes are initial automatic motor responses followed by physical motor development such as crawling, standing, and walking. All of which are motor abilities that typically occur at the end of the sensorimotor stage and indicate that they are ready for the preoperational stage.

During the preoperational stage, which occurs from about ages two through seven, “children are able to use symbolic thought, but unable to think logically” (Bergin, 2014). In other words, children can demonstrate intelligence through the use of symbols, language, memory, and imagination, but thinking is done in a non logical or non reversible manner. Egocentrism occurs during this stage and is defined by Bergin as “the tendency to see the world from your own point of view while failing to see other people’s point of view” (2014).

This egocentrism also leads to animism, which is is when a child believes that a nonliving object has lifelike qualities (Bergin, 2014). I often babysit my cousin who is three years old. She often carries around her baby doll and has the doll do everything that she does, as if the doll was a human. One time she was hungry so she brought the doll with her to the table because “the doll is hungry too,” when obviously the doll can not actually be hungry. She is showing animism by giving her doll human characteristics and also showing egocentrism because she is having the doll do exactly what she is doing. All children go through egocentrism and animism because it is part of Piaget’s stage. “Imaginary play and parallel play are important tools for learning” (Gallahue, 2012). This play implements motor development and eventually reduces egocentricity and increases progress toward the next stage of cognitive development.

The third stage of Piaget’s Cognitive Development is the concrete operational stage. This stage occurs from about ages 7 through 11. According to Gallahue, “During the concrete operations phase of development, the child becomes aware of alternative solutions, uses rules in thinking, and is able to differentiate between appearance and reality” (2012). Unlike in the previous stage, children now become less egocentric and realize that one’s own feelings and thoughts are unique. They can also reverse operations, conserve, and classify successfully. Visual and perceptual development play a role in this stage.

Gallahue states that, “The concrete operational thought level supposes that mental experimentation still depends on perception… The child examines the parts to gain knowledge of the whole and establishes means of classification for organizing parts into a hierarchical system” (2012). Therefore, if a child is lacking or behind in their visual motor development, then they could potentially have issues with areas such as perception and struggle to progress through this stage of Piaget’s development.

The last stage is the formal operational stage. This stage typically occurs from about age twelve and older. According to Bergin, “In the formal operational stage, youth can think in the abstract; that is, they can think about possibilities that may not physically exist. They can think about, manage, and monitor their own thinking” (2014). Once the student has reached this stage of thinking, they are capable of forming theories and making logical deductions about specific problems without having previous experience or knowledge on the subject (Bergin, 2014). Formal operational thought is important in long term thinking. At the age and stage that I am at in my life, I find myself having to think abstractly every day as I plan for my future and weigh out all possibilities in my head so that I can make the best decisions for myself. I take into consideration the possible outcomes and consequences for my decisions in hopes of making the right ones. These formal operations, thoughts, and decisions that we make, ultimately guide our interactions and motor experiences in our lives.

Going back to my original question, “Is motor development implicated during the phases of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development?”After researching the topic, I have come to the conclusion that yes, motor development plays a significant role in cognitive development. It is often looked over and not thought about, however, without progress in various areas of motor development, then children would not be able to successfully move through Piaget’s cognitive phases. Through my research, I have found that higher cognitive structures are formulated by children’s actions through reflexes, play, and other forms of movement activity.