Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was one of the great advances in the history of psychology, especially the branch focused on child development.
Its first stage, the sensorimotor phase, is of fundamental importance in the cognitive growth of children., In addition to being in which appears an important aspect of the human mind: the permanence of the object.
Below we will take a closer look at the characteristics of the sensorimotor stage, in which the substeps are divided, and the criticisms that have been made to Piaget regarding some of the statements he made about cognitive development during the years. First 24 months of life.
What is the sensorimotor stage?
The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages of cognitive development theory, developed by Jean Piaget (1954, 1964). This stage extends from birth to 24 months and is characterized by a period during which the child’s cognitive abilities develop very rapidly.
Children acquire a better understanding of the world through trial and error, through their senses and actions. At the onset of the stage, babies are characterized by extreme egocentricity, that is, they have no understanding of the world outside of their own current perspective. To put it somehow, it’s like they don’t know where the world is going when they close their eyes.
The main success of this step proposed by Piaget is to break with this egocentricity., Understand that objects and events exist regardless of whether they are perceived or not. This is called object permanence, that is, knowing that an object always exists, however hidden it may be. To achieve this goal, the child must have the ability to form a mental representation or diagram of that object or event.
The Piagetian methodology
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and epistemologist who greatly influenced developmental psychology.. His research helped change the scientific view of childhood. Before this Swiss psychologist broke into his theories, it was believed that children were passive receptacles shaped by their environment, with no ability to discover it for themselves.
Piaget did not focus on what children know but on their ability to develop with the world, Go from stage to stage of growth. This psychologist firmly believed that babies built knowledge by analyzing every object or expression they saw in other people. Based on what he found in his research, Piaget divided cognitive development into four stages.
- sensorimotor stage
- preoperative stage
- Stage of specific operations
- Stage of formal operations
Each of these stages has different characteristics, and Piaget’s description of each this allows for a deep understanding of the child’s behavior and thinking.
Then we will see in more detail in which substeps the sensorimotor stage is divided, and what successes are obtained in each of its subdivisions.
Sub-steps of the sensorimotor step
Jean Piaget developed his well-known theory of cognitive development from his findings by carefully observing the behavior of his own children Jacqueline, Lucienne and Laurent. In 1952 he began to lay the foundations for the theory, although his research in the 1960s eventually shaped it. Based on what has been observed, Piaget has subdivided the sensorimotor step into 6 sub-steps.
1. Sub-step of reflex acts (from 0 to 1 month)
The first sub-step, which is that of reflex acts, corresponds to the first month of life. The baby responds to external stimulation with innate reflex actions. For example, if someone places an object or finger near the baby, the newborn is more likely to instinctively try to suck on it as if it were a bottle.
2. Primary circular reactions substage (1 to 4 months)
The primary circular reactions substep runs from the first to the fourth month of life. At this stage the child is looking for the best way to stimulate himselfEither by moving your feet, your hands and even sucking your thumb. They are not reflex movements, but they are first of all involuntary and accidental.
Once he finds them, he repeats them again, as he finds that some give him pleasure, like licking his thumbs, throwing them out with his legs or moving his fingers. He repeats them over and over again, seeking to generate a pleasurable stimulation. and put them into practice.
3. Secondary circular reactions sub-step (4 to 10 months)
In the secondary circular reactions substage, babies they are able to make movements that are pleasant and interesting to them, Both with his own body and with objects.
An example of this would be when the boy or girl shakes their rattle for the sake of hearing its sound, struggles with the cradle trying to see if it can escape, or grabs a doll and throws it to see up. where it comes from.
It is at the end of this sub-step, precisely at 8 months, that, according to the Piaget model, the baby begins to acquire the idea of the permanence of the object. In other words, he learns that even if he does not see it, does not touch it or does not smell it, a certain object still exists, it did not disappear as if by magic.
4. Secondary program coordination sub-step (10 to 12 months)
In the sub-diagrams substep, the baby shows signs of skills that he has never shown before, in addition to understanding that there are objects that can be touched and placed from one place to another. .
Now the little one will not only shake the rattle with the intention of making it ring, but he can also detect or imagine where he is when he cannot find it, and move whatever is necessary to find it.
5. Tertiary circular reaction substep (12 to 18 months)
The main success during this substep is the growth of motor skills and have a better ability to draw mental diagrams of a given object.
Tertiary circular reactions differ from secondary circular reactions in that tertiary reactions are intentional adaptations to specific situations.
For example, if the baby was playing with his toy car, he would know how to get it the next time he plays with it, and where to store it after he finishes playing. Or, for example, if you were playing with toys and separated them to see how they were apart, you can put them back together to leave them as is.
6. Principle of reflection (18 to 24 months)
In this last sub-step of the sensorimotor step, the beginning of symbolic thought is born. It is a phase of transition to the next stage of development within the Piagetian model.: The preoperative stage of cognitive development.
In the substep of the principle of thought, according to the Piagetian model, children have the idea of the permanence of the object completely installed, being the main and the greatest achievement of the sensorimotor stage.
While this was already a capacity that began to set in at 8 months, at the end of the secondary circular reactions substep, this is how babies can have mental representations of complete objects. They can even assume where an object ended up without having to see it, assuming only aspects such as its trajectory, behavior or other place of search.
Cover and ball experience
As we have already mentioned, it is at the sensorimotor stage, precisely at the third sub-stage of it, that the idea of object permanence develops. Babies begin to understand that objects continue to exist, Even if they cannot see them, the touch or hear them yet.
In fact, it is the lack of permanence of the object in the first months that it is possible to play with the babies in the “Where is …? Here it is!” For a baby who still doesn’t know where the world is going when he closes his eyes, having an adult cover his face is like a magic trick: he suddenly disappears and reappears. However, babies are a bit older understand that the object or person still exists, no matter how much they close their eyes or whether the person covers their face.
Piaget found this ability through a simple experiment, performed in 1963. There was a blanket and a ball, which showed the baby. The aim was to investigate at what age babies acquired the idea of the permanence of objects by hiding the balloon under the blanket, while the child watched. When the baby was looking for the ball, it was the demonstration that he had a mental representation of it.
As a result of all this, Piaget found that babies started looking for the hidden toy around the age of 8 months. Their conclusion is that it is from this age that children began to manifest the permanence of objects, because they are able to form a mental representation of the object.
While Piaget’s model is undoubtedly a major breakthrough in developmental psychology of the last century, it is not without its critics. Later experiments questioned his claim that it is from the age of 8 months that babies begin to show the idea of object permanence. In fact, it has been suggested that it could be earlier and that even the capacity for symbolic representation would be highly developed in the first months of life..
Piaget must have been wrong in thinking that if the baby showed no interest in looking for an object, it automatically meant that he had no representation of it. It could have happened that in reality there were subjects who had no interest in the ball, but who knew they were under the blanket, or that the children did not have enough psychomotor skills to go to. their search, but knowing that the ball had gone nowhere.
Bower and Wishart Studies
An example of this is the experiments of TG Bower and Jennifer G. Wishart in 1972. These researchers, instead of using Piaget’s technique with the blanket and the ball, what they did was wait for their experienced subject to receive an object in a room.
Then, when the child became familiar with this purpose, they put it in the same place it had been found and turned off the lights. Once in the dark, investigators filmed the child with an infrared camera and observed what was happening. They saw that for at least a minute and a half the children were looking for the object in the dark, going where they thought it might be.
But like everything in science, the studies of Bower and Wishart have also been criticized. One of them concerns the time given to the children to complete the task, which was 3 minutes. During this time it could have happened that the children managed to reach the object by accident, at random and at random. Another criticism is that, being in the dark, it could have happened that the children were desperate to find something to cling to, and they would find the object in a totally random way, being something that would give them the security.
Studies by Renée Baillargeon
Another study that called Piaget’s discovery into question comes from studies by Renée Baillargeon. This psychology professor used a technique known as the paradigm of transgression of expectation, Which explores how babies tend to search for objects longer that they haven’t found before.
In an experience of transgressing children’s expectations, they are introduced to a new situation. They are repeatedly shown a stimulus until they no longer find anything flashy or new. To find out if they have already familiarized themselves with this stimulus, it is enough to see when the children turn their heads in another direction, indicating that it is not something new to them anymore or that it attracts so much attention.
In Baillargeon’s studio, a 5 month old baby was caught and presented with a script. Among the items was a ramp, a path that would go to a toy truck, a color box, and a screen that covered the box. These elements would represent two situations.
One was a possible event, that is, an event that could occur physically, while the other was an impossible event, that is, that could not logically occur. The child was presented with a scene in which there was a path for the toy truck to go and a box that could either be behind the road or obstruct it.
The possible event was to first teach the baby that the box was not blocking the path, then lower the screen to prevent him from seeing the box and let the truck go down the ramp to take him across the path. . Thus, in the absence of obstacles, the truck would follow its path.
The impossible event was to teach the baby that the box was obstructing the path, to lower the screen so that he ceased to see it, to let go of the truck, and although logically he would not have to follow the path because the box would be awkward, the experimenter would have removed it without the child knowing it. So, on the left side of the screen, the child would see how the truck comes out. This surprised him, and in fact Baillargeon noticed that babies spent much more time than possible watching this impossible event.
Based on this, Renee Baillargeon concluded that the surprise expressed by the children indicated that they had expectations about the behavior of physical objects. Seeing the truck “go through” the box they thought was obstructing the road and being surprised meant that even though the screen had been lowered and he couldn’t see the box, the baby still thought it was. It was a demonstration of the object’s permanence at 5 months, not at 8 as Piaget had said.
- Baillargeon, R., Spelke, ES and Wasserman, S. (1985). Permanence of objects in babies of 5 months. Cognition, 20, 191-208.
- Bower, TGR and Wishart, JG (1972). The effects of motor skills on the permanence of the object. Cognition, 1, 165–172.
- Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International University Press.
- Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in children (M. Cook, trans.).
- Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development of the child: development and learning of Piaget. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2 (3), 176-186.
- Piaget, J. (1963). The psychology of intelligence. Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield Adams.