Stage of specific operations: what it is and what are its characteristics

The stage of concrete operations is the third phase of development proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, In his well-known theory of cognitive development.

During this stage, boys and girls acquire a better ability to perform operations related to the mass, number, length and weight of objects. They are also able to order objects better, as well as to categorize and organize them in a hierarchical fashion.

Below, we’ll take a closer look at this step, as well as each of the skills learned during this time, and the critiques that were made on Piaget’s findings.

    What is the stage of concrete operations?

    The stage of concrete operations is a period of development proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in his theory of cognitive development.

    this step it starts around the age of 7 and ends at the age of 11, being the third in theory, Coming after the preoperative phase and before the formal phase of operations. It is during these years that boys and girls acquire a greater ability to organize their ideas, developing better rational, logical and operational thinking.

    At these ages, children acquire the ability to discover things they did not understand before and to solve problems through language. They are able to present unrelated arguments, reflecting a higher level of intelligence and operability with respect to the two previous developmental periods, the sensorimotor and preoperative stages.

    The main feature of this period is the ability to be able to use thought or logical operations. This implies being able to use the rules of thought, to have a less fanciful view of real objects, in the sense that he understands that the camibos that can be given in their number, area, volume and orientation do not mean necessarily that there are more. or less. Despite this great progress, children can only apply their logic to physical objects, not to abstract and hypothetical ideasThis is why we have spoken of the stage of concrete and non-formal operations.

    Main characteristics of this stage of development

    There are five main characteristics that can be identified at this stage proposed by Jean Piaget.


    Conservation is the child’s ability to understand that an object remains the same in quantity even if it changes in appearance. In other words, that is to say whatever the type of redistribution of matter does not have to affect its mass, number, length or volume. For example, it is at this age that children understand that if we take a medium ball of plasticine and divide it into three small balls, we still have the same amount of plasticine.

    Another very recurring example is the conservation of liquids. It is from the age of 7 that most children can understand that if we put water in a low and wide glass and change it to a thin, high glass, we still have the same amount of liquid.

    The same example is not given in children of 5 years, according to Piaget. At this age, if we do the same exercise of changing liquid from one container to another in a different way, children believe that we have more water.

    To check how they could see the conservation of the number of elements Piaget carried out an experiment with tokens. He gave the children a number of these counters and asked them to make a row equal to the one the experimenter had made.

    Piaget then took his row and moved the tiles aside a bit, asking the children if they thought they had more tiles. Most 7 year olds could answer correctly, By concluding that it was at this age that the notion of digital preservation was acquired.

    But he also saw that the idea of ​​conservation for all aspects, i.e. number, mass, length and volume, was not understood in a homogeneous way. Some children first learned one genre without understanding another. Based on this, Piaget concluded that in this skill there was a horizontal lag, that is, there were some inconsistencies in the development.


      The classification is the ability to identify the properties of things and categorize them according to them, Relate the classes to each other and use this information to help you solve problems.

      The basic element of this skill is the ability to group objects according to a common characteristic, in addition to being able to organize categories into hierarchies, that is, categories within categories.

      Piaget imagined 03:00 basic options that would help understand how children develop the ability to classify objects and relate them to each other. So, he talks about class inclusion, single classification and multiple classification.

      1. Inclusion of classes

      Refers to different ways people have to communicate, encompassing ideas and concepts in various categories, See how these relate or include each other.

      2. Simple classification

      It is about grouping together a series of objects that will be joined to use them for the same purpose. For example, organize geometric figures with different shapes and colors.

      3. Multiple classification

      It is about grouping together a series of objects working in two dimensions or characteristics.


      Serialization is the ability to mentally order the elements according to a quantifiable dimension, Such as weight, height, height … It is for this reason that, according to Piaget, children of these ages know better how to order objects.

      Piaget tested this ability through an experiment, taking a sample of children of different ages. In this experience he presented them with tubes of different sizes, giving them the task of ordering them from the largest to the smallest..

      Children aged 3-4 had a hard time sorting them out, whereas as they got older they had some ability to sort it out. At 5 some skills were noticed, while at 7 he seemed to already know how to do the task.


      Decentralization is a prosocial skill, which implies that the individual has the ability to consider aspects of serious situations or conflicts in order to find a solution.

      In kindergarten and early elementary school, this skill can be found in part, as many have an attitude of bullying and defiance towards their peers. However, between the ages of 7 and 11, many already know how to control and solve these problems.


      As for the concept of transitivity, it is characterized by find the relation between two elements. The knowledge that children acquire at these ages, both in school and at home, has a lot to do with this skill, as it is what enables them to connect ideas.

      For example, they are able to relate that a ball, the pitch, the goal and the sportswear are related to the sport of football.

        Piaget Reviews

        Several psychologists after Piaget criticized the discoveries made by the Swiss psychologist. These criticisms have mostly focused on his claims about the age at which the ability to conserve was acquired.. Among these we can highlight the following:

        Rose and Blank Investigations (1974)

        One of the main criticisms of conservation offered by Piaget relates to the way the researcher asked his subjects whether or not they saw differences after presenting them with changes of objects.

        Rose and Blank, in 1974, argued that with 5 years it is not difficult to accidentally confuse children by asking them twice the same question. If the question is repeated, they may think that the first answer they gave the researcher was incorrect and the adult repeats the question to them, suggesting that the first thing they said was wrong and that they should give another answer.

        According to Rose and Blank, this is a procedural error, and Piaget, in fact, made it. The Swiss asked the children twice, before and after the transformation. Since the question was closed (is there more liquid now? Yes / no) there was a 50% chance of success and since the 5 year olds thought they might be wrong to answer the first time, they changed their answer.

        Rose and Blank repeated this experiment, but only asked the question once, after switching the liquid from a thicker container to a thinner container. They found that many children between the ages of 5 and 6 also gave the correct answer. That proves that children can understand the idea of ​​conservation at an earlier age than that proposed by Piaget.

        McGarrigle and Donaldson Study (1974)

        Researchers McGarrigle and Donaldson designed a conservation study in 1974, in which the number of alterations was accidental.

        They placed two identical rows of candies in front of their experimental children, aged 4 to 6, showing that they saw that the two were equal. Suddenly, however, something appeared that altered the rows, a stuffed animal we’ll call the Ugly Teddy. The bear ruined the order of one of the rows of candy and returned to its box to hide. After that, the children were asked if there were the same number of candies, and children aged 4-6 gave the correct answer more than half the time.

        This experience suggested, once again, that Piaget’s idea that conservation was acquired over 7 years old was not true. Apparently, this ability manifested itself in children at an early age, with its appearance at 4 years old.

        Study by Nessin (1994)

        Nessin proved in 1994 that children from different cultures acquire the skills offered for the stage of specific operations at different ages, Depending on their cultural context.

        His sample consisted of Aboriginal children from remote areas of the central Australian desert, aged 8 to 14.

        He had them perform the tasks of fluid conservation and spatial awareness, finding that in this culture, the ability to conserve occurred later, between 10 and 13 years old. Interestingly, spatial awareness skills were developed earlier in indigenous children than in Swiss children. So with this study it was shown that cognitive development did not depend solely on maturation, But also influenced cultural factors.

        In the case of spatial awareness, it seems that this is a skill quickly acquired among nomadic peoples because for them the ability to orient themselves through space is something fundamental. In the Swiss context, the acquisition of conservation between 5 and 7 years seems to be due to schooling.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. AW .J. Lonner & RS Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
        • Greenfield, PM (1966). On culture and conservation. Cognitive Growth Studies, 225-256.
        • McGarrigle, J. and Donaldson, M. (1974). Conservation accidents. Cognition, 3, 341-350.
        • Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in children. (M. Cook, trans.).
        • Piaget, J. (1954). The design of the child’s number. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 18 (1), 76.
        • Piaget, J. (1968). Quantification, conservation and nativism. Science, 162, 976-979.
        • Rose, SA and Blank, M. (1974). The power of context in children’s cognition: an illustration through conservation. Child Development, 499-502.

        Leave a Comment