Piaget's Theory of Infant Development

Written by lora mathews
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  • Introduction

    Piaget's Theory of Infant Development

    Jean Piaget, a Swiss cognitive theorist (whose doctorate was in biology), put forth a highly influential framework of child development, which remains well-respected in education to this day. His developmental stages are predicated upon the idea that children mature into readiness for learning and thinking tasks in a predictable pattern. The first stage, called Sensorimotor, occurs from infancy through age two and is divided into six sub-stages based upon age. The primary cognitive relationship during this stage is the interaction of the infant with her environment through the medium of action. Piaget's theory is based upon his assertion that "to know an object is to act upon it," which he terms "operation" in his paper "Development and Learning."

    Piaget's theory maps your baby's development. (infant image by Svetlana Bogomol from

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    Reflexive Stage

    Infants are in the first sub-stage of Piaget's Sensorimotor Development from birth to one month of age. During this time, innate reflexes are manifested. At the beginning of this stage, babies grasp whatever is placed in their palms--your finger, a lock of your hair. Infants begin to adapt these reflexes to voluntary movement as their age approaches one month. At this point they no longer rely on a simple grasping reflex but begin to exercise choice.

    In the first sub-stage babies grasp whatever is put into their hands. (baby hand and parent arm image by Anatoly Tiplyashin from

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    Sensory Awareness

    Between one and four months of age, babies becomes aware of objects through their senses. They begin to discriminate, preferring, for example, the scent of their mothers over that of strangers. Motor movement at this stage is egocentric, meaning that it is focused on a baby's own body and comfort. Object permanence has not developed. For example, if you show a baby a bright toy or pacifier and then move it out of his field of vision, it simply goes away in his perception, ceasing to exist.

    If you take away his toy, he will think it has disappeared at sub-stage two. (baby boy reaching for a toy image by Maciej Zatonski from

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    Object Permanence and Imitation

    As a baby reaches sub-stage three, from four to eight months old, she will come to understand that objects you hide or take away will come back because they still exist. Peek-a-boo is a big hit during this stage. She will imitate you now, especially facial expressions and waving. Repetition will be very popular for your baby as she is enjoying a new stage of capability and can do a great deal more than she could previously. Playtime is a favourite during the object permanence stage.

    Your baby will begin to show interest in objects and play. (Baby Playing image by Diane Stamatelatos from

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    Goal Direction

    As your baby nears one year old, he enters substage four. He will hunt for a hidden object, knowing that it still exists and seeking it out. He is now able to see that actions cause things to happen, such as the fact that throwing a toy onto the floor from his high chair puts it out of his reach. He will begin to set goals such as finding a hidden toy or imitating your actions and movements to be like you. This is the beginning of goal-directed behaviour, which occurs between eight and twelve months of age.

    If you hide his favourite duckie now, he will go look for it. (baby duck image by TiG from

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    From ages twelve to eighteen months, your baby becomes more mobile and curious. She experiments with new objects and movements and may put everything she finds into her mouth. As she explores, she figures out how to make toys work and how to make noises by banging on things. Although still largely nonverbal, she finds ways to communicate with those around her and learns to see people as agents of cause, meaning that she can get them to do things and bring her things. A tiny tyrant at this stage, your baby is figuring out how to perform early operations on her surroundings to achieve a goal.

    She explores her environment by experimenting with objects and chewing on them. (baby image by Yvonne Bogdanski from

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    Between eighteen and twenty-four months of age, an infant is in the final sub-stage of Piaget's sensorimotor development. He begins to make sounds and say words spontaneously. He has a memory bank of imitations and actions that he can call forth without being prompted. He may delay imitating you when you want him to make a certain face or say a particular word--making you wait. He will now get creative and develop strategies to get what he wants--which often involve climbing. Much more sophisticated in his thinking now, a baby will make and execute plans now.

    In sub-stage six, a little one is definitely up to something--now he can plan. (baby pointing image by Diane Stamatelatos from

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