Sensorimotor Stage of Cognitive Development

Written by mary margaret peralta
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Sensorimotor Stage of Cognitive Development
Piaget recognised four stages of cognitive development, the first being the sensorimotor stage. (George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Jean Piaget was a child psychologist born in 1896, promoted several theories on child development and human intelligence. He came up with four stages of cognitive development, the first being the sensorimotor stage, which occurs in children from birth to two years of age. Children at this stage try to make sense of their world through sensory perception and motor activities. The sensorimotor stage can be divided into six substages.


The reflexive substage occurs during the first month of life. It includes automatic responses to stimuli or inborn reflexes that keep a baby alive. Examples of activity in the reflexive substage include suckling from a mother's breast, feeling the texture of a baby blanket and putting an object in the palm of a baby's hand, where her fingers automatically close around the item.

Primary Circular Reactions

The primary circular reactions substage occurs between one and four months of age. Infants develop coordination of actions and there is simple anticipation of some events. Behaviour is focused on their own bodies, so it is recognised as primary. The behaviour is repeated over and over, so it is seen as circular. Some of the baby's reflexes disappear, while others become more refined, such as combining grasping and sucking.

Secondary Circular Reactions

This stage takes place when an infant is between four and eight months of age. Babies become more responsive to the world around them and their behaviour becomes secondary. They notice that their own behaviour has interesting effects, but they may not make the connection between their action and its consequences. Infants can now make simple associations and their physical skills have improved. Activities include reaching and grasping objects, and passing a toy from one hand to the other.

Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions

The fourth substage occurs from eight to 12 months of age. At this stage, infant behaviours become intentional and goal-directed, meaning there is understanding of cause and effect. Babies anticipate events more and while they are still focused on themselves, they are now aware of others. Infants also develop object permanence, the realisation that an object exists even if it is not seen or heard. At this stage, they cry for attention, look for hidden objects, shake a rattle different ways and imitate others with some alteration.

Tertiary Circular Reactions

Tertiary circular reactions tend to happen somewhere around 12 to 18 months. Infants now demonstrate more creativity in their behaviour and experiment with objects to acquire new outcomes. There is also a stronger association between objects and ideas. For example, babies look in several places for a lost item, use various techniques to push a shape through a slot and look to an adult for help with a play task. They may even make use of simple language.

Mental Representation

Mental representation begins to take place around 18 months to 24 months. Toddlers can internalise past events and images of objects. There is still a focus on the self, but there is also an acceptance of others. Mental planning and prediction replace trial-and-error-based behaviour. Deferred imitation begins at this stage; toddlers recall and copy another's behaviour hours or days after seeing it. Examples of activity at this stage include "talking" on a telephone and playing house.

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