Early Childhood Theorists: Jean Piaget

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Today we’re continuing our series on Early Childhood Theorists and diving into Jean Piaget. We’ve already talked about Montessori and Vygotsky so if you missed those you can click over to read up on them.

Okay- hold on to your hats ladies and gents- here we go: Jean Piaget was born in 1896 in Switzerland. In 1919 he took a job at the Alfred Binet Laboratory School in Paris to try and standardize a British intelligence test for French use. That is where he noticed that the children were answering the questions in a similar way, and he wanted to figure out why. He passed away in 1980 at the age of 84. 

A lot of people call Piaget a psychologist, but he wasn’t really- he was an epistemologist. Epistemology is the study of what differentiates justified belief from opinion- or in other words- how knowledge is made. So while other people were asking WHAT kids know, Piaget was concerned with HOW they know it.

There’s been a lot of talk in child development circles of late about how valid Piaget still is given that a lot of his theories have been…not disproven, but they have to be adjusted for modern knowledge. Which quite frankly I think is ridiculous. All of the theorists we’re talking about should have to be adjusted for modern knowledge- have you been paying attention to their death dates? We’ve learned more about early childhood development in the last 20 years than we have in the history of mankind to date. They weren’t psychics. But they were foundational in how we’ve gone forward learning about children. So yes, he’s still important.

So in contrast to Vygotsky, who if you remember, believed that children learn from the More Knowledgeable Other and from their interactions with people, children and adults. Piaget believed that children learn primarily from their environment. Similar to Montessori, he bought into the idea that children learn best when they’re doing the work vs. being given explanations by adults. Both Piaget and Montessori believed that children should be given every possible opportunity to do it by themselves.

He thought that parents and teachers should be sparking curiosity in children- rather than giving direct instruction. Our job in his eyes is to support our children in their search for answers.

Which obviously means that he was also a big fan of play! He saw it as a safe way for children to experiment with trial and error and as I said, he was a big believer in the environment being the main teacher; so a well-stocked playroom filled with intentional items to spark curiosity were his jam.

So at the centre of Piaget’s theories were his Stages of Cognitive Development. He believed there were 4 stages that kids went through from birth to age 18. The first is the Sensorimotor stage- which he believed was from birth to age 2. Next comes the Preoperational stage, which is age 2-7…and yes, there’s overlap. He knew kids don’t level up. After the Preoperational stage comes the Concrete Operational stage, which is from 7-11/12ish, and then finally, the Formal Operational stage that is 11+.

Since I focus on infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers we’re going to focus on Sensorimotor and Preoperational in this post.

So Sensorimotor is exactly what it sounds like. The focus is on sensory experiences and motor development. Pretty much exactly what a baby does. So he believed that babies build intelligence by honing reflexes into purposeful movement. So, for instance, a baby’s lying on the ground, and they have one of those rattles that’s like an anklet but, just one. At first, the baby would just kick, kick, and kick. Eventually, the baby will stop kicking the leg without the rattle on it, and purposefully start kicking just the leg with the rattle. If the next time you swap legs, you’ll notice the baby starts by kicking the leg that had the rattle until they figure out where the sound is coming from- there’s the sensory- and start just kicking the leg with the rattle.

Also in this stage is the advent of object permanence: when a baby starts to realise that things exist even if they can’t see them. Before object permanence sets in around 6/7 months, if you cover a toy your child was just actively playing with, they’ll act like it’s disappeared. They won’t make any move to move the blanket because if it is out of sight it is literally gone as far as they’re concerned. Once object permanence sets in, if you cover the toy with a blanket, they’ll reach under the blanket. This is why Peekaboo is so much fun with babies. It’s playing with object permanence.

The dark side of object permanence is of course separation anxiety because now they know that when you’re gone you’re out there somewhere without them. How dare you leave them behind! Piaget’s solution for this is for infants to be cared for in what he called “safe and interesting” environments. Basically, distracting them by playing into their development. Have space for them to use those senses and those burgeoning motor skills so that they can focus on that instead.

Have any of you experienced these things with your own infants? Pop it in the comments. Personally, I think Piaget pretty much nailed that first stage.

Next is the Preoperational Stage, which, if you remember is from 2ish to, 7ish. This is mainly where I hang out. I’d wager a guess that MOST of the parents in the Parenting Posse have kids in this age range. This is when kids think the most differently from adults. This is why so many of us have such a hard time parenting through this stage. The main feature of the preoperational stage is egocentrism or self-centeredness. They can only see the world from their perspective. They’re also extremely bad at multi-tasking; they can only focus on one thing at a time, so they’re very literal in their understanding. They also rely heavily on their lived experience vs. instruction, and they tend to overgeneralize.

One thing I’d like to clear up because it’s something I hear a lot is a parent mistaking egocentrism as uncaring. When I say they’re self-centred, I don’t mean that in the sense that they don’t CARE that you have a different perspective from them, they honestly DON’T KNOW YOU DO. They’re so focused on their own worldview- they don’t even know that you have a different one.

The best example I’ve heard of egocentrism is that it’s like a bad game of word association. This often gets played in a Team Building exercise where someone starts by saying a random word and you go around the table saying a different word than the word that was said by the person next to you. So for instance, if the first person says, “sky” the next person might say, “blue” and then the next person might say, “water” and then the next person might say, “pool” etc.

So now imagine that you’re doing this with pre-schoolers. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed this in preschool programs when there’s a group of young kids. The adult in charge says, “The sky is blue.” and all the kids immediately start going, “I have blue socks!” “My grandpa’s socks smell funny.” “I smelled flowers in my garden with my Mom yesterday!” “My Mom says that if I keep unbuckling my car seat, I won’t get to go to Nana’s house.” “My car seat is pink!” “Pink birds are called Flamingos!” …and it just spirals down from there.

This is because kids are egocentric! They hear something and it sparks a thought in their head based on their experiences and they have to let it out because they know something about what you just said! A small part of what you just said, but something none the less. They’re not connecting with what each of their peers has said and are engaging in a joint conversation, they’re starting their own conversation from a place of strength they have- they’re simply triggering thoughts in each other.

This is also why kids this age take adults very literally. The other day, I asked my son to “be a doll and grab me some socks” and he said, “Mama, I’m not a doll, I’m Logan.”

Not a child example, but whose seen the recent article that went around about the man bringing his toddler daughter who was sleeping in her car seat into the house and put her to bed (still in the car seat) because the mother said “Oh, just put her in bed” when he told her she was sleeping in the car and asked what to do. Same idea.

Another feature of Preoperational is that children form their ideas directly from their own experiences. Not your experiences that you’re telling them about, theirs. An example from my early intervention days: a little girl I worked lived on a farm, and one day we were out playing and her Grandpa came over to chat with me and say hi to her, and unbeknownst to me- her cousin was up on the roof of the barn we were standing beside to fix a shingle. Right at the moment when he fired his nail gun, Grandpa sneezed a huge grandfather sneeze. You know the kind- you can hear it from miles away. So to her, loud bangs made Grandpa sneeze. This is what Piaget calls disequilibrium. When a child has an experience, and they then believe that there’s a cause-effect relationship where there isn’t one. So then a few months later they were at Canada Day festivities and there were fireworks…but Grandpa wasn’t sneezing. And her mother later told me that she was so confused and actually worked herself up into quite a state of distress because there were bangs and Grandpa wasn’t sneezing. It took months for her to come off this belief. She had multiple experiences in that time mostly engineered by her parents, that disproved what she’d believed to be true. They would purposefully bang things when Grandpa was around to show her banging doesn’t make Grandpa sneeze, and they would purposefully make Grandpa sneeze by blowing flour in his face and spraying perfume they knew he didn’t agree with so she could see that Grandpa sneezing was not caused by loud noises. It took a long time but she did finally get it- and there was NO talking her out of it beforehand. She was certain of herself. So that process whereby a child adapts their hypothesis due to new information is called Accommodation, and accommodation puts children back into equilibrium.

Preoperational children tend to rely heavily on their sight. They make odd associations based on this like, if you’re taller you’re older; if you’re short you’re young. Because again, from their perspective dealing mainly with adults and children, that’s true. But then you have Grandma whose in her 90’s and is all shrunken and hunched over and barely clears 5ft and Daddy whose 6 foot whatever…and they’ll think Daddy is older than Grandma simply because he’s taller. Or they’ll associate heavy with big and their minds are totally blown when they pick up a beach ball and it’s light as air. Remember I said they were bad multi-taskers? They can only really focus on one attribute of something at a time. So using the example of Grandma and Daddy- they’re focusing on size- because it’s what they can see easily. It’s up to us to draw their attention to the other factors: Grandma has wrinkles. She has white hair. Her nails are all yellow. She has a hard time standing up without a walker or a cane. She doesn’t drive. Daddy has no (or minimal) wrinkles. His hair has colour. His nails look like mine. He can drive and run and jump. OH- Grandma’s old. It’s not just about who is taller.

So Piaget’s theory states that it’s more effective to ask them questions to provoke them to work their way through the puzzle instead of just telling them: Grandma’s older than Daddy. Because they rely on their experiences they won’t believe you, they need to construct that knowledge themselves from the ground up. They have to figure it out or else it’s not real to them.

There are 3 things that are important to keep in mind, according to Piaget for parents of preoperational children:

1: Lots of free time: Give them lots of uninterrupted time to play to really get deep into themselves so they can figure things out. He really agrees with Montessori in that he too thought that the worst thing you can do is interrupt an engaged child and it should be an absolute last resort. Watch them. Don’t bug them.

2: Whenever possible, allow them to really experience things: Don’t teach them about farm animals out of a book and never visit a farm…take them there. Have them see and smell and touch the animals, see a milking demonstration, feed them. Take them to a subdivision that’s being built and just watch the builders doing their thing, from a safe distance. Go home and show them the studs in the house and the wires that carry electricity and see what effect that has on their play and their block structures. Don’t tell- DO.

3: Plan open-ended activities and ask open-ended questions: open-ended means that you nor the child knows how it’s going to end up. The focus is the process, not the product. And if you’re familiar with my Logical Consequence Process, you can now see why it works so well! It’s completely open-ended. It allows children to think critically and construct their own knowledge rather than have it dictated to them. Open-ended questions ask children to think. Open-ended experience asks children to think.

So that’s the Coles Notes on Piaget! I hope all of this is starting to come together for you guys and you’re starting to see how none of these theorists are wrong, and none of them are 100% right. They’re all just pieces of the puzzle and they can all be “right” at different times.

If you want some help with how to help guide your children to construct their own knowledge and you haven’t already yet, I strongly urge you to download my FREE Scripts to Manage the Top 10 Crazy Making Behaviours. Each one is a script, most of them are open-ended to address one of 10 behaviours my Facebook group, The Parenting Posse, told me where the toddler and preschool behaviours that were the most infuriating for them. They’re informed by my 10+ years of working with young children and they’ve got elements of Vygotsky, Montessori, Piaget, and more! So go grab them, the form for them is at the end of this post.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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