4 Stages of Cognitive Development. Which ones have you been through?

This topic was most voted for in this week’s poll  at the moment of publication of this article was the theory of the Four Stages of Cognitive Development! This theory was devised by Jean Piaget, and mainly spoke about children. Though he was not the first person to be involved in child psychology, there is no denying that Jean Piaget’s contributions to this subfield of psychology have had immense influences. He did many things besides psychology, such as history and philosophy, and he got involved in children’s education, as he thought that was very important. He even served as the director of the International Bureau of Education. In 1934 he declared “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.”. That he was interested in how people learn is evident. When he fully dedicated himself to psychology, he formulated some very influential theories, such as the one we’ll be learning about this week: the four stages of cognitive development (Piaget, 1964). Do you recognise how you went through them?

The four stages of cognitive development are as follows:
1) the Sensimotor stage, 2) the Preoperational stage, 3) the Concrete operational stage, and 4) the Formal operational stage. Some of the stages have several substages too.

The average, largely healthy individual will pass through each of them, and although there are certain age boundaries, these can vary a bit from person to person. We will discuss each of the four stages in more detail.

1. Sensimotor Stage

The first of the four occurring stages is the Sensimotor Stage, which is said to last from birth until about 2 years of age. It’s called sensimotor as in this stage, children experience the world mostly through and their five senses (sensi-) movement (motor).

Children are egocentric in this stage, which means that they mostly act from what is good for them as an individual, and in psychology this also means that they cannot imagine the world from other people’s point of view.

This stage encompasses, for example, simple reflexes in the first couple of months after being born. Later in this stage children become more aware of things besides their own body and desires, and start to become more object oriented. In one of the later substages of this stage they will also try out different things on the same object to get different results.

2. Preoperational Stage

The second of the four is the Preoperational Stage. It starts when the child learns to speak, so about 2 years of age, until about 7 years of age.

Piaget noticed that during this stage, children cannot yet understand concrete logic and are unable to manipulate information. Noticeable in this stage, is that children start to engage in ‘play’ behaviour more than in earlier stages, as well as engaging in more pretend play.

This marks the beginning of a stage in which the child will encounter and engage with more complex social dynamics. Later on in this stage also explain why they do not like someone or something.

There are two substages in this case. The symbolic function substage, in which children start to use symbols to represent physical models of the world around them. This includes, for example, recognizing images and photographs. The second is intuitive thought substage (age 4 to 7), during which children tend to become very curious and ask many questions.

3. Operational Stage

The third stage is the concrete operational stage, which is defined at lasting from 7 years of age until about 11 years of age. In this stage children are able to understand logic, and are no longer mostly egocentric in their behaviour.This is what Piaget called ‘moving from egocentrism to sociocentrism’.

They become more aware of conversations and social relationships. They’ll also engage more with topics and objects that were previously foreign to them. They also become much better at classifying objects, people and other things.

4. Formal Operation Stage

The fourth one is the Formal Operational Stage, which lasts from 11 up until (or past) 16 years of age. Children in this stage have developed the skill of abstract reasoning, and can easily conserve information and think logically. Especially the abstract reasoning is characteristic for this stage, as it is an important skill in solving complex problems.


After this age there is not a definition of a stage per se. There is not a definite ending or turning point to it as there was with the other stages .


The scheme of developmental stages is much more complex than this article makes it seem.We  advise to look up a few more bits of information if you’re interested. A good one is our Psych2go Magazine, which contains an in-dept article on the topic. All in all, Piaget’s four stages theory is important. It still taught in universities and other educational organisations today. His work reached beyond the field of psychology, even influencing Philosophy, History, Education, Artificial Intelligence and more.

For more details on these 4 stages and the substages, keep an eye out for the next issue of Psych2go Magazine!

Visit our Patreon page here to get access to exclusive Patreon only content and perhaps win a physical copy of the magazine!


Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of research in science teaching, 2(3), 176-186.

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  1. A must read for parents if young children! The article explains in layperson terms, a psychological foundation for how our kids develop!
    Great overview for what’s going on in the busy brains of theirs!

  2. Great article! I took a child development psychology class when I attended community college. By far Piaget is my favorite developmental theorist. He captures all of the motives of children in such a concise fashion…One time when I was working (in a grocery store as a cashier) there was a woman with a baby who kept on grabbing everything in sight when checking out..the woman said to her baby: “why you keep on grabbing everything??”…so I asked her how old her baby was – she said 12 months- so I explained to her about the Sensori-motor stage and how her baby was trying to form a perception of the world through touch…she was really fascinated..

  3. The article mentioned that majority of individuals go through this four stages, but what about those who don’t overcome each stage? If one was not able to successfully intergrate to the following stage, can it explain certain disorders or personality traits? For instance, stage 1 Sensimotor. If an infant is hyperactive to stimuli they are more incline to have mood disorders and/or anxiety disorders. So my question is: if there are disfunction in a child developing through this stages, can one predict certain bahaviors or traits ?

    1. That’s difficult to say, I looked through my resources and not much has been researched concerning that specific combination of factors.

    2. According to Piaget, it is impossible to go to the next stage if you did not fully integrate the previous one, but many authors disagree. Some think that this order of stages, though super frequent and more logical, is not mandatory, and that they work more like “waves” than “stairs steps”. Some others suggest completely different stages, more linear.
      As these theories are mainly useful to understand child development in general, it would be difficult to directly link them to disorders or personality traits, but it is indeed really interesting to try ! It especially shows if these theories are relevant.
      Hope it helped ! 🙂

  4. great review of the 4 major stages. I guess most students of psychology learn this theory at some point in their lives, and on reading the article i realised how much i had forgotten about it. But ever since i studied this theory i have had a particular question- can cognitive disorders be traced back to inadequate development in a particular stage mentioned by this theory? Can there be particular measures taken to assure appropriate development?

  5. Perfect explanation of Piaget’s theory !! There were many other theories since then, but Piaget’s is indeed part of the “classical” ones.
    The main flaws in Piaget’s work are that children can do many of the things he talks about at a very earlier age than what he mentions (for example, at Piaget’s time, we did not know yet that foetuses can already hear and construct memories at the end of the pregnancy), and that, to him, the child is not especially active in his own development (but this point can still be discussed today, so I prefer to be careful when I say he was “wrong”).
    Anyway, Piaget’s work is still interesting to study today, so it really was groundbreaking when it published !


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