What is the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development?
Here at My First Five Years, we pride ourselves on having expert knowledge about every part of a child’s development. We have found that one of the most important parts of development to understand is ‘cognitive development’, also known as ‘the way that children think’.
However, if you have investigated child cognitive development, you might have noticed that it gets extremely complicated very quickly, and the deeper you go, the harder it gets to understand. Complicated terms like ‘sensorimotor’ and ‘preoperational’ appear and cause headaches no end.
It is a shame it is so hard to understand, as we consider the ‘sensorimotor stage’ to be of significant importance, and as parents, if we can support this early development, we can set them up for life.
If you have ever felt in a spin about all the scientific terminology and journal articles, we are here to help. In this article, we will take you on a tour of the terminology that surrounds cognitive development give you some common examples of what it looks like in your child.
Who is Piaget? And what is his theory of child development?
One person to introduce early on is a thinker called Jean Piaget. His work is central to theories on child development and in particular, child cognitive development. He was a psychologist who studied the cognitive development of babies and children and believed that children take an active role in their learning. He described them as “little scientists”, who experiment and observe their surroundings to learn about their world.
The stages of child development theory, and where the sensorimotor stage fits in
When discussing the journey of cognitive development in young children, Piaget split his theory into four stages. These stages are as follows:
The sensorimotor stage
The sensorimotor stage is the primary stage of cognitive development. Piaget said that this stage begins at birth and lasts for around the first two years of a child’s life. During this time, it is thought that children learn about their environment through movement, touch, and other early actions such as looking, listening, and sucking.
At this time, children also develop the understanding that items still exist when out of sight, which is also known as ‘object permanence’. It is also during the sensorimotor stage that children develop an understanding of ‘cause and effect’, which is their actions have consequences.
The preoperational stage
The preoperational stage follows the sensorimotor stage of development and is typically thought to last between two and seven years of age. Its name refers to children being before ‘operations’; they can only focus on one thing at a time, and it is usually themselves.
It is also during this stage of development that children are said to develop ‘symbolic representation’, which is the ability to have an object or item stand for something else that it is not directly related to. You might find a child putting their hand to their ear to mimic a smartphone, for example. You will also find they start to play pretend here, as an extension of this idea. If their hand can be a phone, why can’t they be a superhero?
The concrete operational stage
The concrete operational stage is the third stage of development and usually takes place between seven and eleven years of age. At this stage, it is thought that their thinking remains concrete, but starts to become more logical and open. Children in this stage of cognitive development also begin to be able to understand concepts from the point of view of others as they become less egocentric.
The formal operational stage
The formal operational stage is the fourth step of children’s cognitive development. This stage typically takes place from the age of twelve. Piaget found that as children become teenagers, they can understand more abstract concepts, moving away from their previous concrete thinking.
The final stage of Piaget’s theory surrounding cognitive development states that teenagers also typically start to understand aspects such as political ideas, social and moral issues. At this stage, there is often a shift in how the world is thought of.
In-depth on the sensorimotor stage
According to Piaget, it is the first stage of cognitive development that a child will encounter. During the first two years of life, children in their sensorimotor stage will use the skills that they are born with – such as grasping and sucking reflexes – to explore their surroundings and gain an understanding of their world.
These reflexes and early abilities will provide a jumping-off point for more motor abilities that are deliberate, such as reaching and grabbing, which will support children in investigating their world even more. The sensorimotor stage is thought to be the stage in development where children’s thinking is the most concrete, where information is taken at face value, without thinking beyond the physical for other meanings.
A large aspect of the sensorimotor stage is the development of object permanence. This is when children develop the understanding that objects and people still exist and have the same properties, even when out of sight.
The sensorimotor stage can also be broken down into a series of subsections. These subsections are:
The reflex substage typically occurs at the start of a baby's life when actions happen in response to sensory stimuli. They are involuntary and are not yet linked to cognitive processing. This is the time when they will be making their first discoveries based on reflexes such as sucking and grasping.
Primary circular reactions
The substage of primary circular reactions usually follows the reflexive stage. This part of early cognitive development takes place when babies start to intentionally repeat actions to feel a certain sensation, such as thumb-sucking.
Secondary circular reactions
The secondary circular reaction substage tends to follow primary circular reactions. It signifies a repetitive action to make something happen. This step is when you might notice your child showing an understanding of simple cause and effect in their environment. For instance, they might repeatedly drop toys to hear the noise of them hitting the floor.
Coordination of reactions
Children tend to go through the coordination of reactions substage after secondary circular reactions. This often lasts until children are about one year old. This is when children begin to act with more intent and will also be observing other people’s actions more closely. They will also begin to link more items with their properties, for example, they will know that a noisy toy will make a specific sound when they hit certain buttons.
Tertiary circular reactions
Tertiary circular reactions is often known as a period of ‘trial and error’ when children will carry out certain actions to observe the reactions of others or the environment.
Early representational thought
Early representational thought is the final part of the sensorimotor stage of development. Children in this stage will begin to make links between symbols and objects and will start to make their own representations of objects. For example, they will use their fingers as a phone.
What to look out for in your child
As a parent, there are little steps that you can watch out for as your child is developing their cognitive skills. For instance, you may notice that your child is grasping their understanding of object permanence when they no longer become upset when you leave the room, as they realise you haven't disappeared from existence. Once children have developed an understanding of object permanence, they may be able to settle with other adults with whom they have a relationship.
As well as this, your child will demonstrate an awareness of cause and effect as they have grown through the distinct parts of the sensorimotor stage. At first, this might be tipping over their food on purpose just to see what happens or splashing water in the bath to watch the droplets spray around. As they develop this awareness further, you may notice your child understand how to operate toys and simple objects more confidently – for instance, they might know that their favourite toy makes a sound when they press a particular button and will repeat pressing said button.
What you can do to evaluate and develop your child in this stage
There are many ways to support your child during the sensorimotor stage of development. An activity that supports the development of object permanence is hide and seek, which can be played with small babies onwards. This can be played with just yourselves, as you use household objects and your hands to hide behind, or with toys such as puppets and teddies that you can hide behind your own body. While playing this, observe how your child reacts – as their sense of object permanence grows, they will show more happiness during this activity, such as laughing and kicking their legs in excitement.
As children progress through the sensorimotor stage, allowing them to access objects that they can manipulate in open-ended play is something that will help them to progress and learn more in a way where they are taking the lead. Providing items such as playdough and paints are great for this. You might notice your child also exploring how they manipulate and alter other things in their day-to-day life, for example, mixing up their food on their plates at mealtimes to see how the textures change.
Materials that can support your child in exploring cause and effect are also great at this stage. For example, water play is good for this. Water play can be as simple as putting toys with contrasting functions in the bath or giving your child a washing up bowl full of water and sponges.
As with all theories of development, Piaget's cognitive development theory is a widely debated one. Even here at My First Five Years, we fundamentally disagree that children should be pigeonholed into ages and stages. We do think, however, that children do demonstrate much of these distinct phases in their cognitive growth, just in their own time.
Ultimately, it is up to you to utilise as much of this information as you deem necessary, as most of all, we believe that an informed parent is an empowered parent, with the more you read, the more you know. That is why we will continue to bring lots of information about child development to you in and informed and accessible way.
- Piaget, J. (1977). Gruber, H.E.; Voneche, J.J. eds. The Essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.
- Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's Theory. In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.
- Piaget J. The construction of reality in the child. Psychology Press; 1999.