Jean Piaget’s Theory of Play

How can we as adults help children to achieve their potential? How can we aid them to learn? Well first we need to understand how they learn, and the Swiss scientist and development psychologist, Jean Piaget, who died in 1980,  gave the world insights into the cognitive development of children identifying that what we as adults might just refer to as ‘play‘ is a systematic process of learning that has identifiable stages from birth to adulthood.

Theory of Play

Jean Piaget was quoted in his later years as saying “Our real problem is – what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?” No doubt, Piaget would be at odds with those politicians who control formal education and prefer learning as a means of providing a skilled workforce.  He would definitely be in the side of the angels and see it as a lifelong process of discovery and joy.

His theory of play (also known as developmental stage theory) is based upon the idea that cognitive development and in particular the learning of language, requires appropriate environmental stimuli and experiences as the child matures. He suggested that there are two key processes, assimilation (of new knowledge and experience) and accommodation of those into the child’s existing internal organised patterns of thought and behaviour, known as schemas.

As child develops, it creates schemata for each of its experiences and the knowledge it has gained, which it stores for reference when it comes across the same or similar experiences. The new knowledge from these experiences are assimilated by the child and then accommodated into existing schemata often updating those schemata with the new experience.

It is the assembled schemas that people use when they interact with the world and people around them, and the richer a child’s learning (play) environment, Piaget theorised, the better the schemata and schemas will be.

Stages development

Piaget theorised four distinct stages of cognitive development and the establishment of schemas:

  1. Sensorimotor, which lasts from a child’s birth until it is two. During this period children only have their five senses and movement through which to experience and learn about the world around them. Piaget sub-divided the sensorimotor stage into six sub-stages:
    1. Simple reflexes – lasting from birth to approximately one month and is illustrated by the baby showing the feeding reflex known as ‘rooting’ when its cheek is stroked, and sucking.
    2. First habits and primary circular reactions – these last until a baby is about four months old and consist of the child building patterns (schemata) for what they have experienced, which become habits, and trying to recreate what has already happened such as sucking a thumb which is an example of a primary circular reaction.
    3. Secondary circular reactions – last up until the child is approximately eight months old and often involve objects such as a bell.  If the child knocks the bell by accident and likes the ring it makes, the child will repeat knocking the bell to hear the noise which it discovered.
    4. Coordination of secondary circular reactions – lasting up to the child’s first birthday, where the child will do things by deliberately combining the schemata it has already learned to undertake tasks. In addition during this period, children learn ‘object permanence’, knowing that their toys etc are still around even if they are not in their direct field of view.
    5. Tertiary circular reactions – these last until about eighteen months of age, where the child will, of their own volition explore their world and the objects within, out of a developing curiosity.
    6. Internalisation of schemata – taking the last six months, where the knowledge and experience to date ‘takes residence’ in the child’s mind and can be readily drawn upon.
  1. Preoperational stage, starting as the child starts to learn to speak from approximately two years up until they are about seven. The child will start to add pretend to their play, but such pretend is limited by the child’s experience and imagination. It is also limited by the egocentric nature of the child at this time. As with the first stage Piaget has sub-stages:
    1. Symbolic function sub-stage – from two to four years where children will, for example, use representations in drawings such as stick drawings of people, but still recognise the people they have drawn despite the lack of detail.
    2. Intuitive thought sub-stage – from four until seven years when as all parents know, the child will ask lots of questions. Not just ‘what is that?’, but particularly ‘why is that?’. Through this questioning the child is establishing reasoning and identifying that it already has significant levels of schema, which it needs to put in context with the world it is experiencing.
  1. Concrete operational stage, which lasts until the child is eleven (pre-adolescence). During this period the child can logically assemble the schema and consciously save them for reference. They also normally cease to be as egocentric as they were when in the preoperational stage and they identify their own thoughts from those of others. They can classify objects and become more adept at dealing with mathematical problems.
  1. Formal operational stage, this continues from eleven years to adulthood at eighteen (or later) and is when the young person uses their experiences and schema to develop the logical thinking and abstract reasoning they will use for the rest of their life. They also develop metacognition, the ability to think about and monitor their own thought processes.

Play is fundamental to cognitive development

Piaget’s theory is that together the four stages and their respective sub-stages of ‘play’ help the child to develop their cognition, understanding what actions they can take in different situations, the effects of their actions are likely to have and whether those actions are right for the circumstance.

Of course, by the very basis of the theory of play, the ages a child moves between stages is dependent upon getting the appropriate stimuli and environment at the right time. Piaget’s thoughts on the stages can guide teachers and parents to create the most appropriate ‘play’ for children at each stage or sub-stage to help them to progress to the next. However, because assimilation and accommodation take time, the period a child remains in each stage is controlled by their own cognitive development, not that of a teacher or parent.

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