4 – Childhood Stages of Development
The level of development that parents can expect their children to reach depends heavily on their age group. The pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget offers a useful developmental framework that will help guide parents in determining how to best support their children’s critical thinking development as they age.
Piaget’s theory of the stages of cognitive development remains a milestone in developmental psychology. Even if the concepts have greatly evolved since Piaget initially set out his theory, organizing development into these stages remains as pertinent as ever. They are the product of hundreds of universally proven experiments.
The first stage, the Sensorimotor Stage, spans from birth until around the age of two. Over this period, children’s contact with their surrounding environment depends entirely on movements they make and sensations they experience. Children systematically touch, throw, and taste new objects to discover each object’s characteristics through trial and error. Halfway through this stage, just before children turn two, they grasp the notion of object permanence (the fact that objects continue to exist even when they cannot see them).
The second stage, the Preoperational Stage, begins from around age two and ends around age six or seven. During this period—characterized by, among other things, the first stages of language production—children become capable of thinking in symbolic terms, of representing things through words and symbols. Children also learn to grasp the notions of quantity and space, as well as the distinction between the past and the future. But, above all, they remain geared toward the present and toward tangible physical situations, finding abstract concepts hard to grasp. Their thinking is also very egocentric. They often assume that others see things from their own point of view.
The third stage, the Concrete Operational Stage takes place from the age of six or seven to 11 or 12. Having accumulated some experience of the world, children gain the ability to conceive of events totally alien to their own lives.
Between the ages of six and nine, children’s vocabulary expands considerably, and although their ability to reason remains very limited, they become increasingly capable of arguing, defending, or rejecting an idea based on their own concrete experience and various other influential sources.
From the age of nine or 10, children get better and better at conceptualizing and creating lines of reasoning that still, despite all the progress made up to this point, require a direct relationship to their concrete experience. A certain degree of abstraction also allows them to tackle mathematics beyond mere arithmetic. It becomes possible for a child to resolve problems involving numbers and reasoning, though these must still be related to observable phenomena. The ability to solve abstract problems by systematically dissecting several variables remains, at this stage, the preserve of the exceptionally gifted.
Finally, what Piaget called the Formal Operational Stage gradually develops from the age of 11 or 12. New skills at this stage, like hypothetic-deductive reasoning (the ability to form and evaluate if-then statements) and the ability to establish abstract relationships, are generally mastered around the age of 15 or 16. At the end of this stage, children, like adults, are able to use formal and abstract logic, but only if they have learned logical vocabulary (the formal meanings of words like “if,” “then,” “therefore,” etc.) and have put it into practice. They can also start to reflect on probabilities and on moral concepts, such as justice, as they become able to better reason with generalizations about concrete situations.