How do children learn and develop? What aids in active learning and why is that important? What steps do they go through to develop “appropriately”?

We hope this article will help you to understand the basic concepts of the stages of development and why appropriate stimulation is essential to your child’s development, focusing on the first two stages.

Basic Development

Jean Piaget, a Psychologist renowned for his work on child development, alleges that children take a dynamic role in the learning process. They do this by making observations and acting like scientists as they perform experiments and learn about the world. He offered that intelligence develops through the four stages briefly described below.

Stage 1: Sensory-Motor

The sensory-motor phase of development occurs between birth and two years of age. An infant has limited knowledge and understanding of the world. Their actions and behaviours in the initial stage of development are limited to basic physical responses to sensory stimuli.

You may notice that your little one is experimenting, quickly figuring out how their body can interact with their environment. This stage is composed of six sub-stages:


Beginning in-utero, babies develop reflexes which occur naturally and without requiring thought. These help the baby to adapt to life while cognition and thought develop.

Some examples of reflexes you may notice include:

  • The rooting reflex (turn towards touch on the mouth, helping to locate the breast).
  • The sucking reflex (latch and suck in order to feed).
  • The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (when your baby turns their head to the left, their left arm will straighten, and their right arm will bend towards the back of their head).

Essentially, these reflexes aid in survival and as your baby develops, they will start to diminish and will eventually disappear altogether.

Primary Circular Reactions

In the second sub-stage (one to four months), babies learn to intentionally repeat movements or actions which provide comfort or pleasure. Initially, something will happen accidentally and they will realise that it provides a pleasurable or comforting feeling. They will test this action out, again and again, intentionally providing that pleasure for themselves. For example, your little one may have discovered that kicking his legs or sucking his fingers provide a relaxing, comforting sensation and will begin to do this because he wants to, not simply out of a need for survival.

Secondary Circular Reactions

Between four and eight months, your little one will begin to repeat actions which involve pleasurable outcomes from the environments as well as their own body. They begin to discover the effect they can have on the environment, and if they like it will repeat it in order to provide the pleasurable output.

An example of this is shaking a rattle to cause the sound that they enjoy. They are truly becoming little scientists, discovering how their bodies impact the space around them and how the environment can provide feedback.

Co-ordinating Secondary Schemes

Between eight and twelve months, babies begin to intentionally perform actions in order to attain a goal. They start to understand objects and their qualities and they start imitating observed actions of the people around them.

Rather than incidentally making use of the quality of an object (such as the sound of a rattle), they will intentionally use the object to produce the effect (such as choosing the rattle amongst available toys to provide the sound they have now associated with it).

Tertiary Circular Reactions

During this six-month period, children make use of trial and error experimentation. A good example of this is the discovery of gravity. Picture this common scenario: You are busy preparing your baby’s food, he is in his high-chair and you give him his cup. “Bang, crash, clunk!” He has thrown the cup on the floor. You pick it up and give it back to him. As you turn back to your work…”Crash, clunk, kaboom!”.

Your baby has discovered two things from his new experiment. Firstly, if I bump this cup off the edge, it falls and makes a loud noise, and secondly, mom will fetch it for me so that I can do it again.

Yes, you have become a minion in his lab of experimentation. Trial and error will become his daily dose of fun and learning.

Additionally, he will begin to experiment with putting things together, rather than only taking it apart as before. Your little scientist will try to stack blocks (with imitation) and starts to put things into boxes rather than only unpacking them.

Symbolic Thought

In the final six months of the sensory-motor stage, your baby begins to form cognitive ideas and mental representations of objects. Understanding begins to move away from pure action to include thought and mental processing. Known as object permanence, an essential milestone is a realisation that objects continue to exist, even if they cannot be seen. “Peek-a-boo” is an example of this.

As can be seen, the opportunity to play and explore in the sensory-motor stage of development is essential in laying the foundation for cognitive, physical and social development. One cannot begin to understand symbolism, language, interactions and problem-solving until one has discovered the effects of actions and stimuli on each other as well as some objects, concepts and reactions.

Stage 2: Pre-operational

The second stage occurs from two to seven years of age. Children in this stage are thinking at a symbolic level but cannot yet use cognitive thought processing and concrete logic to manipulate, break down or combine ideas.

Symbolic play may be demonstrated in examples such as using a block and pretending it is a car, whereas the next day it may become a cell phone or pretend house. Symbolic play is essential for the development of abstract thought processing and imitation of activities of daily life.

Your child may act out scenarios which occur in their environment (sweeping the floor or cooking food). Through scenario enactment, your toddler is developing interests, likes and dislikes and an understanding of roles and daily life activities.

The development of relationships and social skills is another essential part of this stage. As they mature through this stage, they begin to problem-solve and figure out social obstacles, emotions and the feelings of others through more in-depth symbolic play.

Some characteristics of this stage of development include:

  • Egocentrism: An inability to see a situation from someone else’s point of view.
  • Centration: You may notice that your child has developed an intense focus and when he is busy with an activity, everything else seems to be null-and-void. They will struggle to focus on more than one aspect of a task at a time and will zone in on a specific part of a task or situation. For example, he may count the number of beads on a string but cannot tell you which string has the most beads on, as his focus was solely on how many beads were on that one string which he was counting.
  • Animism: “Talking” animals, “sore” block and “sad” trees. Your little one may assign human traits, emotions and purpose to nature and objects. Up until about five years, they may believe just about everything is alive.
  • Experimentation of conservation: Around the age of five a child begins to understand that the quantity of something remains consistent even if its shape or appearance changes. Your five-year-old may begin to figure out that a string with ten big beads on it may be longer than a string with ten smaller beads on it, but that the number of beads is equal, no matter the length of the string.

As can be seen, the sensory-motor stage is essential for establishing the building blocks of social skills, problem-solving, symbolism and language, as well as interests.

Stage 3: Concrete Operational

At around seven years old your child will enter this stage which lasts until about eleven years. These children use concrete logic and reason but struggle with abstract thought. Children become less egocentric in this stage and consider other people’s view when making decisions and solving problems.

Your child has performed so many physical experiments in the world, that they can now work things out in their head, rather than needing to perform the experiment again. This is, however, only possible if they had the opportunity to develop these foundation skills in the previous stages.

Stage 4: Formal Operational Stage

The fourth and final stage is from twelve years and up. During this stage, there is a rise in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, as well as an understanding of abstract ideas. Children become skilled at seeing several possible solutions to problems and think more specifically about the world around them.

Experiences and Opportunities

Child development is a process which occurs relatively naturally. As mentioned, however, children are active learners requiring intentional interaction with the environment, objects and other people.

The opportunity to play and thereby experiment and learn is essential in childhood. Without these opportunities, the building blocks for social interaction, language, problem-solving, impulse control and self-regulation and learning are not established.

Unstructured play = Functional play = Experimentation + Discovery = Learning = Brain development and building blocks for future development.


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