42 Cognitive Development

Piaget and Sensorimotor Intelligence

Remember our discussion of sensorimotor development during the first two years of life. Piaget describes intelligence in infancy as sensorimotor or based on direct, physical contact. Infants taste, feel, pound, push, hear, and move in order to experience the world. Let’s explore the transition infants make from responding to the external world reflexively as newborns to solving problems using mental strategies as two year olds.

Stage One: Reflexive Action: (Birth through 1st month)

This active learning begins with automatic movements or reflexes. A ball comes into contact with an infant’s cheek and is automatically sucked on and licked.   But this is also what happens with a sour lemon, much to the infant’s surprise!

Stage Two: First Adaptations to the Environment (1st through 4th month)

Fortunately, within a few days or weeks, the infant begins to discriminate between objects and adjust responses accordingly as reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. An infant may accidentally engage in a behavior and find it interesting such as making a vocalization. This interest motivates trying to do it again and helps the infant learn a new behavior that originally occurred by chance. At first, most actions have to do with the body, but in months to come, will be directed more toward objects.

Stage Three: Repetition (4th through 8th months)

During the next few months, the infant becomes more and more actively engaged in the outside world and takes delight in being able to make things happen. Repeated motion brings particular interest as the infant is able to bang two lids together from the cupboard when seated on the kitchen floor.

Stage Four: New Adaptations and Goal-Directed Behavior (8th through 12th months)

Now the infant can engage in behaviors that others perform and anticipate upcoming events. Perhaps because of continued maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the infant become capable of having a thought and carrying out a planned, goal-directed activity such as seeking a toy that has rolled under the couch. The object continues to exist in the infant’s mind even when out of sight and the infant now is capable of making attempts to retrieve it. Here is an example of a lack of object permanence.

Was Piaget correct?  Infants seem to be able to recognize that objects have permanence at much younger ages (even as young as 3.5 months of age).

Dr. Rene Baillargeon explains in the following clip:

Stage Five: Active Experimentation of Little Scientists (12th through 18th months)

Infants from one year to 18 months of age more actively engage in experimentation to learn about the physical world. Gravity is learned by pouring water from a cup or pushing bowls from high chairs. The caregiver tries to help the child by picking it up again and placing it on the tray. And what happens? Another experiment! The child pushes it off the tray again causing it to fall and the caregiver to pick it up again! A closer examination of this stage causes us to really appreciate how much learning is going on at this time and how many things we come to take for granted must actually be learned. I remember handing my daughters (who are close in age) when they were both seated in the back seat of the car a small container of candy. They struggled to move the pieces up and out of the small box and became frustrated when their fingers would lose their grip on the treats before they made it up and out of the top of the boxes. They had not yet learned to simply use gravity and turn the box over in their hands! This is a wonderful and messy time of experimentation and most learning occurs by trial and error.

Stage Six: Mental Representations (18th month to 2 years of age)

The child is now able to solve problems using mental strategies, to remember something heard days before and repeat it, to engage in pretend play, and to find objects that have been moved even when out of sight. Take for instance, the child who is upstairs in a room with the door closed, supposedly taking a nap. The doorknob has a safety device on it that makes it impossible for the child to turn the knob. After trying several times in vain to push the door or turn the doorknob, the child carries out a mental strategy to get the door opened-he knocks on the door! Obviously, this is a technique learned from the past experience of hearing a knock on the door and observing someone opening the door. The child is now better equipped with mental strategies for problem-solving. This initial movement from the “hands-on” approach to knowing about the world to the more mental world of stage six marked the transition to preoperational intelligence that we will discuss in the next lesson. Part of this stage involves learning to use language.


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Child Development Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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