Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Sensorimotor Play

  • Niki Christodoulou
  • Xenia Anastassiou-HadjicharalambousEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1071-1



During the first year of life, much of children’s playtime involves, mainly, the exploration of the world through the repetition of already assimilated sensory and motor activities, for the sheer pleasure of doing so.


Child development is such a diverse and complex subject; no single theory sufficiently meets all of it. The most common theories focus primarily on cognitive development or on social development. Providing a good theoretical ground of development in either of these theoretical fields is an endless challenge, as each of them accounts for an enormous range of topics. Cognitive development entails the growth of various capabilities such as perception, language, attention, reasoning, conceptual understanding, problem-solving, and intelligence (Siegler et al. 2011). This chapter focuses on cognitive development and more specifically during the sensorimotor period, where according to the Piagetian perspective, the young infant explores its roots of adult intelligence (Siegler et al. 2011). We consider each stage’s fundamental assumptions about how young infants develop conceptually through play behaviors during the sensorimotor period.

An Evolutionary Perspective

Applying evolutionary theories on human condition to gain a better understanding has a long history in psychology. According to Groos (1901), play during animals’ periods of immaturity, such as the juvenile period, was “critical” in shaping later development. This view was later incorporated into Piaget’s (1962) theory of play in human development. Play is considered to be a central component for the immature child; in fact, an extended period of immaturity is common when play occurs in most species (Pellegrini et al. 2007).

According to the evolutionary biology perspective, there is a desire to play in specific ways and at specific points in life, common to a variety of mammals (LaFreniere 2011). Evolutionary biologists have long been intrigued to the origins and functions of play. In the evolutionary biology dictionary, the term “functions” with regard to play refers to when a behavior has typically added to the survival or reproductive success of an individual (genes) over many succeeding generations (Pellegrini and Smith 1998). Functions can also be defined in the context of beneficial outcomes during the life cycle of the individual player (Pellegrini and Smith 1998). As mentioned earlier, evolutionary biologists interested in the study of animal behavior (hereafter, ethologists) have suggested that play has been acquired by our species through the process of natural selection, in order to provide deferred benefits to the individual (LaFreniere 2011). In other words, through play a child develops and practices skills crucial to survival and reproduction in adulthood (Smith 2009).

Life history theory is a worldwide accepted analytical framework, used mainly in biology and evolutionary psychology since the 1970s (LaFreniere 2011). It considers an organism as an ever-changing life cycle – not as a static adult – suggesting that certain species-typical characteristics evolve to favor somatic and reproductive efforts throughout life-span (LaFreniere 2011). Accordingly, Bogin (1999) postulated that because of a finite amount of time, energy, and resources available, individuals must make choices regarding their behavioral priorities and allocation of resources with respect to developmental periods and life goals suitable to those periods. For example, despite its clear costs, during the early-juvenile period, play is prioritized in all social primates, while social play takes up most of the time not spent eating and sleeping (LaFreniere 2011). This fact is considered to be crucial as the main basis for concluding an adaptive function of play, because natural selection favors only behaviors whose benefits clearly outweigh the associated costs (LaFreniere 2011). Play can be costly in terms of time and energy devoted to it as it diminishes the time, effort, and energy spent on other activities.

Despite such costs, there is a natural tendency of young mammals to engage in play as long as and as often as ecological constraints and opportunities afford (LaFreniere 2011); it is, in fact, indispensable to the development and good functioning of a healthy adult.

Jean Piaget’s Theory

It wasn’t until Jean Piaget’s work appeared in the 1920s for the world to have a recognizable field of cognitive development. Jean Piaget (1896–1980) began his journey from an early age. It was his keen interest in observing animals in their natural environment and his enthusiasm in philosophy that led him into his studies of clinical psychology. While in Paris, he became more interested in the mistakes children make in response to intelligence tests and came to suggest that exploring children’s errors could offer an insight into their cognitive processes. By integrating the disciplines of psychology, biology, and epistemology – a branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge – Piaget aimed to establish a scientific approach into understanding how humans acquire and understand knowledge. Almost a century later, Piaget’s theory remains one of the most influential and best-known cognitive developmental theories in the field. Yet, it is notable that current reinterpretations of Piaget’s theory came to suggest that children might have more capabilities at a younger age than Piaget thought (Smith et al. 2015).

According to the cognitive theorist, children are active mentally from birth onward as they are physically and that their experiences and activities indeed contribute to their own development. His proposition has been labeled as constructivist, as it represents children as constructing knowledge for themselves through their own experiences (Siegler et al. 2011). Piaget further explains that children use – mainly – three constructive processes including generating hypotheses, performing experiments, and drawing conclusions from observations (Siegler et al. 2011). This description depicts the process of scientific problem-solving and this in fact, the dominant metaphor in Piaget’s theory: the “child as scientist” (Siegler et al. 2011) where children do not depend on instructions from adults or others, but they rather learn on their own.

Central Developmental Ideas

In addition to the above, Piaget suggested significant insights into the roles of nature and nurture and of continuities and discontinuities in development (Siegler et al. 2011). For instance, he believed that nature and nurture interact to favor human cognitive development. Nurture includes every experience the child encounters in the environment (Siegler et al. 2011). Nature includes the child’s maturing brain and body and the ability to perceive, act, and, learn from their activities as well as meeting the two basic functions that are essential components of cognitive growth: adaptation and organization (Siegler et al. 2011). Adaptation is when children are able to respond to environmental demands in ways that meet their own goals, while organization is when they are able to accommodate specific observations into coherent knowledge (Siegler et al. 2011). It has been suggested that because both of these functions involve children’s reaction to experience or otherwise nurture, it can be further said that part of children’s nature is to respond to their nurture (Siegler et al. 2011).

As mentioned previously, Piaget also offered important insights into the roles of continuity and discontinuity in development. Three processes form the main sources of continuity – assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium – and work together to favor development (Siegler et al. 2011). Assimilation refers to the process by which people integrate new incoming information into conceptual ideas they already understand, while accommodation refers to the process by which they apply their current knowledge in response to new experiences (Siegler et al. 2011). Equilibrium is the process by which people balance assimilation and accommodation to create stable understanding (Siegler et al. 2011). In fact, this process happens in three phases. First, young children feel contended with their current knowledge about a phenomenon; Piaget named this a state of equilibrium, as children do not face any gaps between what they see and their understanding (Siegler et al. 2011). Once new information is encountered, children face a stage of disequilibrium as their understanding about a phenomenon is not sufficient, and thus they fail to generate a superior alternative (Siegler et al. 2011). Finally, children develop a more mature, inclusive understanding, which provides a more stable equilibrium, in terms of being able to understand a broader range of observations in the surrounding environment.

Although Piaget emphasized elements of continuity in cognitive development, the most well-known part of his work concerns discontinuous aspects, which he presented as distinct stages of cognitive development. Each stage represents a meaningful way of getting an insight into one’s experiences, and each transition between stages represents a discontinuous thoughtful leap from one meaningful way of understanding to the next, higher one (Siegler et al. 2011).

Piaget suggested a number of central properties, which define as well as underlie the four cognitive developmental stages. He believed that children at different ages think qualitatively different, and he named this property qualitative change. For instance, he explains that children in early stages of their cognitive development perceive the concept of morality in terms of the consequences of a person’s behavior, whereas older children perceive it in terms of the person’s intent (Siegler et al. 2011). A 5-year old would believe that someone who, by accident, broke a jar of cookies is naughtier than somebody who deliberately stole a single cookie; an 8-year old would have the opposite judgment. This difference suggests a qualitative change as the two children are basing their moral assessments on different criteria (Siegler et al. 2011). Then, Piaget suggested that the type of thinking characteristic children acquire from each stage influences their thinking across varied topics and contexts; Piaget named this property broad applicability (Siegler et al. 2011). Additionally, before entering a new stage, children engage into a brief transitional period (Siegler et al. 2011). During this period children fluctuate between the type of thinking characteristic of the new, more advanced stage and the type of thinking characteristic of the old, less advanced one (Siegler et al. 2011). This property has been labeled as brief transitions. Lastly, Piaget suggested that everyone progresses through the four stages with the same order and cannot skip a stage, what we call invariant sequence (Siegler et al. 2011).

Stages of Cognitive Development

As Piaget suggested people progress through four cognitive developmental stages: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. In each stage, children demonstrate new abilities, which allow them to experience and understand the world in qualitatively different ways than they had before (Siegler et al. 2011).
  1. 1.

    In the sensorimotor stage – from birth to 2 years of age – infants experience basic sensory and motor abilities through which adult intelligence develops. Through these abilities young children explore the world and gain information about the objects and people in it (Siegler et al. 2011). In this stage, young children live mainly in the here and now, while their intelligence levels are based on their immediate actions and perceptions (Siegler et al. 2011).

  2. 2.

    In the preoperational stage – from 2 to 7 years of age – preschoolers can remember their experiences for longer periods of time and develop more sophisticated ideas as they can now represent their experiences in language and mental imagery (Siegler et al. 2011). Yet, according to Piaget, they still lack the ability to form mental operations, that is, forms of reasoning as part of an organized system of mental activities. For example, during the preoperational stage, a young child would be unable to form the idea that pouring a liquid from one glass into a different-shaped glass does not change the amount of liquid (Siegler et al. 2011).

  3. 3.

    In the concrete operational stage – from 7 to 12 years of age – children can reason logically about concrete objects and events (Siegler et al. 2011). For example, they can now understand that the amount of liquid is unchanged when it is poured from one glass to a differently shaped one. Yet, they still cannot think in abstract terms, neither to test out their beliefs through scientific experiments.

  4. 4.

    In the last stage of cognitive development, known as the formal operational stage – age 12 and beyond – children can think sophisticatedly about abstract ideas as well as hypothetical scenarios (Siegler et al. 2011). They can also test out their beliefs and gain appropriate conclusions by forming scientific experiments.

With this overview of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, we can examine in greater extent the changes that occur during the sensorimotor period. Specifically, we consider how newborn children behave during this stage in terms of sensorimotor play and exploration.

Sensorimotor Play

During their first year of life, children engage mainly, in what Piaget called sensorimotor play or practice play (Piaget 1962). This consists mainly of already experienced, sensory and motor activities, which are repeated for the absolute pleasure of doing so (Hughes 2010). Piaget (1962) suggested that this form of play is integral for the child’s intellectual development and that the young child moves through a number of different substages of sensorimotor progression. Sensorimotor play is acquired gradually during the first 18 months of life before the newborn child moves to symbolic or make-believe play (Hughes 2010). In fact, Piaget gave a detailed description of the process by which children develop their own capacity for thinking by carefully observing how his own children were behaving (Smith et al. 2015). Based on these observations, he divided the sensorimotor play period into three behaviors, which he called circular reactions (Hughes 2010).

Primary Circular Reactions

This is the earliest form of sensorimotor play – the primary circular reaction. During this period, which begins from birth and usually lasts up to 4 months of age, an infant accidentally discovers a pleasing sensory or motor reflex activity that is related to its own body (Hughes 2010). The infant experiences enjoyment and, thus, repeats the activity (Hughes 2010). Piaget used the term “circular” to emphasize the way that children repeat newly reflex experiences, notably the ones that are pleasing such as scratching or grasping (Smith et al. 2015). The term “primary” relates to basic behaviors that the child learns to exhibit, from the reflexes of the initial period (Smith et al. 2015). Based on his own 8-week-old son’s behavior, Piaget illustrated the concept of primary circular reaction by explaining: “Laurent ‘scratches and tries to grasp, let’s go, scratches and grasps again, etc…. At first, this can only be observed during feeding. Laurent gently scratches his mother bare shoulder. [The next day] … Laurent scratches the sheet which is folded over the blankets, then grasps and hold it for a moment, then lets it go, scratches it again, and recommences without interruption’” (Piaget 1963, p. 191).

In behaving as he did, Laurent’s actions could be perceived, as play with objects rather than play centered on his own body (Hughes 2010). Yet, according to Piaget this is not the case as he explains that the play is the physical action such as the grasping or scratching (Hughes 2010). According to this idea, an infant is interested in the action itself, rather than being interested in the object they are performing the action on (Hughes 2010). For example, the same action is performed on any object that happens to be around the infant. In this matter, we can appreciate that children, even early on in their life, can manipulate objects once they are given to them. Indeed, such reflex behaviors are purposeless and lack intellectual awareness – two essential elements that characterize object play (Hughes 2010).

Secondary Circular Reactions

From the age of 4 until the age of 10 months, children move to the next stage of circular reactions that is distinctly different (Piaget 1962). They are now interested on objects and the consequences of their actions, instead of being focused on their own body and repeating actions based on early reflexes (Smith et al. 2015). They engage in what Piaget called secondary circular reactions, the intentional alteration in their surroundings by making interesting things happen such as moving a hanging object by hitting it (Smith et al. 2015). Particularly, secondary circular reactions refer to the young infant’s enthusiasm to repeat newly initiated actions, aiming to influence their surrounding environment.

To illustrate the difference between primary and secondary circular reactions, Piaget described the behavior of his daughter, Jacqueline, at 5 months of age. He describes: “Jacqueline looks at a doll attached to a string, which is stretched from the hood to the handle of the cradle. The doll is at approximately the same level as the child’s feet. Jacqueline moves her feet and finally strikes the doll, whose movement she immediately notices… The activity of the feet grows increasingly regular whereas Jacqueline’s eyes are fixed on the doll. Moreover, when I remove the doll Jacqueline occupies herself quite differently; when I replace it, after a moment, she immediately starts to move her leg again” (Piaget 1936/1952, p. 182). Thus, we can see that Jacqueline’s interest has moved from her own body toward her surrounding environment and the consequences of her actions. In behaving as she did, the young girl seemed to have detected a relation between her movement and the doll’s and was involved in secondary circular reaction.

During secondary circular reaction substage, as children continue to grow, they also start to combine different behavioral schemas, what Piaget called coordination of secondary circular reactions (Smith et al. 2015). In the following example, we can see how Jacqueline combined different schemas such as “sucking” or “grasping” an object in a series of coordinated actions when a new toy is introduced to her at 8 months of age: “Jacqueline grasps an unfamiliar cigarette case which I present to her. At first, she examines it very attentively, turns it over, then holds it in both hands while making the sound ‘apff’ (a kind of hiss which she usually makes in the presence of people). After that she rubs it against the wicker of her cradle then draws herself up while looking at it, then swings it above her and finally puts into her mouth” (Piaget 1936/1952, p. 284). Jacqueline’s behavior illustrates how children begin to combine several schemas to achieve goals or get through new situations.

Tertiary Circular Reactions

While the newborn child between 8 and 12 months of age would engage in a repetition of their actions in order to enjoy an interesting outcome, the young 1-year old progresses to the next level. Although children would still repeat the previous stage, they are not repeating it precisely, but instead, they try to vary the activity, a new behavior known as a tertiary circular reaction (Hughes 2010). Children’s behaviors are now more flexible, and this could lead to new results (Smith et al. 2015). By repeating actions in alternative ways young, children are, essentially, applying already-established schema to new situations and needs (Smith et al. 2015).

Consider the example of Piaget’s daughter Jacqueline – now 13months old – in her bath: “Jacqueline engages in many experiments with celluloid toys floating on the water… Not only does she drop her toys from a height to see the water splash or displace them with her hand in order to make them swim, but, she pushes them halfway down in order to see them rise to the surface. Between the ages of a year and a year and a half, she amuses herself by filling her sponge with water and pressing it against her chest, by running water from the faucet… along her arm, etc.” (Piaget 1936, p. 273). The playful element in this form of circular reaction is evident, as the child seems to enjoy their time with novel objects as well as actively trying to create new interesting experiences.

As the young child progresses through the previous stages of sensorimotor play, they learn to act directly on their surrounding environment via their sensory and motor schemas. According to Piaget, the sensorimotor play period ends when children finally achieve what we call internal representation (Smith et al. 2015). Internal representation refers to the child’s ability to act indirectly on the world because they have now a mental representation of the world, and this ability is not acquired until the newborn child reaches the age of 18–24 months (Smith et al. 2015). This means that children are able to manipulate their mental representation of the world such as being able to think and plan.

Object Permanence

Piaget (1954) made an interesting, yet controversial, claim suggesting that children through the age of 8 months experience a deficiency in their thinking or, in other words, lacking object permanence. Object permanence refers to the knowledge that objects continue to exist even when we cannot see them (Siegler et al. 2011), and according to the cognitive theorist, very young infants ignore any object that was out of sight. For instance, if an infant was reaching for a doll but then the doll was covered with a cloth, the infant would immediately lose interest in it and look away. This claim was based on Piaget’s observations of his own son Laurent, and he explains the young child’s behavior in the following account: “At age 7 months, 28 days, I offer him a little bell behind a cushion. So long as he sees the little bell, however small it may be, he tries to grasp it. But if the little bell disappears completely he stops all searching. I then resume the experiment using my hand as a screen. Laurent’s arm is outstretched and about to grasp the little bell at the moment I make it disappear behind my hand that is open and at a distance about 15 cm. from him. He immediately withdraws his arm, as though the little bell no longer existed” (Piaget 1954, p. 39). Therefore, it has been suggested that infants younger than 8 months can only represent objects they can perceive at the moment (Siegler et al. 2011). The adage “out of sight, out of mind” is literally true.

According to Piaget (1954), it was only through the last substages of the sensorimotor play period that children demonstrated an awareness that the object continued to exist even when it was out of sight (Smith et al. 2015). Looking for an object that cannot be seen directly suggests that the child has a mental representation of the object. In fact, the idea of object permanence supports Piaget’s claim that by 18–24 months of age, young children are able to manipulate their mental representation of the world, known as internal representation.

By the end of their first year of life, infants explore for hidden objects rather than behave as if they had disappeared, indicating that they can mentally represent the object’s enduring existence even when they are out of sight. These first object representations are sensitive, however, as reflected by the A – not – B error (Siegler et al. 2011). In this error, once the young child reaches the age of 8–12 months and learn to reach for and find a hidden object several times in one place (location A), when they see the object hidden at a different place (location B) and they are restricted from immediately searching for it, they usually reach where the object was originally found (location A) (Siegler et al. 2011). Not until around the first year of life do young children initially explore at the object’s current location.

At around 1 year of age, infants begin to actively explore their surrounding environment including the potential ways in which objects can be used (Siegler et al. 2011). Piaget described young children as “scientists” and suggested that their own activity greatly contributes to their development (Siegler et al. 2011). To illustrate this emerging competency, Piaget described how his son Laurent would vary the positions from which he dropped different objects to observe what would happen. Consider this description: “Laurent is lying on his back… He grasps in succession a celluloid swan, a box, etc…, stretches out his arm and lets them fall. He distinctly varies the position of the fall. When the object falls in a new position (for example, on this pillow), he lets it fall two or three more times on the same place, as though to study the spatial relation” (Piaget 1963, pp. 268–269). Piaget viewed such actions as the beginnings of scientific experimentation rather than as bad behavior.

By the end of the sensorimotor stage (18–24 months of age) as the young child develops, according to Piaget, they are now able to form enduring mental representations (Siegler et al. 2011). The evidence for this new mental capability is what Piaget called deferred imitation. This is when young children carry out a behavior they observed other people doing, minutes, hours, or even days after it occurred (Siegler et al. 2011). Piaget provides a good example of this by illustrating an observation of 1-year-old Jacqueline: “Jacqueline had a visit from a little boy… who, in the course of the afternoon, got into a terrible temper. He screamed as he tried to get out of a playpen and pushed it backward, stamping his feet… The next day, she herself screamed in her playpen and tried to move it, stamping her foot lightly several times in succession” (Piaget 1951, p. 63). According to Piaget, Jacqueline had never before shown such a temper. The reason for doing so, probably, is because she had watched and remembered the boy’s behavior, retained a representation of it overnight, and imitated it the next day; in other words, she had a mental representation of what she had observed the previous day (Smith et al. 2015).


When we consider Piaget’s account of cognitive development during the sensorimotor period or otherwise infancy, the infant progresses from very simple and basic reflex actions at birth, to more complex behaviors at the end of the stage. At first, infants’ motor or sensory activities are related to their own bodies with concrete goals being the ultimate outcome, such as shaking a rattle and listening to the sound it makes. Later, infants’ activities are mainly focused on the surrounding world with more abstract goals such as differing the heights from which objects are dropped and watching what happens as well as how the different effects vary. Young children also acquire the ability to form mental representations, progressing from “out of sight, out of mind” to remembering another person’s behavior and imitating it the day after it occurred. It is only toward the end of the period that children develop this ability to mentally represent the world as well as to manipulate their thoughts and construct their own knowledge in response to their experiences.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Niki Christodoulou
    • 1
  • Xenia Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus