During the first year of life, children engage into exploratory behaviors in order to become familiar to and learn about the surrounding world.
During their first year of life, children engage mainly, in what Jean 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) and thus considered as “playful” behavior. 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. In this section, we will explain the different stages of cognitive development as well as how the newborn child moves through the period of sensorimotor play to acquire the skills and abilities to think on their own.
Stages of Cognitive Development
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).
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).
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.
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.
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 13-month-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.
According to the Piagetian theory of cognitive development, infants progress through four developmental stages where they gradually acquire the skills necessary to experience and understand the world around them. As Piaget further suggested, young children develop their own capacity for thinking through the period of sensorimotor play. During this period, the young child progresses from very simple and basic reflex actions at birth to more complex behaviors at the end of each 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 such as 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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