Piaget proposed a sequence of developmental stages that children go through as they mature and acquire knowledge. The concrete operational stage, which comes third in this sequence, typically emerges between the ages of 7 and 11, highlighting the advancing cognitive abilities of children during this phase.
- Piaget’s Preoperational Stage Of Cognitive Development
- Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage Of Cognitive Development
Concrete Operational stage
There are a number of hallmarks in the concrete operational stage, with the notable onset of a more sophisticated logical application. Children, previously limited in their reasoning, now learn to solve problems rooted in tangible contexts. Abstract and hypothetical thought, though, remain just beyond their reach. Nevertheless, this period of development represents a significant leap from the earlier stages, as children begin to acquire a more refined understanding of the world around them. This is not simply about learning facts but also about organising those facts and understanding the relationships between them (1).
For example, Piaget observed that children start to employ inductive reasoning, a process where they derive broad conclusions from specific observations. For instance, if a child observes that rain always seems to make the ground wet, they might infer that water causes things to become wet. This is an example of inductive reasoning where the child is making a broad conclusion based on a specific observation.
On the other hand, they often find deductive reasoning more challenging. Deductive reasoning is the process of drawing specific conclusions based on a general principle or premise. For example, if a child is taught, “All mammals breathe air,” and then learns that “Dolphins are mammals,” they should deduce that “Dolphins breathe air.” However, making such logical connections might be challenging for children at this stage (3).
Piaget stated that the two most transformative cognitive shifts during this phase are a surge in logical thinking and a noteworthy reduction in egocentrism (see the Preoperational Stage article). Egocentrism means a child’s perspective reigns supreme, and others’ viewpoints cannot be properly prioritized. For example, if we were to present children with a story where a girl named Sophie hides a toy in a chest before departing, only for her brother Ben to move it into a cupboard later, a child experiencing the concrete operational stage would assert that upon returning, Sophie would continue to believe it is inside the chest. This newfound ability to perceive the world through another’s lens exemplifies the diminishing influence of egocentrism.
Also in this phase of their development, children become primarily capable of addressing problems related to tangible objects or real-life events. They begin to gain an ability to understand abstractions and hypothetical scenarios, though this is generally perfected in later developmental stages. When children transition into this stage of adolescence, they start to engage in advanced verbal problem-solving and a systematic approach akin to the scientific method. They begin to hypothesize, deduce, and systematically dissect problems. It is during these years that they tentatively concern themselves with profound concepts like love, values, and logical proofs.
One of the most significant transformations of children during the concrete operational stage is their capacity to view objects from multiple dimensions. For example, instead of being singularly focused on an object’s length, they may concurrently learn to recognize its breadth. This evolution from a unidimensional view to a multidimensional one is a crucial cognitive leap, symbolizing the ability to grasp intricate relationships and classify objects based on diverse attributes (4).
Yet, as their young minds grow, they also navigate the intricate web of social cognition. Consider the 13-year-old who hesitates to wear glasses to school for fear everyone will notice, or the 15-year-old who believes that her heartbreak is unlike any other ever experienced. Adolescents undergo a distinct shift, marked by heightened self-awareness and a quest for identity, which is punctuated by two significant concepts: the imaginary audience and the personal fable.
The imaginary audience is exemplified by the teenager who is convinced that everyone in the school canteen is talking about a tiny stain on his shirt. Meanwhile, the personal fable, a conviction of one’s own exceptionalism, can be seen in the adolescent who believes that no one could possibly understand the depth of their feelings or experiences. While these concepts encapsulate the adolescent’s belief of being perpetually observed and their conviction of their own uniqueness, intriguingly, these social cognitive traits are not restricted to adolescence.
In fact, it is not uncommon for them to continue into adulthood. However, they have their roots in the concrete operational stage, persisting and evolving in the subsequent formal operational stage.
Let us now look in more detail at some of the primary skills demonstrated by the child in the concrete stage.
1. Inferring higher-order characteristics
In the preoperational stage, children focus on specific traits rather than broader categories. Their thinking is concrete and centred on single aspects, preventing them from inferring higher-order characteristics like grouping various dogs into the ‘mammal’ category. However, as they pass through this stage they learn to deduce broader properties or categories from specific examples. For instance, by observing various breeds of dogs, a child might infer the broader category of ‘mammals’. This skill is vital as it aids in generalising knowledge, simplifying complex information, and building foundational concepts for advanced learning.
2. Identify defining features
In their early years, children often base their understanding on the most noticeable aspects of objects. However, as they progress to the concrete operational stage, children shift their attention to the key characteristics that define an object or state. For instance, whereas a younger child might believe that cars and clocks are alive because they move or make noise, by the time they reach middle childhood, they can discern that even though numerous mechanical items like trains or windmills and natural phenomena like clouds or rivers exhibit movement, it is only plants and animals that possess the essence of life, marking them as being alive (2).
3. Multiple perspectives
This refers to a child’s ability to understand situations from various viewpoints, moving away from their previous self-centred perspective. For instance, when two children observe different sides of a mountain model, a child in this stage recognises that the other sees a different side, showcasing this newfound understanding. The skill of understanding multiple perspectives is pivotal as it promotes empathy, enhances problem-solving by considering diverse viewpoints, and aids collaborative work in group settings.
4. Part-whole relationships
In the concrete operational stage a child develops the ability to understand how individual parts relate to one another and form a whole. For instance, when given a puzzle, a child in this stage can identify individual pieces and also comprehend how they fit together to create the complete picture, showcasing their grasp on the relationship between parts and the whole entity. This provides a foundation for grasping complex systems and structures in later learning.
5. Transitive inference
Transitive inference in Piaget’s concrete operational stage allows a child to deduce a connection between two elements because they both have a relationship with a third element. For example, if a toy car (A) is faster than toy train (B), and toy train (B) is faster than a toy plane (C), the child can deduce that the toy car (A) is faster than the toy plane (C), showcasing newly developed logical reasoning.
When asked why it rains, a child might respond, “Clouds become too heavy with water, so it falls as rain.” This shows the child is learning to offer reasons for their thoughts or beliefs, even if their reasons are not always correct.
7. Classification & Identity
As children mature and their experiences broaden alongside their expanding vocabulary, they cultivate a deeper understanding of the world around them. This maturation allows them to classify objects into multifaceted categories and even grasp hierarchical classifications. Furthermore, they discern that objects maintain their intrinsic characteristics, regardless of superficial modifications. For example, they recognize that if a wooden block is painted a different colour, it remains wood at its core.
8. Reversibility, Conservation & Decentration
Reversibility in Piaget’s concrete operational stage refers to the understanding that actions or processes can be undone to return to their original state. For instance, if a child squashes a ball of clay into a flat pancake shape, they recognise that it can be rolled back into a ball. This cognitive skill is crucial as it enables children to appreciate cause and effect relationships.
Conservation, on the other hand, signifies the comprehension that changing the form of an object does not alter its essential quantity. For example, if you pour the same amount of water from a tall, narrow glass into a short, wide bowl, a child in this stage will understand that the volume of water remains unchanged. This is often impossible for children in earlier stages of mental development.
This ability to focus on multiple aspects of a situation or problem at once, rather than being fixated on a single aspect, is called “decentration”. A child with decentration skills can recognise that both the height and width of the containers affect the appearance of the liquid level. This allows conservation (described above) to take place. These abilities to consider multiple facets of a scenario enable a more comprehensive understanding of complex situations.
Related to the skills described above, seriation is the ability to arrange objects in a specific order, such as by size or volume. For instance, arranging sticks from shortest to longest. This skill is valuable because it helps children solve problems involving order and sequence, which is crucial for academic success in various subjects, including mathematics and science.
10. Differences of behavior in relation to adults (number of times asking & word choice)
It has been claimed that the frequency with which an adult questions a child can sway their responses. For instance, when children are shown two equal-sized pieces of clay and then one is reshaped, they might say the reshaped piece is “bigger.” If questioned repeatedly about their choice, some children might question their initial observation and provide a different response, influenced by their growing uncertainty. Additionally, the wording chosen by an adult can shape a child’s response. For instance, if during a test involving two stacks of coins of equal height, the experimenter questions, “Which stack is taller?”, the child may second-guess their perception of equality due to the adult’s phrasing. However, if the query is, “Are these two stacks the same height?”, it pushes the child towards affirming the equal height, based on the implication in the question (5).
In conclusion, Piaget’s concrete operational stage, occurring between ages 7 and 11, marks a significant developmental leap in children’s cognitive abilities. During this phase, they acquire essential skills such as inferring higher-order characteristics, identifying defining features, and understanding multiple perspectives.
They also learn to comprehend concepts related to cause and effect, size, and distance.
Although abstract thinking remains challenging, children in the concrete operational stage gain a more refined understanding of the world and transition towards systematic scientific thinking in later stages. Additionally, they begin to navigate social cognition, marked by concepts like the imaginary audience and the personal fable, which can continue to evolve into adulthood.
Overall, the concrete operational stage is a pivotal period in cognitive development, shaping the way children perceive and interact with their environment, laying the foundation for advanced learning and problem-solving in various academic disciplines.
- Crain, W. (2005) Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. Pearson, New Jersey.
- Piaget, J. (1954). The development of object concept (M. Cook, Trans.). In J. Piaget & M. Cook (Trans.), The construction of reality in the child (pp. 3-96) . New York, NY, US: Basic Books.
- Piaget, J. & Szeminska, A. (1952). The Child’s Conception of Number. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
- Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. In W .J. Lonner & R.S. Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture . Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.