Jean Piaget: Theory of Play

Jean Piaget was a highly influential Swiss biologist and psychologist who developed a controversial model of child development and learning—Jean Piaget Theory of Play—based on careful observations of his own three children. Today, although his theories are much expounded, they are also heavily criticized, and despite the fact that he undoubtedly made a massive contribution to the field of child psychology, many of the conclusions he drew from his observational work are now deemed to be incorrect.

The model for Jean Piaget Theory of Play was based on his experiments and observations of children playing. He recognized the differences between physical and symbolic play and he believed that play provided a relaxed environment where learning took place more easily, although he stressed that play was different to learning, as cognitive development required a combination of assimilation and adaptation whereas play was assimilation but not accommodation.

Piaget’s work was based around the concept that there are four developmental stages. He based all of his theories on experiments, plus observations relating to the development of his own three children. His four-stage theory of child development was seen as a ladder that children climbed as they gradually increased their knowledge of the world around them.

Piaget based his theory on the idea of mental “maps” that allowed a child to build cognitive structures as they responded to their experiences within the physical environment and moved on from the simple reflexes of birth to the development of complex mental activities.

As the child develops, their experiences are measured against the mental map they have constructed. Repeat experiences are easily assimilated into the existing map, whereas new experiences upset the equilibrium and cause the child to alter their cognitive map to reflect the new experiences. Over time, the cognitive structure becomes more complex and more effective.

The central basis of Piaget’s theories on child development was based around the insight that children think in a fundamentally different way to adults: children are not just limited by less knowledge and experience—their thought processes are actually completely different. Today, even though many psychologists have criticized various aspects of Piaget’s work, this central insight has remained intact.

Sensory-motor: between birth and 18/24 months, infants only have an awareness of the sensations experienced by their bodies, and they explore the world through taste, touch, and sound. One observation he recorded from this stage in a child’s development was that a child does not know an object still exists when it is out of sight.

Pre-operational: between 18/24 months and 7 years, children are able to process images, words and simple concepts, but although they have the tools of thought, they are unable to make use of them.

Concrete operations: between 7 and 12 years of age, children are able to manipulate objects and symbols, but only if they are a concrete concept. Abstract operations are still challenging, although a child can solve mathematical equations using numbers as well as objects by this stage.

Formal operations: from the age of 12, children begin to think as adults do and are able to understand more complex and abstract concepts such as morality and the future.

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