Jean Piaget, a pioneer in the field of the cognitive development of children, developed a theory that views children as actively constructing knowledge through their constant exploration and manipulation of their world. His theory describes the ways in which children mentally represent their world and manipulate a symbol system at various ages and stages. His theory is based on detailed observations of his own children. He described the growth of cognitive development as proceeding from simple reflexive activity in infancy to complex abstract and logical thinking in adolescence.
Piaget's descriptions of cognitive development in infancy focus on the ways in which inborn reflexes, such as sucking, grasping, visual tracking, and turning toward a sound become more goal directed and refined over the first year of life. Initially, an infant's cognitive responses are purely sensiormotor and have little coordination or intention. Observe a 2-to-3-month-old who is lying on his or her back, watching a rattle suspended in the air by a parent. The baby usually looks at the rattle and will visually follow it from side to side. She may reach out her hands and try to grab the rattle, but may swipe at it. She may kick her legs and wave her arms more to try to get it, but she may not be able to grab it unless the adult puts it right in her hand. Now look at this child at 4 to 5 months. She can probably grab that rattle, bring it to her mouth, explore it, and maybe even shift it from hand to hand. This rapid development is due to both an inner drive to manipulate and master the world (White, 1960) and the availability of a responsive, consistent, trustworthy, and stimulating world. It is this kind of interaction between the child and his or her environment that, according to Piaget, allows a child to construct the knowledge of his or her world. When older infants demonstrate reactions to the world that are no longer purely reflexive, it is clear that their behavior is goal oriented and involves an awareness of past events.
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