The theory, research, and philosophy of development in the early childhood years provides a deeper understanding of young children, the way they construct knowledge about their world, and the ways through which they most effectively learn. The following sections present a theoretical perspective based upon the “whole-child” view of the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children.
Piaget’s Stages of Intellectual Development
Piaget and Inhelder (1969) describe intellectual development as a series of stages through which children make qualitative changes as they acquire new knowledge. Although this model for intellectual development in children should not be rigidly interpreted, it does offer a guide for understanding how children construct and integrate knowledge. The approximate ages attached to the stages are variable, and we must be careful not to categorize children into a particular stage based on chronological age alone. A child does not wake up on the morning of her second birthday to find herself firmly settled into the preoperational stage of development, nor are all children capable of dealing with metaphor and analogy the day each turns 12. In fact, a child may exhibit some behaviors that could be classified as being in the preoperational stage while performing other tasks that are concrete operational.
Piaget was most interested in the question underlying his theory: “How do human beings construct knowledge?” He believed that intelligence evolves through a series of stages and developmental processes.
The Sensorimotor Stage
The first stage, sensorimotor operations, involves the child’s reception of and reaction to the senses and motor activity. The child’s behavior is based on reflexes. Children grasp, touch, and manipulate objects and have a strong sense of sound, smell, and taste. The major accomplishment during this stage is the development of “object permanence,” or knowing that an object exists even though it cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Children systematically repeat behaviors and gradually coordinate them into predictable chains of behavior. They learn concepts through exploration and exposure to new experiences.
The Preoperational Stage
The second, or preoperational, stage is characterized by the child’s ability to represent objects and events through deferred imitation, symbolic play, drawing, mental imagery, and spoken language. In deferred imitation a child will imitate something that he has seen before but does not exist in the here and now of the child’s experience. For example, a child may imitate an adult reading a book while there is no adult around to serve as a model. During symbolic play, children pretend (blocks become cars) or play make-believe (“You be the father, and I’ll help you make dinner”). Young children need little motivation to begin exploring drawing, moving to music, sculpting clay, or attending to a poem, and the visual and kinesthetic pleasure the activity brings. While at first they may simply be responding to the visual attraction of a beautifully colored marker, they may later begin to recognize form in their scribbling. In later phases of drawing, children will attempt to represent objects or experiences that have meaning or importance to them. These first attempts at representational drawings may not be recognizable by adult standards, but they are nevertheless meaningful and relevant to the child. A major accomplishment during the preoperational stage is the onset of language. Children learn that they can use words as substitutes for objects and actions.
The Concrete Operational Stage
The third stage of Piaget’s theory is concrete operations. The concrete operational child is capable of symbolic representation and understanding of reversible operations. At this stage, children can classify as they relate to groups of objects and order objects in a series. For example, children can classify sets of objects according to similarities and can reason about the relationships between classes and subclasses of objects. Concrete operational children also demonstrate the principle of conservation, or the ability to recognize the difference between volume and size. Decentering begins as children become aware of others’ viewpoints and their interpersonal encounters become more cooperative (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).
According to Piaget, children must be actively involved in constructing their own knowledge because they understand only what they discover or interpret for themselves. True knowledge occurs inside the child and is processed and understood as the child is actively involved in hands-on, real-life experiences. As children experience art, music, drama, dance, and poetry, they are provided opportunities for integrating mental representations in symbolic ways that promote intellectual development.
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