Child Development: what it is and the 4 phases of Jean Piaget

Some say that children are miniature adults, they only have less experience than older ones. This assumption could not be more wrong: try to teach the Bhaskara formula to a 5 year old child and you will end up frustrated.

As much as she already knows that 2 + 2 = 4 and has experienced the resolution of more complex problems, she is still not able to understand abstract concepts like adults, as she has not yet developed this ability.

What does that mean? Well, that means that the child goes through a whole development process , that is, improvement of functions and skills, until he becomes an adult. It is not only the internal brain structures that mature, but also the social has an important role in this skill building.

Development differs from growth, since the latter is related to the size and physiology of the physical body, that is, it covers the length and height of the child, as well as his weight and the size of his internal organs. Development, on the other hand, is more related to learning: the child learns to walk, talk, carry objects, etc.

Do you want to understand a little more about how this development process takes place? Keep reading!

What is child development?

Child development is a process that all children go through from birth to about 6 years of age. It is related to the development of specific skills that guarantee the child’s self-sufficiency.

This process is characterized by milestones, in which certain behaviors are expected of children after a certain age. Which parents are not anxious to hear the baby’s first word? And how many parents are not extremely happy when their child takes the first steps?

Well, these are clear examples of what it is and how children develop. It is the small daily learning that makes them become more and more adults.

Types of development

The development of children is not limited to the development of motor skills, but occurs in several spheres at the same time. Often, it is necessary to integrate all types of development that the child goes through. Understand:

Physical development

It refers to the improvement of the child’s physical skills, such as the ability to crawl, stand, walk, run, jump and even do more precise activities such as drawing and writing, which often require the mental area to be well. developed as well.

Cognitive development

The word “cognition” refers to the skills that guarantee the brain’s ability to process information and gain knowledge about the world. Therefore, it encompasses processes such as thinking, reasoning, memory, language, attention, problem solving, among others.

We know that babies are not born knowing how to do all of this. In fact, many believe that babies are born capable of thinking, but in a very different way from ours. So, over time, these skills need to be developed.

Can you remember something that happened before you were 3 years old? Almost none of us can, because until then the brain is still not very capable of storing memories. Over time, the maturation of this organ allows long-term memory to become established and, gradually, cognition develops completely.

All of this takes time and it is important for the child to learn to live in the world. Through continuous learning, the child adapts to the reality around him, learning to manage by himself and to solve the problems he encounters during his life.

Social development

With language learning, social development also begins. From there, the child is able to exchange information with other children and adults, enabling the learning of social norms, culture, traditions, among others.

Affective development

Related to emotions, affective development has been present since the child’s first years of life. Anyone who thinks that a baby does not feel love is very mistaken: several approaches to psychology, including psychoanalysis, show how love and affection are important for the child to grow up healthy, in the first months.

The child’s feelings towards parents and closest adults are essential for the development of emotional intelligence, preventing the child from growing up without having emotional difficulties.

Important factors for good child development

The basis for a good development is the affective bond with the mother, father, family members and other caregivers. When there is a welcoming environment, the child has the opportunity to grow up healthy, developing his skills to the fullest.

Disturbed environments such as houses where many people live, the presence of many fights, violence, psychological and physical abuse, among others, are risk factors for children to have difficulty in developing their skills fully. Not infrequently, these little ones start to suffer from mental disorders later in life and may have difficulties in social, career, studies, among others.

Factors that can influence development are:

  • Heredity: If parents started to speak later than most babies, it is likely that the child will also take a while to learn to speak;
  • Nutrition: Food is important not only for the development of the body, but also for cognition, since the brain is an organ like all others and needs to be nourished to function properly;
  • Environment: When there is a lack of stimulation in the environment in which the child lives, there may be a delay in intellectual development. Environments with enough stimuli, on the other hand, easily accelerate this process;
  • Physical problems: If the child suffers from a medical condition, development can be hampered. Deaf children, for example, can take time to develop language.

Child development milestones

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Many moms and dads know that their child is developing well because they know the milestones of development. These milestones are events in which the child begins to demonstrate certain behaviors and has the right moments to happen.

It is worth remembering that ages can vary a lot, but in general it is advisable to see a pediatrician if you suspect that your child is not typically developing.

Important milestones up to 12 months

At birth, the baby:

  • He sleeps most of the time;
  • Suck with your mouth frequently;
  • Cry when disturbed or uncomfortable.

4 weeks

  • Take your hands to your eyes and mouth;
  • Moves the head from side to side when lying down;
  • He follows a moving object in front of his face with his gaze;
  • Responds to ambient sounds (taking scares, crying, etc.);
  • You can turn in the direction of familiar voices and sounds;
  • It is able to focus on a face.

6 weeks

  • Observes objects within your field of view;
  • He starts to smile when they talk to him;
  • Lie on your tummy.

3 months

  • You can keep your head steady when sitting;
  • Raises the head to 45º when lying face down;
  • Opens and closes the little hands;
  • It presses with the feet when it is placed under a flat surface;
  • Moves to reach suspended toys, such as the crib mobile;
  • He follows, with his gaze, an object in front of his face, shaking his head from side to side;
  • Watch faces attentively;
  • I smiled when I heard the caregiver’s voice (mother, father, nanny, etc.);
  • He starts babbling, making sounds similar to speech.

5—6 months

  • Keep your head steady when standing;
  • Can sit with support;
  • Rolls the body in one direction, usually from lying on your stomach to lying on your back;
  • Try to reach objects;
  • Recognizes people at a distance;
  • Pay close attention to human voices;
  • I smiled spontaneously;
  • When feeling pleasure, expressed through screams;
  • Babble to toys.

7 months

  • Can sit without support;
  • Supports part of your body weight when kept upright;
  • Passes objects from one hand to the other;
  • Holds the bottle itself;
  • Look for objects that have fallen;
  • Responds to your own name;
  • Babbling combining vowels and consonants;
  • Responds to the “where’s the baby?” Game.

9 months

  • Can sit up well;
  • Try to pick up toys that are out of your reach;
  • Responds when toys are taken from him;
  • Crawls or stands on feet and hands;
  • Can stand up;
  • From the prone position, he is able to sit down;
  • He is able to stand up leaning on something or someone;
  • It says “mama” and “papa”.

12 months

  • Can walk by leaning on furniture or holding the hand of people;
  • You can take one or two steps without support;
  • Stand for a few moments at a time;
  • Say “mama” and “papa” to the right people;
  • Learn to drink from a glass;
  • Clap your hands and say goodbye;
  • Can speak a few words.

Developmental milestones from 18 months to 6 years

At 18 months:

  • Walk well;
  • Manages to climb stairs using support.
  • Draws a vertical line;
  • Make a tower with 4 cubes;
  • He had seen several pages of a book at the same time;
  • Speaks about 10 words;
  • Pulls toys on strings;
  • You can eat some things on your own.

At 2 years:

  • Has motor coordination enough to run well;
  • Go up on furniture.
  • Handles cutlery well;
  • He turns individual pages of books;
  • Make a tower with 7 cubes;
  • Form sentences with 2 or 3 words.

At 2.5 years:

  • Jump;
  • Up and down stairs without help.
  • Scribbles in a circular pattern;
  • Opens doors;
  • Can wear simple clothes alone;
  • Talk when you need to go to the bathroom.

At 3 years:

  • Has good motor coordination to walk well (mature gait);
  • Ride a cycle.
  • He prefers to use one hand over the other;
  • Copy a circle;
  • He can dress himself, but he still doesn’t know how to close the buttons or tie shoelaces;
  • Count to 10 and use plurals;
  • Recognizes at least 3 colors;
  • Asks questions constantly;
  • Can eat alone;
  • Most children at this age are able to use the bathroom by themselves.

At 4 years:

  • Up and down the stairs alternating feet;
  • Jump on one foot;
  • Can throw balls.
  • Copy a cross;
  • Can get dressed;
  • Wash your hands and face.

At 5 years:

  • Pula;
  • Catches a thrown ball.
  • Copy a triangle;
  • Draws a person in 6 parts;
  • Knows 4 colors;
  • You can get dressed and undress without help.

At 6 years:

  • Walk in a straight line using the entire surface of your foot.
  • Write your own name.

Phases of child development according to Piaget

The great researcher in the phases of child cognitive development is Jean Piaget, a psychologist who began to take an interest in the reasoning of children while working at a school for boys. He was curious about the reasoning used by the boys when they missed the answers to the questions the teachers asked.

Observing several children during growth, including his own children, he postulated 4 stages (or phases) of infant cognitive development.

The first two stages are quite extensive, as there are a lot of skills being learned in these stages. However, the last two stages are extremely important for the formation of the thought found in the adult and depend a lot on the skills acquired in the previous stages.

The phases of child development are:

Sensorimotor: from 0 to 2 years

At this stage, the child focuses on sensations and movements. She begins to understand what the sensations mean and how her movements can lead to changes in the outside world.

In the first months, the baby still does not have conscious control of his motor actions. However, as time goes by, he gradually becomes aware of his movements, and that’s when the party begins: he realizes that if he stretches his arm, he can pull the mobile over the crib. From there, he starts to test the possibilities of movement to see where it will go.

It is worth remembering that, at this stage, the child still has difficulties with everything that he cannot see, touch or feel. The so-called permanence of the object does not yet exist, as the child does not admit its existence outside his sensory field. Therefore, if the parents hide a toy, for example, it will not look for it. For her, the toy ceased to exist.

The same happens with people: if the baby does not see the mother, she automatically ceases to exist and begins to cry. As the child receives stimuli, he begins to have a vague notion that objects out of his sight do not necessarily cease to exist. That’s why the “where’s the baby?” it’s so fun and healthy!

Preoperative: from 2 to 7 years

This stage begins with the capacity of representative thought, that is, the child begins to generate representations of reality in the thought itself. This is what makes it possible to learn to speak (which starts much earlier, but develops more quickly here) and “pretend” games.

It is worth remembering that this phase is marked by an evident self-centeredness, but this does not mean character failure , being part of the typical cognitive development of any child. When speaking, she speaks to herself and rarely considers what has been said to her.

With this, there is also a need to “give life” to things: for children at this stage, a rolling ball does it because it wants to, not because it is on a steep surface or because a force has been applied, taking it out of inertia. She also believes that things happen for herself. In the minds of children of that age, the sun goes down so that they go to sleep, not because the day ends naturally.

Returning to representative thinking, it is precisely that which allows the development of logical thinking later. At this stage, the child may be confused with numbers and quantities.

An example is when we put the same amount of juice in glasses of different shapes: one thin and long, the other wide and short. As much as the same amount, the level of juice in the thin glass is above the level in the short glass. For children at this stage, this means that there is more juice in the thin glass, even if they have seen that it is the same amount before!

Another example: if I get two cookies for myself and give her just one cookie, the child will be upset that they have less. In fact, in this case, she is right. However, if I split her cookie in half instead of giving her a new cookie, she’ll find that fair. This is because it seems to us that we both have two cookies, even though her cookie halves are considerably smaller than mine.

So, if your young son gives wrong answers in exercises that measure quantities, volumes and sizes, don’t worry: he is developing normally, just going through the preoperative period in which the logic is still being formed!

It is also at this stage that children begin to understand what is right and what is wrong, what they can and cannot do. However, when they are presented with a new unusual situation, they are not yet able to judge the problem morally, doing what they want (regardless of whether it is right or wrong).

Therefore, fathers and mothers should be patient with children at this stage. She still has a lot to learn and there is no point fighting when she does something wrong: she simply is not able to realize on her own that she cannot.

Concrete surgery: from 8 to 12 years

Marked by the beginning of concrete logical thinking, children going through this stage begin to mentally manipulate representations of things that they have internalized during past stages. The problem is that this manipulation can only occur with concrete things, arranged in the real world. Abstract concepts are not yet understandable.

Recalling the example of the juice glasses, the child in this phase already understands that the two glasses have the same amount of juice, that is, he has the notion of conservation . As for the biscuit, she also understands that two halves of a biscuit are not equivalent to two biscuits. Get ready to share more cookies with your child, because that excuse will no longer stick!

Here, there is already a greater understanding of what is moral. The rules of society begin to make sense and, in simple situations, the child is already capable of judging what would be right to do on his own.

Formal surgery: from 12 years old

The last stage postulated by Piaget begins in pre-adolescence, when the child is also able to manipulate abstract representations, performing operations with concepts that do not have physical forms, such as certain mathematical concepts.

At this stage, children begin to understand the world through the eyes of other people: they begin to understand experiences that they themselves have not experienced in the first person. In fact, this process already begins during the concrete operative period, but, as the name says, it only serves for concrete objects. In this new stage, the child starts to understand the point of view of others regarding abstract concepts.

Language development

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Children are not born knowing how to speak, and this is no surprise to anyone. Speech, like cognition, does not appear overnight: it also arrives through stages.

However, not being able to speak is different from not being able to communicate. Communication between caregiver and baby is, in most cases, very well established. How many times have you not seen a mother recognize the child’s need just by crying? Well, since the beginning he has been creating a kind of language of his own, even if he does not use words.

The problem is that not everyone understands this baby’s language and, as it grows, it needs to learn to adapt to the world around it. With that, he starts to learn the language of the place where he lives over two stages: the pre-linguistic and the linguistic.

Pre-linguistic internship

This stage occurs before the child is able to speak the first words. During this time, she tends to use crying a lot to communicate. Often, even the baby doesn’t know very well why he is crying.

For him, hunger is just an uncomfortable sensation, not unlike the pain of colic. With the help of the mother, he himself learns what it is what: if the bad feeling goes after eating, then it is hunger. Thus, he creates a specific cry for this sensation, as he learns to differentiate what he feels.

Over time, he begins to produce sounds called “cooing”, guttural sounds (come out directly from the throat) that provide the basis for him to learn to use the vocal cords. At around 6-10 months, the baby starts babbling and repeating consonant and vowel sounds.

It is at this stage that he begins to speak “mama”, “papa” and “dada”. Not infrequently, parents confuse this with their first words, when in fact the baby himself doesn’t have much idea of ​​what it means. That is, not always that the child says “mama”, she is calling the mother. Often, you are just experimenting with your vocal cords.

At the end of the first year of life, the child already has a basic understanding of the sounds used in language, which provides the basis for him to effectively learn to speak. It is at this time that she really begins to learn her first words.

Language internship

By the middle of the second year of life (18 months), the child can already use combinations of sounds to refer to people, objects, animals and even events. At that time, it is estimated that she has a vocabulary of about 50 words, even if they are wrong.

The curious thing is that, in this phase, a single word has the value of an entire sentence. An example is when she points out of the house saying “wow”. Parents understand that these two letters mean “I want to go out on the street”, or “I want to go for a walk”. This phenomenon is called “holophrases”.

Even at that age, letters are frequently exchanged and omitted, as in the example mentioned in the “street without r”.

At the end of 2 years of age, the child is expected to have a vocabulary of more than 100 words and, between the ages of 2 and 3, he begins to learn grammatical rules and to change letters less. At 6 years old, he can already speak long sentences and always tries to use grammatical rules correctly.

Genesis of language: how does the child learn?

Although we know that language is being developed by what the child demonstrates externally, we do not know very well how this learning takes place. However, several theorists have tried to explain this.

A linguist named Chomsky believes that part of the learning is biologically determined, that is, it occurs in a native way. The child learns to speak because his organism develops, making speech possible.

Skinner, a great behavioral psychologist, argued that language was obtained by experience. As the child tried the language with his parents and other adults, he learned.

Piaget, already mentioned, brings a third view that better reflects what we see in practice: language learning occurs through interactions between the child and the world. It occurs along with cognitive development, and is based on both biological and interactionist assumptions.

With this, it becomes clear that the child needs the encouragement of the parents to learn to speak. Her first syllables are, in fact, imitations of the sounds that her parents make near her. This makes it clear how someone needs to be stimulated so that the child can learn to actually speak.

What to do if my child does not show typical development?

To begin with, we must keep in mind that the ages, both of cognitive and motor development, are approximate , with reference to an average. In other words, the capacity for representative thinking, a hallmark of the preoperative stage, may not appear as soon as the child is 2 years old.

Another important thing is to realize that the stages often overlap: entering the preoperative stage does not necessarily mean that the child learned everything he had to learn in the sensorimotor stage.

In such cases, there is no need to worry, as moving from one stage to the next does not mean that she will not be able to develop these skills later. On the contrary, the skills already acquired continue to evolve, regardless of the stage.

It is worth remembering that different children develop in different ways, but, in general, there is a certain time for some skills to appear.

If, by chance, a 3 year old child still cannot speak a word, it is a sign that he has some developmental dysfunction and this should be investigated. On the other hand, babies who do not leave the babbling stage may be deaf, which is just another condition that needs attention.

When in doubt, always consult a trusted pediatrician . If necessary, he can refer the child to a speech therapist , psychopedagogue , neurologist , among other specialties that can help to work on these skills.


It is important to understand the stages of children’s cognitive development because it is precisely at this stage that the first symptoms of various disorders diagnosed in childhood appear, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ).

In addition, difficulties in learning a child can be an invitation to reflection: what is happening in the social and family environment of that child that may be hindering his development?

As stated earlier, affective bonds are indispensable for a full and quality development. Parents who often fight or who are absent, the presence of a sibling with whom the child is always compared, situations in which he is inferior, among others, are all factors that hinder the development.

Therefore, sometimes the problem may not be in the child itself, but in the family dynamics. In such cases, it is important to pay attention to attitudes that can harm you, as well as to seek help when necessary.

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