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What did Piaget mean by ‘action’?

My Response

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is renowned for his theory of cognitive development. In sum, Piaget considered that the developing child is not able to carry out certain tasks until he or she is psychologically/cognitively ready. He claimed that children pass through particular stages of cognitive development:


approx. age characteristics


0-2 years

  • Infant differentiates itself from objects

  • CAUSE/EFFECT – becomes aware of own actions on the environment



2-7 years

  • Represents objects by words

  • EGOCENTRIC – world revolves around child

  • CLASSIFIES OBJECTS by single salient features, e.g. four-legged animals


7-12 years

  • Logical thought

  • CONSERVATION CONCEPTS [number (6 yrs), mass (7 yrs), weight (9 yrs)] and orders these in a series along a dimension

  • Understands relational terms, e.g. length


12 years +

  • ABSTRACT thinking

  • Follows logical propositions

  • Isolates elements of problem and systematically explores solutions

  • Becomes concerned with hypothetical future and ideological problems

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget saw mental structures as representing a child’s knowledge of the world. These mental structures are built, according to Piaget, by the child performing actions on the environment/objects in the environment which then provide feedback through the senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, sound). This feedback elaborates the child’s mental structures and, thereby, continues to develop their knowledge about the nature of the physical world. Hence, this is called the sensori-motor stage. In order to develop ever more sophisticated mental structures the child develops a number of so-called action schemes. These can be thought of as patterns, or plans (or IF…THEN loops in computer programming) that the child identifies when performing certain actions. For example, the child might perform a simple action such as sucking and identify that the same outcome occurs (e.g. tasting milk) whenever the child repeats this action scheme. The child will, of course, develop many action schemes (i.e. learned patterns of ‘if I perform this ACTION on this object then this OUTCOME occurs’). The child will also then begin to learn that certain action schemes can be sequenced in order to obtain different outcomes, e.g. ‘If I perform this ACTION (grasping a bottle) and then perform this ACTION (putting the bottle to my lips) and then I perform this ACTION (sucking on the teat) I get this OUTCOME (the taste of blackcurrant juice.

Selected Biography (Jean Piaget)

(1926) The Language and Thought of the Child

(1928) Judgement and Reasoning in the Child

(1954) The Origin of Intelligence in Children

(1964) The Early Growth of Logic in the Child

(1970) Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child