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MENTAL DEVELOPMENT & THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY

FOUR STAGES of MENTAL/COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT

Psychologist Jean Piaget’s work was ground-breaking. It still provides the foundations for our current
understandings of how a child develops as she/he interacts with the environment at different stages. With
knowledge of the stages, we as caregivers, librarian/teachers, and parents can give children the support
and guidance they need, and provide the best environment for their development.

Piaget’s Four Stages:

(1) Motor-Sensory

(2) Pre-Operational (includes pre-conceptual and intuitive)

(3) Concrete Operational

(4) Abstract Operational

Table 1. (below) Shows the inclusive ages and characteristics of each stage.

The Table contains a lot of information, and ideally a parent/librarian-teacher/caregiver will be able to
spend time discussing them, reading through them, and stopping to let the information “sink in.” Then,
with increased awareness of children’s behaviors at different stages, adults are much better prepared to
interact with the them in a way to truly connect at the stage of development they are experiencing.

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THE FOUR STAGES of CHILD DEVELOPMENT
Developmental
Stage and Characteristic Behaviors
Approximate Age

Sensory-Motor • Reflexes to grasp, suck, move arms, & legs.
(Birth – 2 Years) • Repetition of actions to produce consequences, such as kicking
the feet to move the mobile hanging above the crib. Baby is
learning control.
• Shows sustained interest in shapes and form.
• Imitation of sounds and actions.

Later stages of sensory-motor.
• Actions with more intention such as reaching behind a pillow for
a hidden toy. This displays object permanence mental
awareness, i.e. if the toy disappears it still exists. Earlier if toy
disappeared, baby would not look for it or cry if a spoon dropped
to the floor.
• Capable of mental images. (The above is evidence of this. This
is a major development in cognitive ability.

Pre-Operational: • Major language development. Amazing language growth that
continues from words and 2-3 word combinations to complete
Conceptual sentences with syntax. It happens all during this short time, and
(2-4 Years) regardless of what language the child speaks or what cultures the
child lives in.
“The Age of
Curiosity”
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• Language is egocentric (me-centered). This is the time for
dialectic narrative/story sharing done with parents or other
adults.

• Interest to explore the people and objects outside of self, but
only from self’s point of view, still egocentric.

• Asks lots of questions. These are “purpose” questions but do
not require an answer about underlying purpose. Child might ask
“Why is the sky blue?” but would not want or understand an
answer using science. Important for adults to remember in
providing answers.

• Pre-logical. Generally explain phenomena in one of two ways:
they make the cause a near-simultaneous event and might say
“Where’s the rain?” if someone opens the front door, and earlier
it rained when that took place. Child also makes up explanations
to explain how something happens.

• Centering. The child typically focuses on one aspect of an
object at a time. This is why children in this group might not
distinguish between a square and rectangle. They recognize only
the straight side on one the same as the straight side on the
other.

• Animism – Child gives human traits to animals and bring
inanimate objects alive.

• Artificialism – Child believes phenomena in nature is caused or
created by humans, such as sunrise.

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• Speech becomes more social, less egocentric.
Pre-operational:
Intuitive • Intuitive grasp of logical reasons for things in some areas. Child
(4-7) generalizes cause-effect, and grasps that things can float (or
sink) in water. They understand water is a whole “phenomenon.”
But, child is not ready to grasp underlying reasons, such as what
makes a toy boat float on water.

• Not yet ready to grasp reverse relationships, only one-on-one.
If Sarah is asked if she has a brother and says “yes,” she will
likewise say “no” when asked if he has a sister.

• Still understanding through the physical world. If the physical
appearance changes, then the child perceives that the object has
changed. For example, if the same amount of water is poured
from a shorter container into a taller container, the child will see
the taller container as having more water. This is called
relativism.
Concrete • Increasingly complex thought that requires building along
Operational related stages of abstract thought.
(7-11 Years)
• Logical reasoning such as cause-effect.

• Begins to work with classification, the hierarchy of groups.

• Can now grasp relativism (see example above).

• Grasps reverse relationships (see above).

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THE IMPORTANCE of PLAY
Just as children engage in different mental activity at each stage, they engage in different kinds of
play. The importance of play is critical to a child’s development. This has been shown conclusively with
growing amounts of research. It has been written about extensively by experts such as David Elkind in his
book, Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. According to Dorothy G. Singer and Tracey A. Revenson, authors
of A Piaget Primer: How a Child Thinks: Play constitutes a major part of a preschooler’s life and is a
valuable aspect of the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. . . the adult personality may
very well have its foundation in the play of the child. (Singer & Revenson, 1978)

Simjilar to the development of mental functioning, if we make it our business as caregivers to learn
about children’s different kinds of play at different stages, we can use that understanding to provide
appropriate guidance and support, as well as the environment to best stimulate the child at each stage.
One thing we know is that the imaginative child smiles more and is more lively. That, and all it implies, is
reason enough to promote play. The charts below reflects what kinds of play correspond to each of
Piaget’s stages of development, and the benefits gained. The first chart provides a list without description.
The second provides details and description.

Basic Kinds of Play – w/out description
Imitation Play. (Birth – 2 Years)

• For pleasure

• Repetition

Play for play’s sake. (2-7 Years)

• Sheer pleasure of how it feels

• Ritualistic Play

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• Practice Play/Repitition

• Symbolic Play

- Imaginative play

- Parallel play

- Compensatory play

• Games w/ Rules (4-7 Years) – traditional (hopscotch)

• Games w/ Rules (7-11 Years)-codified or negotiated

Kinds of Play – w/ Description
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Imitation Play –

- Play begins with sensory-motor movements for the pleasure the
movement gives.

- Infants also imitate acts. They might not even understand the
Sensory-Motor
movement, resulting in cases of waving “bye,” when no one is
Stage –
leaving.
(birth – 2
Imitation play actually goes through some phases:
years)
- Begins to imitate facial expressions, a part of its body it cannot see.
The baby also starts to imitate new sounds. This is an important
development in imitation play.

- Attempts to form words and to imitate complex moves and repeat
them to better learn. As motor control improves, no repetition is
needed.

Imitates non-human animals dogs & horses, and inanimate objects brought to
life.

Later Stages of Symbolic Play -Is an important level that includes play such as using a walnut
Sensory-Motor to be a horse. Playing at the level of symbols represents a new level of
(18 mths. – 2 yrs.)
understanding and perceiving the world.

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Play at 2-7 years starts with activities that resemble the infant phases, but
are no longer imitation. The activities below are shown separately for 2-4 and for
4-7 year olds. This isan approximation only. Some of these activities have a lot of
overlap and could start at 2 and continue through 7. Others seem more of a
match to either the earlier preschool age (2-4) or school-age (5-7).

Preoperational Fun Play - is done for the sheer pleasure of it. Swinging, for example, can
exhilarate the senses.
(2-7 years old)
VALUE: sensory development (taste, smell, touch, sound, sight); continued
motor development; increased awareness

Ritualistic Play - At some point, fun play will merge with what is known as
Ritualistic Play. In a Winnie-the-Pooh story, for example, Pooh drops a balloon
into a pot. He doesn’t stop there, but continues to drop the balloon into the pot
over and over. It’s a child’s job at that age.

Practice Play (Repetition) – takes place when the child repeats an action over
and over to gain mastery. To use the swing example, this could be to take a
cloth-seated swing around in circles.

VALUE: to gain mastery of a skill and ability. To learn trust and confidence
in one’s abilities.

Symbolic Play is all imaginary, creative play. Three types are shown below:

Imaginative - having an imaginary playmate. This could also be having a
tea party and assuming roles in life. At one age, it might be making mud
pies, and at a later age playing the baker and figuring out how much to
charge and what items to bake. Yet another example might be when that
swing becomes a rocket, or the piece of cardboard a car.

VALUE: to rehearse life’s experiences; to gain an early sense of

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“what one likes,” which is why we get such ready answers when a
kindergartner is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
(They’re ready to use their imagination to explore that.) A very
important value of Symbolic Play is that it tests reality vs. fantasy.

Parallel Play – Two or more children are in the sandbox, for instance, and
absorbed in their individual activity with no apparent interaction between
them.

Value: Experience with having a social nature by being able to do
their own “thing,” while still enjoying the presence of a friend.

Compensatory Play – Examples of this might be when a child spanks a
doll or play animal or, likewise, when hugs are given.

Value: Learning to deal with emotions, some of them difficult such as
jealousy or competition. One little girl had seen a dead duck. The
next day, when her father saw her lying still on the ground and asked
what she was doing, she said, “I’m a dead duck.” Compensatory play
allows for what is called “disassociation.” A child can stand outside a
situation and begin to deal with it and process it.

4-7 Years -

Games with rules. At this age, the child begins playing games with
simple rule. These include many traditional games, such as hide-‘n-seek
and hopscotch.

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Concrete 7 – 11 Years
Operational
Games with rules. The rules start to be more complex, and might be
(7 – 11 Years) made up for one round of a game, or agreed upon with a handshake so they
are less permanent. To return to the example of the swing, rules could
include taking turns, no zigzagging, no pushing the swing for someone, etc.
Games also become competitive.

Value: Lessons in interaction. Lessons such as turn-taking,
sportsmanship, and the delay of gratification. Also, both the
negotiation and codification of rules.

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BENEFITS of PLAY

Benefits of Play • To express emotion

• Sympathy for other people

• Social interactions

• Expand imagination/creativity

• Turn-taking

• Delay of gratification

• Invent new ways of using materials and objects

• To see events in the mind and to use images

• To imitate sounds, voices and movements of other people and animals (can
create empathy and enable the ability to develop new behavior patterns)

• Distinguish between fantasy and reality

• To master one’s environment via creating alternate plans for problem-solving

• To rehearse in one’s mind and behaviors ways to reach a goal

• To stimulate the development of intelligence

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WAYS PLAY CAN be TAUGHT
It has been shown through research that play can be taught. In a series of studies with preschoolers,
children have been taught how to play through the use of modeling. (Singer & Revenson)

Ways Parents, • [Adults often] Set the scene by encouraging children to explore new materials
Caregivers, Provide materials.
Teachers/Libraria
ns Can Help Build • Model imaginative play, such as the use of materials.
A Capacity for • Suggest a “theme” or storyline.
Play in a Child
• Be playful with children to show them it is okay.

• Encourage children to relax in their bodies. This can be by modeling.

• Encourage children to use all of their senses. “What do you think it tastes
like?” Let me see you make a face to show that.

• Use props such as puppets to encourage a child to talk about worries, or to
model how to deal with some emotions. Singer & Revenson point out that Mr.
Rogers used puppets and easy stories to deal with children’s fears and
jealousies, sadness, and more.

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