Schemes and Practices: Piaget’s Terms of Knowledge Adaptation

Piaget Views on Children’s Abilities to Adapt

Piaget’s developmental model for children is based on adaptations they need to make to schemes in order to fit into and function within their environment. In order to understand Piaget’s theories on learning, the term scheme needs to be understood, a scheme is a basic set of experiences and knowledge that has been gained through personal experiences that define how things should be and act in the person’s environment. As the child interacts with their world and acquires more experiences these schemes are modified to make sense, or used to make sense of the new experience. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 147). New information interacts with preexisting schemes through three processes: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Each of these terms described a different way in which children acquire and process new information. When new information is modified to fit the preexisting scheme the process is defined as assimilation. (148). For example a child may approach a strange dog and pat it like he does with his own dog. However, when the strange dog barks loudly or bites the child, the child assimilates the new experience with strange dogs to include an addition to an existing dog scheme. Family dog is okay to pat and play with, but strange dogs are not all right to pat and play with.

In contrast, accommodation is an adaptation process of knowledge acquisition that changes the scheme in order to fit the new experience, or the person creates an entirely new scheme in order to accommodate new data that doesn’t fit any of their preexisting schemes. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 148). For example when a student is faced with new math concepts like algebra that require the student to think about hypothetical situations in order to solve the problem, the student will have to create a new scheme in order to process the algebraic problems that include variables, letter symbolism, formulas, and functions that have never been used before by the student. None of the previous math schemes that the student has developed would accommodate the new concepts that they need to learn and utilize from this point on in their educational career, and therefore the old schemes’ inadequacies force the development of a brand new scheme specifically designed to handle more complicated mathematical concepts.

The final element of Piaget’s adaptation of knowledge theory is equilibration. This process occurs at specific development milestones where the child, or adolescent, either abandons out-dated schemes or restructures their entire set of schemes in order to create a balance between assimilation and accommodation. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 148). This overhauling is initiated when old schemes become so revised and altered that they are no longer useful, and it is better to just start fresh with a more up-to-date model. (2004). To understand this concept this process can be compared to using a handwritten map to get around a new city. When you first arrive in a new city a friend may give you a handwritten map to direct you how to get to several useful locations like the bank, grocery store, and your new job.

However, when you used the map for the first time you noticed it had mistakes and you correct the mistakes by erasing the lines and drawing in new lines. The longer you used the map the more correction you have had to make until it was so hard to read that it no longer was helpful. In order to make your map easier to use you created a brand new map with correct information on it. It is clean and easy to read and is basically free of errors, as far as you know. This is the same way old schemes that have been altered by assimilation and accommodation over a period of time until the scheme became too difficult to use or was out-dated and not valid any more and needed to be replaced by a new, fresh scheme.

Piaget’s Developmental Model

Piaget divided development into four stages and six substages. The first stage of development is the sensorimotor stage. This stage spans the period from birth to about 18 months. During this period of cognitive development children use their sensory and motor skills to get a feeling about the things that are in their environment. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149).

Within this stage are five of the six substages of cognitive development that Piaget outlines. During the first month of life, substage one, the infant uses their reflexes, genetically programmed schemes, in order to explore their world. This includes sucking and looking. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149). During this substage the infant is not able to integrate input from more than one sense at a time, nor are they able to imitate what they observe yet.

At about one month of age the infant enters into substage number two, primary circular reactions. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149). In this substage accommodation is used to integrate new information gained from their experiences with their environment into their pre-existing schemes. This integration is achieved through seemingly endless repetition of actions and reactions to stimuli. As accommodation occurs, schemes from a variety of senses are integrated and coordinated such as being able to look toward a sound. While the infant is obviously making cognitive strides at this point, they are still unaware that their bodily actions create a physical reaction outside of their body.

Between four months and 8 months the third substage is entered and it is called secondary circular reaction. (Bee and Boyd, 2004). During this stage of cognitive development the infant becomes more aware of external factors such as movement and interactions between inanimate objects and their body movement. After making this connection the infant is able to recreate events over and over, such as kicking the side of the crib and making the hanging mobile over the crib giggle. Trial and error is a practice that is commonly used by infants in this substage. Imitation is even possible during this substage, however, it is limited to actions that are already in their set of schemes such as turning head, kicking their feet out, or grasping at objects.

The fourth substage begins at 8 months and last through the infant’s first birthday. This stage involves the coordination of secondary schemes. (Bee and Boyd, 2004). Unlike the previous substages, the infant is now intentionally displaying behaviors and movements to get what they want. This means-ends behavior demonstrates a developmental milestones that shows not only clear intention to act, but also the ability to utilize more than one scheme to get what is wanted. For example the baby may see a toy in their crib that is partially covered by a blanket. In order to get the toy they have to pull the blanket away and grasp for the toy in order to get it.

The final substage in cognitive develop stage one is tertiary circular reaction. It occurs between 12 months and 18 months. (2004). During this substage the infant experiments with new different ways of manipulating toys and objects within their environment. This is a very active and purposeful phase where the child gathers a great deal of knowledge about their environment, how things interact with each other, and cause-and-effects.

The next major stage in Piaget’s model of cognitive development is the Pre-operational stage. It occurs between 18 months and the age of six in most children. During this stage children learn to understand and use symbols. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149). This ability develops during substage six between the ages of 18 months and 2 years of age. During this time children realize that symbols represent physical objects in their environment and that it is separate from the object at this point. An example of this skill is that a child in this stage can point to a picture in a magazine or book and say what it is, and also point at the actual object and say what it is. They not only can distinguish two dimension symbols of three dimensional objects, they also know, or understand that the photograph or symbolic representation of an object is not the actual object.

Logical thinking develops during cognitive development stage number three, concrete operational stage. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149). This stage occurs between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age. It is in this time period that children learn to think logically, and problem solve.

The fourth and final stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget is the formal operations stage. (Bee and Boyd, 2004, 149). It occurs during adolescents. During this stage children develop higher thinking skills like manipulation and organizing ideas, hypothetical situations, and objects in meaningful ways.

Applying Piaget’s Theory to Child Rearing and Education

Understanding what infants and children are capable of cognitively can help both parents and educators design materials and curriculum that best fits the skills and abilities of the child being taught. For parents, knowing that a great deal of cognitive development occurs during the first two years of life may help to encourage parents to take an active role in providing learning opportunities for their children during this period that are designed around the kinds of experiences the child needs and is capable of understanding. For example during the first month of life physical and auditory stimulation are probably the most practical forms of stimulation as the baby’s other senses are not as fully developed at this stage of life. During the second substage visual stimulation can be integrated such as mobiles, colorful toys, etc.

For educators, knowing what students are capable of handing cognitively can help them to design curriculum that is challenging yet still appropriate for their cognitive level. For example it is not practical to introduce algebraic concepts to children before they are able to handle and understand hypothetical situations, or at about 12 years of age. Before this time investing in curriculum materials is inappropriate and basically a waste of the school district’s time and money. If, on the other hand, school districts understood that children don’t develop the conceptual abilities to handle hypothetical math concepts like algebra until they are twelve, the school can focus on the logical and concrete operations that children under twelve are capable of handling, and they can develop other skills that will be useful both in their current stage of development and their future stages of development like problem solving, organization, and basic math skills.


Bee, Helen and Boyd, Denise. (2004). The Developing Child. (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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