How to Apply Piaget in the Elementary Classroom

Jean William Fritz Piaget was a developmental psychologist whose focus was in the areas of cognitive and epistemological studies. He was a great supporter of children’s education, and his most famous development theory dealt with the cognitive development of children. His theory has four developmental stages: sensorimotor (ages 0-2), preoperational (ages 2-7), concrete operational (ages 7-11), and formal operational (ages 12+). The stages that include children of elementary school age are preoperational and concrete operational, but it takes knowledge of all the stages to effectively apply his theory in the elementary classroom.

Study Piaget’s cognitive development theory.

Although only two of the four stages within his theory apply to children who are elementary-school age, it is important to understand the surrounding stages so you know what type of thinking the children are transitioning from and to.

Make note of the key sub-stages within the preoperational and concrete operational stages. Each stage and substage is characterized by certain behaviors that contribute to the way in which the students think and how they perceive, interpret and understand the world around them. There are two substages in the preoperational stage: from ages 2 to 4 and from ages 4 to 7, where centration and animism are predominant ways of thinking while the concrete operational stage is mainly involved with the acquisition of the concepts of classification, conservation, move from centration, reversibility, seriation and transitivity.

Develop lesson plans and activities that apply Piaget based on the ages of the children in your elementary classroom.

The ages of children in elementary schools, depending whether the school includes preschool or not, can range from 3 to 11, so how you should apply Piaget’s theory depends on which grade you are teaching. For example, the 7-year-olds in a third-grade classroom would be in the concrete operational stage, and they probably would have developed the ability of logical transitional thought. So in mathematics, you could teach fact families and they could understand the relationship (i.e. 6, 7, and 13; 7+6=13, 6+7=13, 13-7=6, 13-6=?).

Another example would be using uniform-size plant pots for a science project in a first-grade classroom so the children would not think there were unequal amounts of soil because of their lack of the understanding of conservation.

  • Keep in mind that these stages of development are fluid, not rigid. Not all children will be at the same place in development even at the same age, so pay attention to that in the classroom.

Shannon Johnson has been a freelance writer since 2008, specializing in health and organic and green-living topics. She practiced law for five years before moving on to work in higher education. She writes about what she lives on a daily basis.