If you have taken an introductory psychology course you probably remember learning about Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. They are Sensorimotor (birth to 2 yrs), Pre–operational (2 to 7 yrs), Concrete Operational (7 to 11 yrs), and Formal Operational (11 yrs and up). The most critical of these stages relative to language development is the Sensorimotor Stage so let’s discuss that in more depth.
The Sensorimotor Stage can be broken up into 6 substages, 3 of which are conceptual and 3 behavioral. One of the concepts developed in this stage is object permanence. I love this one! Peek-a-boo is such a fun activity for caregivers at this stage. You put your hands in front of your face and the baby genuinely thinks you disappeared because he can’t see you. When object permanence is fully developed at around 8 to 12 months, the infant knows you are still there—that things are permanent and now can be represented cognitively (and most likely is wondering why you find this game so amusing). A second concept that develops is causality. Infants learn that one event causes another event and that their behaviors can lead to certain effects. The third concept is means-ends. They figure out a way to get to a goal. Infants figure out there is a cause/effect relationship that can be used to solve problems. When infants start to use words at about 12 months, they can start using language to get what they want, but before this they can use gestures as communication tools.
Now on to the 3 behaviors that develop during the Sensorimotor Stage. Communication advances so much during this stage. From being a newborn who cries to get attention, to a 2 year old who speaks in 2 or 3 word utterances this is certainly a critical point in language development for children. Imitation, the duplication of a behavior, is also a factor in language and cognitive development. There can either be immediate imitation, or deferred imitation. In deferred/delayed imitation the child will do the imitating later on, when the model is not present. Chances are if your child says something you think is out of the blue, it is actually an imitation of something they heard in their environment (from hearing you talk or from watching TV). So again, be careful what you say even when you think your kids aren’t listening! They pick up on more than you think. Last but certainly not least, play. Play is used as a learning tool for children at all ages. Children use this to learn about the world around them and the people in it as well. In the Sensorimotor Stage, one form of play that is exhibited is symbolic play, where children use one object to represent another. So a plain old box may now represent a house or a rocket ship, etc.
More to come on play interactions…definitely a topic worthy of 1 or 2 more posts. Stay tuned!