What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.
– Jean Piaget (1896-1980)


Your preschooler is growing intellectually and making sense of the world around her. Have you ever wondered exactly how that development is taking place?

In the second post we saw how children, according to the renowned psychologist, Jean Piaget, progress through different developmental stages. Here, I’ll be looking at how children develop intellectually and make sense of the world around them.

How do our children grow intellectually?

Piaget saw our intellectual growth involving three processes: Assimilation, Accommodation and Equilibration. Before we look at these processes and how they work however, it’s important to understand what Piaget meant by the term, Schema.

What is a Schema?

pexels-photo-30027Schemas can be seen as the mental blocks we need for intellectual growth. These blocks serve as a way of obtaining and organising knowledge. Wadsworth, (2004), used the helpful analogy of seeing it as having ‘index cards’; a bit like a filing system in our brains. When we receive new information, we are able to ‘flick’ through the index cards, retrieve the one we need and respond accordingly. An example may be someone having an index card, (schema) for getting into their car and driving off. The stored memory of behaviour would include, putting on your seatbelt, putting the key in the ignition, taking the handbrake off and so forth.

How do schemas fit in with my child’s intellectual growth?

Piaget believed that a child’s cognitive growth comes through the process of adapting to the world around them. This process involves assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. For Piaget, equilibration is the major factor in explaining why some children advance more quickly in the development of logical intelligence than do others. (Lavatelli,40).

Assimilation is when we receive new information or have a new experience and we incorporate it into a schema we already have. An example would be a young child seeing a bald man who has long, frizzy sideburns and thinking that he is a clown (Siegler et al 2003). Here, the child has taken the image of the man and fitted it into their existing idea of what a clown is.

Another example would be a young child seeing a zebra for the first time and thinking it’s a horse. It fits in with her pre-existing schema, (idea) of what a horse is.

Accommodation takes place when somebody takes in new information but it doesn’t fit in with their existing schema, (i.e. there is no ‘index card’ that fits in with what they are seeing/experiencing). In this situation, the person needs to modify their existing idea, (schema) or change it completely.

For example, with the clown, the child will change their pre-existing idea of what a clown is when they learn that the man is not wearing a funny costume or attempting to make people laugh. Similarly, in the zebra and horse example, the child will learn the differences between the two animals and thereby alter their existing schema for horses.

Equilibration is the key component that drives a child’s development. It takes place when a child’s schemas can cope with incoming new information through assimilation. There are times however, that the new information will not fit into their existing schema and a new one will need to be created. Once this has been achieved, balance will be restored.

This process of assimilation with the new schema will continue until the child receives new information or a new experience which requires them to modify the idea.

As the above makes clear, the adaption process is a crucial part of our children’s intellectual growth. Through this process, our children (and us!), are able to form new ideas. They are also able to modify or completely change existing ones and as such, become better equipped to deal with the world around them.

For a visual representation of the above, please take a look at the Youtube video below:


Closing Comments

It would make sense that the more experiences our children have; the more they see of the world and the more they react with a variety of people, that they will significantly increase their number of schemas, thus enabling their intellectual growth to soar.

p1040203On a recent trip to Cambodia, my daughter came away with the firm idea, (schema), that all people from Cambodia are lovely. This would mean that the next time she met somebody from Cambodia, her new schema would tell her that by their country of origin alone, they must be a very friendly and caring person.

Some of the schemas they develop at this age are so beautiful, so innocent; that sometimes as a parent, it’s difficult to have to help modify them!


Join me next time, when I will be exploring how Piaget’s theory has influenced current education practices around the world.

If you have any experiences/comments that you would like to share based on this post, then I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.