Concrete Operational Stage: What Is It and What Are Its Characteristics?

Do you know what Piaget's concrete operational stage is and its characteristics in the cognitive development of children? Find out today.
Concrete Operational Stage: What Is It and What Are Its Characteristics?

Written by Mara Amor López

Last update: 13 November, 2022

The concrete operational stage is one of the stages of development that the psychologist Jean Piaget proposed in his theory of cognitive development. In the following paragraph, we’ll see what it consists of and what its characteristics are.

During this stage is when children achieve a greater ability to develop operations related to length, weight, volume, number, and mass. Also in this stage, they manage to organize objects by categories and establish them in a hierarchy.

What does the stage of concrete operations consist of?

This period begins around 7 years of age and ends at 11 years of age; it’s the third stage proposed by Piaget in the theory of cognitive development. It’s during these years that children acquire a greater ability to structure their ideas and develop better logical, rational, and operational thinking.

A young child thinking.

It’s at this time that children are able to express arguments and demonstrate their greater intellectual capacity compared to the stages before this one (sensory-motor and preoperational stages).

One of the things that characterize this stage of concrete operations is that children are more capable of using logical thinking. They have a less fanciful view of real objects. Thus, we must emphasize that, despite this, children don’t yet know how to apply logic to abstract ideas, only to physical objects.

The characteristics of the concrete operational stage

This stage has five characteristics that, for Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, were the main ones.

Conservation

The principle of conservation refers to the child’s ability to understand that an object can change its appearance, but not its quantity. What does this mean? That no matter how matter is distributed, it doesn’t affect its mass, length, number, or volume.

For example, if we have a glass full of water and we move it to another wider and lower glass, the glasses are different sizes, but the amount of water is the same. Although their appearance changes, the amount is the same, but distributed in a different way. Children are able to understand this during the concrete operational  stage, but not at age 5.

After several experiments with different objects and children, Piaget concluded that the ability to conserve had a horizontal lag with some instability in development.

Classification

With classification, we refer to the ability that children acquire to identify the properties of objects and classify them based on these properties, that is, to organize them around a common characteristic. In addition, they’re also able to arrange these categories in hierarchies.

Piaget identified three options that help to understand how children develop the ability to classify objects and establish relationships between them.

  • Class inclusiveness: refers to the different ways in which people communicate, including ideas and concepts within various categories. These categories are related to each other.
  • Simple classification: refers to the classification of objects that are organized based on a defined criterion.
  • Multiple classification: grouping objects according to two traits or dimensions.

Seriation

With this characteristic, we refer to the ability of children to establish a mental order between items that can be counted, i.e., according to weight, height, size, etc. Children at this stage are able to order objects in this way.

To test this ability, Piaget conducted an experiment with children of different ages. He placed tubes of different sizes in front of the children and the little ones had to order them from the largest to the smallest.

Children between the ages of 3 and 4 years old had difficulty in performing this task, but as they got older, they showed a better ability to order them by size. At 7 years of age, they were able to perform this task without problems.

This characteristic refers to the prosocial ability of children, i.e., that they’re able to take into account certain aspects of conflict situations in order to be able to seek a solution in an assertive manner.

Niño aprendiendo habilidades matemáticas con bloques.

Younger children in kindergarten don’t have this ability yet. When faced with a conflict, they have a defiant and aggressive attitude toward their peers; therefore, if a toy is taken away or they feel threatened, they bite, hit, push, etc. On the other hand, children from 7 to 11 years old are already able to control themselves in the face of conflicts and deal with issues in a calmer manner.

Transitivity

With this characteristic, we refer to the ability of children to find the relationship that exists between two elements. This ability allows them to associate ideas, i.e., they’re able to understand that a pencil, a pencil case, color crayons, a blackboard, and a teacher are related to school.

Final results and criticisms of the theory

The book Psychology and culture (Dasen, 1994) showed that children from different cultures reached different operations at different ages, which demonstrated that cognitive development was also influenced by cultural factors.

Along the same lines, several psychologists that followed Piaget criticized the methods and findings, especially with the ability to conserve. Among them, some research carried out by:

  • Greenfield (1966): described that schooling also influences the acquisition of concepts (especially conservation).
  • Rose and Blank (1974): criticized Piaget’s research methodology when asking the children questions, as the same question was repeated twice, making them change their minds. They conducted the study again by asking the children only once and showed that children can understand the idea of conservation at an even earlier age.
  • McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974): devised another study on conservation that coincided with the results of Rose and Blank, showing that it was a notion manifested in children at an earlier age (specifically, at 4 years of age).

Regarding the concrete operational stage

So, now you know more about the concrete operational stage and what its characteristics are. According to Piaget, in his Theory of Cognitive Development, this is the third stage and it’s in this stage when children acquire certain skills that they didn’t have before or had only partially.

The development of intelligence in children from birth and throughout their childhood increases exponentially, so we must take advantage of this brain plasticity to develop all their capabilities.

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