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A Guide to the Six Substages of Sensorimotor Development

Understanding sensorimotor development is essential for educators aiming for excellence in early learning. In this guide, we’ll unpack the six key substages, drawing on Jean Piaget’s seminal work. This article offers practical insights for immediate educational impact.

10 mins

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Ever wondered exactly what’s going on in a child’s brain during those first few years of life?

Sensorimotor development is a stage in Jean Piaget’s pioneering theory of cognitive development; a crucial and foundational aspect of a child’s learning and growth. More than half a century after his research was completed, Piaget’s work is still relevant and offers valuable insight into how children interpret and interact with their environment.

Thought to span the period from birth to around 24 months old, sensorimotor development is the first in a series of four critical stages that little ones pass through as they learn to understand and interact with their world. Early education professionals should be equipped with a solid understanding of this stage, what it means for their learners, and how to provide the best possible support throughout!

In this guide we’re aiming to dive into the six substages of sensorimotor development, pulling out insights along the way to help teachers improve and inform their practice. With a solid base of knowledge, they will have the tools to create an enriching and effective learning environment.


What is Sensorimotor Development?

Put simply, sensorimotor development is the stage of cognitive growth during which babies and toddlers comprehend their world through sensory experiences and motor actions. As we’ve already mentioned, this usually unfolds between birth and around two years of age.

It forms part of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development—in that framework, it is the first stage and can be broken down into six substages.


The Significance of Sensorimotor Development in Early Education

Early educators with a good grasp of the sensorimotor stage can create more effective learning environments. The ability to identify and adapt to this stage allows them to:

  • Tailor teaching approaches to suit an individual child’s development.
  • Introduce engaging and age-appropriate activities.
  • Communicate and collaborate with parents and healthcare professionals to create a cohesive experience for the child.

Why is it so important to get this right? It lays the foundation for later cognitive skills, including language, problem-solving, and social interaction. Infants transition from reflex-driven interactions to more complex activities, progressing through the six substages that foster cognitive, physical, and emotional growth.


Core Concepts

To better understand sensorimotor development and its substages, it’s important to first be aware of these four core concepts:

  • Schemas

These are mental frameworks that help people to organise and interpret information. For infants, they are often simple and based on physical interactions.

  • Adaptation

The process of altering existing schemas or creating new ones in response to new experiences; adjustment to the environment.

  • Assimilation

Interpreting new experiences in terms of existing schemas allows children to assimilate new information into their cognitive frameworks.

  • Accommodation

Modifying schemas to accommodate new information when existing schemas prove inadequate is crucial for cognitive growth.

These concepts can help teachers structure learning activities to support a child’s cognitive abilities at each substage.


The Six Substages of Sensorimotor Development (and How To Support Children Through Them)

Jean Piaget’s theory divides the sensorimotor stage into six substages, each playing a distinctive role in cognitive and motor development. We have described each one below and included a suggestion of how educators can support children at each stage.


Substage 1: Reflex Schemes (0-1 month)

In the initial weeks post-birth, infants are guided by innate reflexes like sucking and grasping. These reflexes lay foundational schemas for more complex cognitive structures. 

Early interactions and stimuli should align with these basic reflexes. Carers can acknowledge and respond to reflexive actions to build trust and provide gentle stimulation with soft tactile toys.


Substage 2: Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months)

During this period, infants derive pleasure from actions centred on their bodies, like thumb-sucking or cooing. 

Repetitive actions highlight the cause-and-effect relationship; educators can introduce toys and activities that encourage self-discovery. A sensory-rich environment is helpful in this substage: bright colours and contrasting patterns.


Substage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months)

Advancing beyond self-focus, infants start to explore their external environment during this substage. 

Educators can use sensory toys to emphasise cause and effect—for example, a rattle that makes a noise when the child shakes it. Interactive play like peekaboo is also helpful for this substage.


Substage 4: Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions (8-12 months)

Infants display intentional behaviour, combining actions to achieve simple objectives like stacking blocks. 

Educators can support this development with activities that foster problem-solving and coordination, such as stacking blocks or nesting cups. Language exposure is also important; introducing words related to actions or items.


Substage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months)

Children become more exploratory and engage in ‘what if’ scenarios, like shaking different objects to hear varied sounds. 

Educators can provide problem-solving and exploratory activities. A range of toys that can be manipulated in different ways will help development at this stage, and children can be asked simple questions like “What happens if you do this?”


Substage 6: Internalisation of Schemes (18-24 months)

Children develop the ability to form mental representations and employ symbolic thought. This stage paves the way for the transition to the next (preoperational) stage. 

Educators can introduce activities that encourage abstract thinking. This might include role-playing games with simple narratives. They can also start simple counting and sorting activities in preparation for the preoperational stage.


Common Misconceptions About Sensorimotor Development

This stage is no different to any other aspect of child development—it’s often misunderstood! These are a few of the myths floating around:


MYTH: Reflexive actions indicate advanced cognitive abilities.

The fact is, reflexive actions in early infancy, such as sucking and grasping, are primarily innate and not necessarily a sign of advanced cognition. These are biologically programmed responses. They evolve into more deliberate interactions over time.


MYTH: Sensorimotor activities are solely physical.

While motor skills are important, sensorimotor development is also deeply entwined with cognitive processes. Mixing sensory input and motor actions lays the groundwork for higher cognitive functions like problem-solving and abstract thinking.


MYTH: All children progress through substages at the same rate.

Children advance through the substages at varied paces. Their speed is influenced by the environment, early interactions, and genetic disposition. Standardised milestones can serve as a guide but are not definitive markers for every child.


MYTH: Sensorimotor development ends after infancy.

Piaget’s theory focuses on infancy. However, aspects of sensorimotor learning continue into adulthood. Activities like learning a musical instrument or mastering a new sport engage sensorimotor processes at different cognitive levels.


MYTH: Educational interventions in sensorimotor stages are ineffective.

This is not true; targeted interventions can significantly influence a child’s sensorimotor development. Educators can use activities tailored to each substage to foster cognitive and motor skills.


In summary

The first few years of life, the sensorimotor development stage, is a very busy time in a child’s brain! As little ones learn to understand and interact with their development, they are passing through a series of unique substages that build on each other on the road to more complex thinking. A solid comprehension of this crucial early stage is so important for early education professionals and makes it possible to target activities in a way that will encourage development and prepare their learners for what comes next.

If you want to know more about children’s cognitive development and other topics important to teaching at all ages and stages, take a look at our CPD courses for educators.


Recommended Reading & Resources

To further your understanding of sensorimotor development, consider the following titles:

  1. The Psychology of the Child by Jean Piaget – A foundational text explaining Piaget’s theories, including the sensorimotor stage.
  2. Mind in Society by L.S. Vygotsky – Explores the sociocultural aspects of cognitive development.
  3. Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach – Offers practical advice for parents and educators in early childhood development.
  4. The Power of Play by David Elkind – Investigates the role of play in cognitive and social development.
  5. How Children Develop by Robert S. Siegler – A comprehensive overview of child development theories.
  6. Montessori from the Start by Paula Polk Lillard – Provides Montessori-based strategies for early childhood education.
  7. The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel – Discusses neuroscientific insights into child development.
  8. The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel – Looks at the intersection of neuroscience and human relationships.
  9. Child Development: An Introduction by John W. Santrock – A textbook on various aspects of child development.
  10. Inventing Intelligence: A Social History of Smart by Elaine E. Castles – Discusses the role of intelligence in child development and education.

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