Child development – Mead vs Piaget

Four children are playing on the floor with blocks

During the first months of life, infants don’t perceive the differences between human beings and material objects in the environment around them. Surely, they don’t have yet the self-awareness, feature that characterizes human beings, intended as the awareness that one has an identity separate and independent from others. How can they develop this self-awareness? Sociologists tried to figure it out explaining this phenomenon with different theories. Here we are going to examine the studies of Mead, an American philosopher and sociologist, and Piaget, a Swiss student of child behaviour.

Mead is one of the founder of symbolic interactionism, a sociological school that emphasizes that interaction between human beings takes place through symbols and their interpretation.
As far as Mead’s child development work is concerned, he focuses on the emergence of a sense of self. According to him, children imitate the actions they see around them, especially what adults do and when they play they just try to imitate their parents, teachers, family members.
When children are four or five years, they evolve from simple to more complex plays in which they act out an adult role. During this phase, children start to develop their sense of self or self-consciousness understanding they are separate from the rest of the world and they evolve their social self, the identity conferred upon an individual by the reactions of others. Thus, individuals begin to realize who they are becoming aware of how others see them.
The second stage of child development takes place when children are eight or nine years old. At this age, they play organized games with their peers, instead of the unsystematic ones they used to play before. In order to participate in these games, they have to know the rules of play and learn the concepts of fairness and equal participation. Confronting with others during these games, children start to understand the overall values and morality that lead human behaviour. This is the phase in which children grasp the generalized other, the general values and moral rules of a given group or society in which they are growing up.

Jean Piaget, instead, emphasizes the active role of the child who select and interpret what he sees, hears or feels around him. He describes distinct stages of child development focusing on cognition, human thought processes involving perception, reasoning and remembering. Each stage involves the acquisition of new skills and depends on the successful completion of the preceding one. The first stage is called sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth up to about age two. In this phase, infants learn by touching objects and exploring the environment around them. By the end of this stage, children can distinguish people from objects and understand that their environment has distinct properties and exists independently of their immediate perceptions. The second stage is the preoperational stage, from age two to seven, in which children acquire a mastery of language and the ability to use words and images to represent objects and symbols. Children in this phase are egocentric, they tend to interpret the world around them in terms of their position. A third period, the concrete operational stage, lasts from age seven to eleven. Now children can master logical but not abstract notions and they are much less egocentric. The last stage is the formal operational stage, from age eleven to fifteen, in which the child is able to handle abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.
According to Piaget, the first three periods are universal, but not all adults reach the last one; that depends in part on processes of schooling.

Olivia Masi

Con amicizia letto da Arnaldo Mitola

– GIDDENS A., DUNEIER M., APPELBAUM R.P., CARR D., Essentials of Sociology, Norton, 2012.


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