Sensorimotor Stage

young child in the sensorimotor stage playing with sensory toys

What is the sensorimotor stage?

The sensorimotor stage is the first of four stages proposed by Jean Piaget to describe the cognitive development of infants, children, and adolescents. Piaget was a developmental biologist who became interested in closely observing and recording the intellectual abilities of children. Piaget proposed that cognitive development progressed in stages and categorized these stages by children’s ages.

Birth to approximately 2 years is the sensorimotor stage. The preoperational stage (ages 2-7) moves from toddlerhood through early childhood. The concrete operational stage is from ages 7-12. The formal operational stage occurs from 12 years into adulthood.1

Piaget recognized that children could pass through the stages at various ages other than what he proposed as normal, but he insisted that cognitive development always follows this sequence and that stages could not be skipped. Each stage marked new intellectual abilities and a more complex understanding of the world.2

The term “sensorimotor” was used by Piaget, because he believed that infants were dependent on their senses and their physical abilities to understand their world. Because they can see, hear, taste, and smell from birth, they combine these senses with their emerging physical abilities to interact with objects by grasping, shaking, banging, and tasting them. Their growing perceptions are based on past experiences, cognitive awareness, and their current use of their senses.3

During their early experiences, infants are only aware of what is immediately in front of them. Because they don’t understand how things react, they are constantly learning about the world through trial and error by shaking or throwing things and putting things in their mouths.4

Young infants are extremely egocentric; they have no understanding of the world apart from their own current point of view. A significant development during the sensorimotor stage is their understanding that objects exist and that events occur in the world independently from their own actions.5 Initially, objects only exist to infants when they can actually sense them and interact with them. They cease to exist to infants when they can no longer see them or sense them. When infants have achieved the ability to form a mental representation of the object, they will realize that the object still exists and can actively seek it. This ability is known as achieving object permanence.6

The Six substages in the sensorimotor stage

Piaget determined that cognitive development involved six substages in the sensorimotor stage:

Stage 1

Reflexes (newborns between birth and 1 month). Infants exercise, refine, and organize the reflexes of sucking, looking, listening, and grasping.

Stage 2

Primary circular reactions (infants between 1 and 4 months). Infants begin to adapt their reflexes as they interact with their environment. Actions that interest them are repeated over and over in circular reactions of actions and response to using their own bodies.

Stage 3

Secondary circular reactions (infants between 4 and 8 months). Infants repeat actions that involve objects, toys, clothing, or other persons. They might continue to shake a rattle to hear the sound or repeat an action that elicits a response from a parent to extend the reaction.

Stage 4

Coordination of secondary circular reactions (infants between 8 and 12 months). At this stage, infants’ behavior becomes goal-directed in trying to reach for an object or finding a hidden object indicating they have achieved object permanence. Emerging motor skills allow them to incorporate more of their environment into their activities.

Stage 5

Tertiary circular reactions (toddlers between 12 and 18 months). Toddlers become creative at this stage and experiment with new behaviors. They try variations of their original behaviors rather than repeating the same behaviors.

Stage 6

Mental combinations (toddlers between 18 and 24 months). True problem-solving emerges at this stage where toddlers can mentally consider solutions to problems before taking any action. A more advanced concept of object permanence develops, which indicates that they are leaving the period of sensorimotor development and moving toward the preoperational period of thinking.

As infants achieve the ability to walk and coordinate several behaviors between the ages of 8 and 12 months, memory develops as demonstrated by the emergence of object permanence. Symbolic and pretend play are a result of the development of memory, and they reflect planning on the toddlers’ part.

The development of cognitive play was described by Piaget in three stages: practice play, symbolic play, and games with rules. Practice play appears during the sensorimotor period and involves some behavior that is repetitive. Symbolic play appears in the later months of the sensorimotor period and into the preoperational period. Symbolic play, also described as pretend play, emerges when an absent object is represented by another object. As the children move beyond their own actions, they begin to include other people or objects into their play. Attachment to significant adults and siblings indirectly affects pretend play, and those in a secure environment are more likely to play with their peers and engage in more complex and sustained play.7

  • 1. “Stages of Intellectual Development In Children and Teenagers” Child Development Institute. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 2. “Piaget Stages of Development.” WebMD. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 3. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 2001. p. 125.
  • 4. Op. cit., “Piaget Stages of Development.”
  • 5. McLeod, Saul. “Sensorimotor Stage.” SimplyPsychology. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 6. “The Stages of Cognitive Development.” Jean Piaget. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 7. Op. cit., Frost, et. al. p. 126, 128.