“Every time one teaches a child something, one keeps him from inventing it himself.”Jean Piaget
Few people revered the way children think with such devotion as the Swiss researcher Jean Piaget. His captivation with how children constructed knowledge led to one of the first theories on the subject. It is known as the Constructionist Theory. RIE and Piaget hold deep respect for the competency of young children and the way they create knowledge. Piaget believed that children are born to learn; an idea shared by RIE. He saw infancy as the “threshold of intelligence” (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972).
Piaget studied the way children construct knowledge from infancy through adolescence. The first two years of life consist of what he referred to as the “sensorimotor” stage. This stage begins with the innate reflexes of the newborn and through repetition and experience, the infant develops meaningful and purposeful actions (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972). Infants and toddlers construct their knowledge through the full range of their senses. Tasting, mouthing, grasping, banging, and dropping all support their quest for information.
Piaget believed frameworks, or “schemas,” are developed to organize and interpret information as it is acquired. Schemas are the building blocks of thinking. Schemas start specifically and then expand and modify through the joined processes of assimilation and accommodation (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972). Piaget saw intelligence beginning when physical reflexes move from unconscious to purposeful (Mooney, 2013).
Piaget used the newborn suckling reflex to explain how understanding is built through a process of assimilation and accommodation in his book Origins of Intelligence. The sucking reflex compels the infant to search for the nipple and latch. Each feeding provides the opportunity to take in – or “assimilate” – new information: how to move the head, how much pressure to use, speed, etc. A more sophisticated feeding pattern develops through repetition, experience, and motor recognition. Over time the infant begins to utilize this skill for more than feeding. A desire to learn initiates additional exploration (Piaget, 1952).
For example, the drive to discover may soon result in an infant finding their hand. They begin to suck on this rather than a nipple creating an accommodation of their previous knowledge – “I can suck on this too. A nipple is not the only thing I can suck on.” – (Piaget, 1952). This process of using new information to adapt one’s understanding of what is already known is called “accommodation” (Bringuier, 1980).
Both RIE and Piaget believe that even the youngest children are scientists compelled to investigate the world around them. Thus, both RIE and Piaget see the role of the educator as supporting the innate drive children possess to create and innovate new ideas (Gerber 1998; Geneser, 2022). RIE and Piaget advocate for an enriching (and safe) environment where adults allow free exploration and can come to trust their child’s abilities and intrinsic appetite for insight. (Gerber 1998; Geneser, 2022). When that is the case, we understand the role of the adult is to support and appreciate the young child’s natural ability to initiate their learning. This is one of the hallmarks of the RIE approach and is a practical application of Piaget’s theories.
“Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery?” — Elkind, 1989
Bringuier, Jean-Claude (1960). Conversations with Jean Piaget, University of Chicago Press.
Elkind, David (1989) Piaget’s Developmental Theory: An Overview [Film].
Geneser, V. L. (Ed.). (2022). Scholarly Snapshots : The importance of child play as a human right. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Gerber, M. (1998b). Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (J. Weaver, Ed.). Resources for Infant Educarers.
Mooney, Carol Garhart (2013) Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky, Redleaf Professional Library.
Piaget, Jean (1952) The Origins of Intelligence in Children, International Universities Press.
Piaget, J., & Wolff , P. H. (1972). Some Aspects of Operations. In M. W. Piers (Ed.), Play and development: A symposium with contributions by Jean Piaget (pp. 15–27). essay, W. W. Norton & Company.
Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1972). The Psychology of the Child. Basic Books.