Jean Piaget’s Way of Seeing and RIE

“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.

White toddler smiling at the camera while peeking out on top of park play structure.

We practiced the RIE principles from birth. My daughter was always free to explore and was trusted in her self-initiated movement. When she was about 15 months old, we were at a playground with a tall structure. She climbed the stairs to the structure and I stayed on the ground. She came to an open section with a drop off. I told her there was an edge and a drop off. She came to the side peering over. Then she held onto a bar dipping her one foot over the edge bending her knee to test the depth of the drop. She did this over and over until she seemed satisfied with the fact that the drop off was deeper than she could reach with her foot. She never once came close to falling. She knew where the edge was and trusted herself.

Principle: Freedom to explore

Dear Levi:

You are barely 3 months old and already you are responding to your mother’s encouragement toward learning what words and non-verbal communication movements and gestures mean.  Your mother told me a story about you, when you were responding to her conversation with you.

You were resting on your back in the supine position on your changing table.  Your mother was ready to put socks on your feet.  She looked into your eyes and said to you, “Levi, I want to put your sock on one of your feet.  Can you stretch your leg out so I can put the sock on?”  YOU FOLLOWED HER REQUEST!  You stretched out your leg for her to apply the sock to your feet and toes.  Then, when she asked, you stretched out the other leg and foot for the other sock to be put on.

This was quite a special moment for your mother.  Since you were born, she has been talking to you about what she is doing with you and for you.  She would say to you, “I am going to pick you up, now” or “I am going to wash your face.” She would even tell you when she was going to leave you in your safe place for a few minutes while she did a household chore or something personal.  She trusted that you were listening and that one day you would try to respond in some way.   This happened today when you responded to her request by participating in the putting on of your socks by stretching out your legs and feet.  You are so young still, yet, at this moment you demonstrated that you had grasped the understanding of the event and showed the desired response.

In the RIE philosophy, it is claimed that parents who talk to their children regularly, even their youngest infants, are establishing the “groundwork” for future communication.  Also, when an alert, aware adult shows a child respect by thoroughly explaining  the events of the environment and the events that directly relate to the child, respect is being shown the child and the child will reciprocate.  This reciprocal respect may be shown through cooperative actions from the child and predictions from the child about what is to come and what is expected.  In the situation discussed in this story, Levi, you showed your mother that her respectful  conversations with you gained your respect for her caregiving actions with you.  As you stretched out one leg and foot, you probably predicted that there would be a need to stretch the second leg and foot in her direction and this is just what you did.

Another principle of the RIE philosophy suggests that adults will be most successful in their parenting practices if they engage their children in what is really important to them.  As you are only beginning this life, you are already realizing that putting on clothing and taking off clothing occurs for you many times per day and is of great interest to you.  The textures of the fabric that touch your skin are many.  Some fabrics are soft and comfy.   Others are rough or scratchy.   The pulling and pushing of your body to get the clothing on and off is a regular occurrence for you.  Your mother is making these happenings so interesting and more comfortable for you when she tells you about your clothes and how she is going to move you around to put them on and take them off.  This must be why you responded to having soft, warm socks placed on your feet.  You were interested and ready for what was to happen to your legs and feet.

I know that your mother will be telling me of other events that are RIE-like moments between the two of you. I will be waiting to hear about them.

Smiles from your friend and your mother’s friend,


The RIE approach assumes that no matter his/her age a child is able to understand a great deal about what is going on around him/her. RIE parents talk to their babies from birth on as though they will understand, not only the tone, but also the content of the message.

Equally important in the RIE philosophy is the idea that infants are/can be competent individuals, capable of confronting and resolving age-appropriate dilemmas. RIE babies are allowed and encouraged to solve their own problems whenever reasonable and safe,

While RIE does not emphasize infants’ language development, nor even suggest that using RIE’s guidelines will accelerate the growth of language, it should not be surprising that babies who are talked to and listened to, and are allowed to engage in problem-solving will begin at an early age to use language as a problem-solving tool.

As “RIE parents” we began speaking to Nathan the day he was born. We always address him in tones of voice which indicate our respect for him as a person; we also treat his responses with respect.

Even though we have always behaved as though Nathan could understand our words, we have sometimes been surprised at how much he actually does understand. For instance, one day  when he was about 13 months old, Nathan indicated that he wanted to look at the dog outside the window. Neither Ben nor I was available to lift him up to see, so we suggested that he go into the other room, get a stool, bring it back to the window and climb up to look out. We had no idea what Nathan would do as he crept out of the room. A few minutes later we heard the rumble of something being pushed down the hail, and Nathan shortly appeared in the doorway with the stool and an ear-to-ear grin. He pushed the stool to the window and clambered up to peer out, leaving us determined never to underestimate his comprehension.

At our house, the bedtime routine includes bath, then stories on the big bed, and last cuddling into the crib with special blankets. When Nathan was about 14 months old, we gave him the responsibility of ending his story-time and telling us when he was ready for bed. We simply said, “Tell us when you’re ready to go to bed.” From that time on, nearly every night, he stops the story after about ten minutes and says, “Night-night now,” and off he goes.

As Nathan’s vocabulary has grown, we naturally expect him to use the words he knows. When he was about 15 months old, we stopped responding to grunts and whines, and now we ask him to tell us what he wants in a normal tone of voice. We have found that Nathan is able to express his wants and needs in words or through actions. When he doesn’t know the name of something he wants, he points or reaches toward it, or finds an analogy. For example, when he was 18 months old, his regular carer gave him a drink of apple juice diluted with water. Apparently, the proportion of water to juice was higher than usual, because after tasting it, he held the cup out to her and said, “More juice, no water.”

Because we listen to Nathan, and take him seriously, he is confident about trying new language skills. He has invented two contractions: “in’t”, as in “Cup, milk in’t”, and “on’t”, as in “Put peanut butter on’t”. He also feels free to use the words he knows to describe things whose names he doesn’t know. When he was 19 months old, we were walking on the sidewalk when he said what sounded like ”Hot leaf”. Wondering if I had heard correctly, I repeated, “Hot leaf?”  “Yeah. hot leaf,” Nathan said, and pointed to the bright orange petal of a bird-of-paradise flower.

Probably the most important aspect of language as a problem-solving tool is being able to get help when it is genuinely needed. The newborn quickly learns that a cry brings help/comfort, and that literal cry for help extends well past infancy. However, when language is a natural part of a very young child’s repertoire, it soon becomes even more powerful than a cry, because it can get specific, appropriate assistance very quickly.

One day when Nathan was about 19 months old, he was playing under the kitchen table while I did chores in various parts of the house. As I passed through the kitchen, he showed me how he was climbing around under the table, saying “underneath.”  I told him I thought that looked like fun, and went off into the bedroom. A couple of minutes later, I heard a near-panicked Nathan calling, “Stuck! Stuck, Mommy, stuck!” I raced into the kitchen to find Nathan under the table with his head wedged sideways into the 3-inch space between the table’s lower cross-members and the floor. It took a minute or so for me to help him get himself out of the jam, but he emerged unscathed. (He still plays under the table, and hasn’t gotten “stuck” again.)

However, there are a few instances when even language can’t get him what he wants. A few weeks ago, Nathan, now at 21 months, had a bad case of stomach flu. For nearly three days, he could keep nothing down. Toward the end of the second day of vomiting, he asked for orange juice. I denied his request, explaining that his tummy was too sick for juice, and offered a sip of water. He began to cry and said, “Orange juice, ple-e-ease.” I again offered water and said I was sorry, but he was too sick for juice, that it would make him throw up.  In a last-ditch effort to get the longed-for juice, he said, “Orange juice, please. Nathan be very careful!” It seemed to me that he was trying to tell me that he’d try his best not to throw up, if I’d just give him some juice. He eventually settled for water, poor guy!

Educaring® Volume IV / Number 1 / Winter 1983