What Is the Sensorimotor Stage?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 18, 2024
3 min read

The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. It is marked by a child’s knowledge that the outside world exists separately from themselves. Once the child has fully realized this, they will move on to the next stage within Piaget’s stages of development.

The sensorimotor stage typically takes place within the first two years of a child’s life. It is marked by the child discovering the difference between themselves and their environment. At that point, they will use their senses to learn things about both themselves and their environment. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who developed the theory of intellectual development, said children learn about their world at this stage through:

  • Seeing
  • Touching
  • Sucking
  • Feeling

In the sensorimotor stage, children repeatedly experiment with their senses through various methods in many different environments. This period is characterized by rapid cognitive growth.

Another important hallmark of the sensorimotor stage is that children learn the concept of cause and effect. The idea of causality is when a child understands that they can move objects with their hands and understand how their physical actions affect their environment. The concept of causality is an essential foundation for the later realization of object permanence. 

Object permanence is the awareness that objects exist even when you cannot see them. Once the child has realized this, they will learn how to search for an object when they cannot see it. This is called directed groping. Directed groping is when a child will pull objects toward themselves and tilt them so that they can access them better. 

Sensorimotor stage examples include instances when you hide an object under a blanket, and the child tries to find it. This happens toward the end of this stage in their cognitive development.

Within the sensorimotor stage, there are six sub-stages. These sub-stages are:

  • Reflex acts. This stage happens within the first month of an infant’s life, when the reflexive acts of a baby first begin. An example of this would be if you brush your finger against a baby’s face, they will instinctively start sucking. 
  • Primary circular reactions. During this stage, children will discover pleasurable actions around their bodies. It occurs in the first four months of their lives. Hallmarks of this stage include wiggling their fingers, kicking their legs, or sucking their thumbs. These actions differ from the previous stage of reflexive actions because they are done intentionally. 
  • Secondary circular reactions. The baby’s development continues with actions that produce pleasure for the infant. This substage is characterized by repeated actions involving objects that cause the baby pleasure. An example of this would be when a baby continuously shakes a rattle just to hear the sound of the rattle. 
  • Coordinating secondary schemes. This takes place in the first eight months to a year of an infant’s life. In this stage, babies not only show interest in objects, but they also can use their knowledge of the object to attain a goal. Practically, this could look like a child reaching out and grabbing their rattle even if there is another object standing in the way of it. 
  • Tertiary circular reactions. Characterized by the advancement of pursuing goals, this stage sees children adapting their tactics to their surroundings. For example, if a child takes an object apart or disturbs their environment to find the object, they will attempt to put the scene back together. 
  • Symbolic thought. The last stage is the beginning of babies being able to visualize objects that they cannot see. This is the beginning of object permanence and marks the ending of the sensorimotor stage.

Another characteristic of the sensorimotor stage is that children start to understand the concept of numbers. Because of this, they will be able to lay the foundation for their understanding of math. Therefore, different activities that help children relate numbers to objects can be beneficial.

It’s a good idea to encourage children to count objects on their fingers, identify how many candies or toys are in front of them, or ask them questions about how many objects other people have. In addition, you can help them read children’s books with numerical content in them.