PSYCHOLOGY of children – an understanding of development gives us insight into what activities we can provide for children, and how they should be delivered, to get the maximum benefit in terms of education, social development, and most of all, FUN.

‘Genetic epistemology’ – is how we gain knowledge, and the differences between adult and child learning:

Mr. Jean Piaget was a Swiss clinical psychologist whose major theory was published in the 1950s. He argued that intelligence in children was not a fixed trait, but a genetically determined timetable.

He suggested that children think differently to adults and proposed a stage theory of cognitive development. He was the first to note that children play an active role in gaining knowledge of the world. According to his theory, children can be thought of as “little scientists” who actively construct their knowledge and understanding of the world.

Piaget theorised that simple reinforcement is not sufficient to teach concepts; the child’s mental development would have to be at the proper stage to assimilate those concepts. This then meant a shift in teaching methods because teachers used to be a transmitter of knowledge. Now they had to modify their method to suit the ages and stages of children’s development – being a guide to each child’s own discovery of the world.

He identified 4 key stages of child development whereby children cannot be simply fed information, but have to be taught in the appropriate way.

  1. The Sensorimotor stage (birth to age 2) – infants discover the relationship between their bodies and their surroundings. Children use skills and abilities they were born with (such as looking, sucking, grasping, and listening) to learn more about the environment. Developing object permanence is one of the most important accomplishments at the sensorimotor stage of development. (Object permanence is a child’s understanding that objects continue to exist even though they cannot be seen or heard, for example when a mother hides behind her hands to play ‘peekaboo’ and their baby is genuinely surprised when their mother reappears).
  2. Pre-operational stage (from age 2 to age 7) – Children begin to think symbolically and learn to use words and pictures to represent objects.
  • They also tend to be very egocentric, and see things only from their point of view.
  • Children at this stage struggle to see things from the perspective of others.
  • While they are getting better with language and thinking, they still tend to think about things in very concrete terms.
  • The foundations of language development may have been laid during the previous stage, but it is the emergence of language that is one of the major hallmarks of the pre-operational stage of development. Children become much more skilled at pretend play during this stage of development, yet still think very concretely about the world around them.

3.   Concrete operational stage (from age 7 to age 11) – During this stage, children begin to thinking logically about concrete events.

  • They begin to understand the concept of conservation; the amount of liquid in a short, wide cup is equal to that in a tall, thin glass.
  • Thinking becomes more logical and organised, but still very concrete.
  • Begin using inductive logic or reasoning from specific information to a general principle.
  • While children are still very concrete and literal in their thinking at this point in development, they become much more adept and using logic. The egocentrism of the previous stage begins to disappear as kids become better at thinking about how other people might view a situation.

4. Formal operational stage (age 11+ – adolescence and adulthood) –

  • At this stage, the adolescent or young adult begins to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems.
  • Abstract thought emerges.
  • Teens begin to think more about moral, philosophical, ethical, social, and political issues that require theoretical and abstract reasoning.
  • Begin to use deductive logic or reasoning from a general principle to specific information.
  • The ability to think about abstract ideas and situations is the key hallmark of the formal operational stage of cognitive development. The ability to systematically plan the future and reason about hypothetical situations are also critical abilities that emerge during this stage.


For most children it takes between 3 and 7 seconds. By that I mean the time it takes for them to process a verbal instruction. Now count out those 7 seconds out loud:

  • 1 one thousand
  • 2 one thousand
  • 3 one thousand
  • 4 one thousand
  • 5 one thousand
  • 6 one thousand
  • 7 one thousand

Seems like a relatively long time period, doesn’t it?

Many adults expect an instant response and action from children which is just not possible because of their thought process capability.

For example, most lifeguards will have had professional training but many are not parents. A blow of the whistle and a shout – “Do not run!” – is not an effective instruction for a child.

  • Did the child even realise the whistle was directed at them?
  • And by the time they have processed and reacted, they are at the other end of the pool. They didn’t carry on running because they are being disobedient. They simply cannot instantly process the instruction.

Any of you that have kids will know that kids see the world differently. They often play impulsively without consideration for consequence.

Children respond much better to a rule if it is followed by an explanation of consequence. There is a big difference between a whistle blow and a curt – ‘Do not run’ instruction, versus an explained rule, for example, “Please do not run here – because the surface is slippery and you could fall and hurt yourself or someone else.” This gives children a clear indication of the likely consequence of their action.

Obviously this processing time can vary depending on age, and ability. For example, in the above poolside example, a child with Attention Deficit Disorder may not even register the instruction because they are overwhelmed with the surrounding noise and choice of activities.

It is important to train supervising staff to be aware of child development and decision making skills to help them in communicating and controlling the leisure environment.


The 4 components of Piaget’s cognitive development relate to thinking specifically and not to physical abilities. Gross and fine motor skills are another variable that should be considered when developing an environment or activities for children. The following stages are typical physical development ranges:

  • Infant – 0-1 years
  • Toddler – 2-3 years
  • Early childhood – 4-6 years
  • Child – 7-9 years
  • Preadolescence – 10-12 years
  • Adolescence – 13-17 years

Physical ability also varies enormously depending not just on age, but also between cultures, regions and nationalities.

So how can this knowledge help us?

Facilities for children, whether that be for learning, for relaxation, or for fun – need to be conceived and developed with a deeper understanding of what really makes your target market age group ‘tick’. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Both psychological and physical development elements need to be considered. Ultimately, a well designed play environment in whatever context will always improve footfall, increase time spent in your leisure facility, and improve repeat business. 

If we can help you with children’s facilities, services, and activities, please do get in touch via

Richard Liddle, Managing Director, <span class=”notranslate”>Worldwide Kids</span>

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