Stage Theory and Interactive Media

Jean Piaget via Wikipedia

Chef: Jean Piaget

Born in 1896 in Switzerland, Jean Piaget was a clinical psychologist who was revered for his work in child development.

He established the discipline of genetic epistemology, which fuses theories of cognitive development with the creation of human knowledge (also referred to as his epistemological view). His emphasis on children’s education was reflected in his work as Director of the International Bureau of Education. He was serving in this position when he declared this timely statement:

“Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual”

Piaget is prevalently referred to as the “great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing,” though his strides were not fully recognized until the 1960s when parts of his work were translated into English and other languages.

Such efforts then led to the study of development as the major sub-discipline of psychology it is today, thus making Piaget one of the most cited psychologists of the 20th century — second only to B.F. Skinner. He died in 1980 at the age of 84 and was buried, as per his request, in an unmarked grave in Geneva, Switzerland.

Stage Theory and Interactive Design

At the center of Piaget’s work is his stage theory — aka the “Stage Theory of Cognitive Development.” It helps map behavior over time, and is used by educators and designers to make experiences or environments that are “developmentally appropriate.” The stages are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal.

Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 Years Old)

Sensorimotor Stage

During the first stage, infants and babies form an understanding of herself or himself, and of reality and how things work.

Basic interactions with the environment allow the infant to identify itself and surrounding objects.

Assimilation, (organizing and absorbing information), as well as accommodation (modifying of schemata to make sense of what cannot initially be assimilated), make up learning in this stage.

Simple and intuitive design applies to this stage. Elevator buttons light up the instant they are pushed, or an iPhone “home” button, prominent by feel and trademarked with a single function, respond instantly to a tap. Lights and sounds that respond or are driven by a child’s actions are appropriate at this stage. These types of activities are “causal” in nature — or cause/effect.

An example of a fitting toy is the Laugh and Learn 2-in-1 Learning Kitchen by Fisher-Price, which is featured here. It introduces numbers and letters while positively reinforcing interaction through the use of music and lights. It has doors and switches for infants to explore. This toy, however, does not include moldable materials which would align more fittingly with real life — it is thus no substitute for a real-life interaction.

Preoperational Stage (Ages 2 to 4)

The child cannot yet form abstract thought. Concrete physical interactions are thus crucial here. Objects can be classified simply, and by key, salient features.

Preoperational Stage

Sago Mini Babies is a good example of game design for the preoperational stage.

Sago Mini Babies is a mobile game which promotes empathy and nurturing through pretend play. Users can play dress-up with the character, bathe and feed it, change its diaper, and more. The character provides just enough feedback to encourage or discourage certain actions (the character giggles when the child places a mustache on its face and cries when dressed in certain outfits). This game is optimal for uninterrupted and minimalist play as it lacks in-app purchases and third-party advertising. This app promotes feelings of control and helps the user to experience cause and effect of simple actions. One negative to this game is that the character stops crying relatively fast without the user having to fix the problem. This is definitely a feel-good game, but it might align with reality in a more learning-oriented manner should the user be forced to take responsibility for her or his actions.

Concrete Operations (Ages 7 to 11)

Accommodation heightens with the garnering of physical experience. Abstraction and conceptualization commence as logical structures begin to explain physical experiences.

Concrete Operational Stage

Boom Blox, as shown here, is riddled with problem-solving opportunities appropriate for this stage. Action-reaction principles are present as the user must keep structures made of blocks from being knocked over or to knock them over with a Wii remote using various tactics. A realistic physics system is featured as concepts like projectiles and velocity are explored. It is tactile, accessible, and utilizes a 3D space in a down-to-earth manner. However, according to WIRED, some of the levels are “purely twitch- and timing-based,” in other words, producers of accidental success. This is not the greatest lesson to learn as an impressionable child, yet it seems the benefits of this game outweigh this cost.

Formal Operations (Beginning at Ages 11 to 15)

The final form of cognition begins. Concrete objects are no longer necessary to form rational judgment. Deductive and hypothetical reasoning capabilities form, and abstract thinking skills align with those of an adult.

A game which appropriately represents formal operations is Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill, for one. In this point-and-click adventure, players take on the first-person view of sleuth Nancy Drew and must utilize problem-solving skills and deductive reasoning to solve the mystery. This game lacks sufficient hints, however, which can likely cause the player to become quickly discouraged. A more regular hint system would greatly improve this game.

Formal Operational Stage

Overall, Piaget’s Stage Theory is widely applicable in modern gaming. It is crucial to consider when finding games for children which best suit the respective stage of development.

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