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The Concrete Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The concrete operational stage is the third stage in Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This period spans the time of middle childhood?it begins around age 7 and continues until approximately age 11?and is characterized by the development of logical thought. Thinking still tends to be very concrete, children become much more logical and sophisticated in their thinking during this stage of development.

While this is an important stage in and of itself, it also serves as an important transition between earlier stages of development and the coming stage where kids will learn how to think more abstractly and hypothetically.

Kids at this age become more logical about concrete and specific things, but they still struggle with abstract ideas.

Understanding Logic

Piaget determined that children in the concrete operational stage were fairly good at the use of inductive logic (inductive reasoning). Inductive logic involves going from a specific experience to a general principle.

An example of inductive logic would be noticing that every time you are around a cat, you have itchy eyes, a runny nose, and a swollen throat. You might then reason from that experience that you are allergic to cats.

On the other hand, children at this age have difficulty using deductive logic, which involves using a general principle to determine the outcome of a specific event. For example, a child might learn that A=B, and B=C, but might still struggle to understand that A=C.

Understanding Reversibility

One of the most important developments in this stage is an understanding of reversibility or awareness that actions can be reversed. An example of this is being able to reverse the order of relationships between mental categories.

An example of reversibility is that a child might be able to recognize that his or her dog is a Labrador, that a Labrador is a dog, and that a dog is an animal.

Other Key Characteristics

Another key development at this stage is the understanding that when something changes in shape or appearance it is still the same, a concept known as conservation. Kids at this stage understand that if you break a candy bar up into smaller pieces it is still the same amount at when the candy was whole. This is a contrast to younger children who often believe that pouring the same amount of liquid into two cups means that there is more.

For example, imagine that you have two candy bars of the exact same size. You break one candy bar up into two equally sized pieces and the other candy bar up into four smaller but equally sized sections. A child who is in the concrete operational stage will understand that both candy bars are still the same amount, whereas a younger child will believe that the candy bar that has more pieces is larger than the one with only two pieces.

Kids Become Less Egocentric

The concrete operational stage is also marked by decreases in egocentrism. While children in the preceding stage of development (the preoperational stage) struggle to take the perspective of others, kids in the concrete stage are able to think about things the way that others see them.

In Piaget's Three-Mountain Task, for example, children in the concrete operational stage can describe how a mountain scene would look to an observer seated opposite them. ? ?

In other words, kids are not only able to start thinking about how other people view and experience the world, they even start to use this type of information when making decisions or solving problems.


One of the key characteristics of the concrete-operational stage is the ability to focus on many parts of a problem. While kids in the preoperational stage of development tend to focus on just one aspect of a situation or problem, those in the concrete operational stage are able to engage in what is known as "decentration." They are able to concentrate on many aspects of a situation at the same time, which plays a critical role in the understanding of conservation.

This stage of cognitive development also serves as an important transition between the preoperational and formal operational stages. Reversibility is an important step toward more advanced thinking, although at this stage it only applies to concrete situations.

While kids at earlier stages of development are egocentric, those in the concrete operational stage become more sociocentric. In other words, they are able to understand that other people have their own thoughts. Kids at this point are aware that other people have unique perspectives, but they might not yet be able to guess exactly how or what that other person is experiencing.

This growing ability to mentally manipulate information and think about the thoughts of others will play a critical role in the formal operational stage of development, when logic and abstract thought become critical.

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The concrete operational stage of cognitive development occurs between the ages of 7 and 11. Learn about this stage's characteristics and milestones.
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