Sensorimotor Development

Sensorimotor Development. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Sensorimotor Development. Psychology Fanatic
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Sensorimotor development is a fascinating and essential aspect of a child’s growth and development. It encompasses the integration of sensory experiences and motor skills, laying the foundation for their cognitive, social, and physical development. Jean Piaget highlighted the importance of sensorimotor development as a primary and foundational element in the first stage of infant developmental.

According Piaget, during the sensorimotor stage, which spans from birth to around two years of age, infants learn about the world by using their senses and manipulating objects. They explore the environment through touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. This stage is marked by the child’s acquisition of various sensorimotor schemes. A sensorimotor schema is a mental construct of perceptions of probable outcomes associated with certain motor actions. From these psychological representations of the future, a child begins to purposely act to obtain a goal; such actions include sucking, grasping, banging, kicking, and throwing.

The schema represents knowledge generalized from all the experiences of that behavior. They learn from both social learning and personal experience the effectiveness of certain behaviors on obtaining certain goals. Gradually, this understanding of relationships between actions and environment leads to patterns of behavior. This cognitive connection is also the beginning of building a sense of self efficacy—a belief in one’s ability to achieve goals through personal effort.

Key Definition:

Sensorimotor development theoretically occurs during our first two years of life, where we learn to use action behaviors in service of goal attainment.

Piaget’s Developmental Theory

According to Piaget, human develop through four distinct stages.

  • Sensorimotor (Birth through ages 18-24 months)
  • Preoperational (Toddler through early childhood)
  • Concrete operational (Ages 7 to 11)
  • Formal operational (Adolescence through adulthood)

The Sensorimotor Stage of Development

During the first stage of development, “Piaget theorized that children and infants acquired knowledge through sensory experiences during this earliest stage of cognitive development. They learn through manipulating objects in their environment. Learning occurs through reacting, sensing and physically responding to their physical environment” (Murphy, 2022).

During Piaget’s sensorimotor state the child moves from objectless state of relating to the environment to a highly elaborated development of the object concept, recognizing the existence of objects apart from the child’s own actions on them (Rosenthal, Massie, & Wulff, 2006).

Object Permanence

Sensorimotor development also involves the development of important cognitive skills. Infants learn about object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight. This milestone marks a significant shift in the child’s cognitive abilities, setting in motion new forms of play and problem-solving.

Fine Motor Skills

Another crucial aspect of sensorimotor development is the refinement of fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscles, enabling infants to perform tasks such as picking up small objects, scribbling with crayons, and eventually, feeding themselves. Gross motor skills involve the coordination of larger muscles and enable infants to support their own weight, sit, crawl, and eventually walk independently.

Complex Integration of Multiple Systems

The primary development of sensorimotor skills is that these physical actions become part of multiple processing systems for goal obtainment. “Piaget saw the skills acquired during the first two years of life as providing the foundation for qualitatively different higher-level cognitive skills.” According to Piaget, these experiences “occur through interaction of more than a single processing system with the environment.” He adds that “the coordination of schemes across systems is important for organization and higher-level abstraction” (Bebko, Burke, Craven, & Sarlo, 1992).

The belief that we have control over our behavior and the subsequent consequences of those actions motivates planning. This cognitive juggernaut of the human brain can be beneficial for self-regulation. It is a combination of our capacity for episodic foresight and knowledge of our abilities to act within the environment. An infants ability to utilize this great skill is rather simple but as we continue to develop it increases in complexity.

“Action planning can then facilitate goal achievement by creating new action representations that include both sensorimotor information regarding one’s future behavior and information regarding situational cues that can serve to initiate and guide behavior without much conscious thought” (Papies & Aarts, 2011). When we talk about goals and behaviors, we tend to think about conscious calculations, mostly this cognitive skill of action representation operates in the unconscious.

Leslie Greenberg explains, “emotions and motivations, however, do not reside in the unconscious fully formed waiting to be unveiled when the forces of repression are overcome. Rather, they most commonly exist in an undifferentiated form consisting of sensorimotor schemes that are pre-ideational and preverbal” (2015).

Self Organizing Functions

A lot is going on inside the infant brain. Multiple systems are hard at work coordinating various sources of information. Research suggests that much of the integration occurs in the hippocampus region of the brain. “Hippocampal neurons integrate sensory information and convey it to motor regions to modulate output” (Del Rio‐Bermudez & Blumberg, 2022). We must add to this simple integration information from memory that ties certain behaviors to certain expected outcomes.

Repeated behaviors and experiences begin to strengthen neuronal connections, speeding processing and efficiency for the young child as they learn to navigate their complex environments. Supportive and safe environments, as opposed to chaotic and dangerous environments, assists the self-organizing processes of development.

A Few Words From Psychology Fanatic

Caregivers play a vital role in supporting and encouraging sensorimotor development. By providing a safe and stimulating environments, offering age-appropriate toys, parents and caregivers encourage development of motor skills, and spark growth in essential cognitive abilities.

In conclusion, sensorimotor development is a critical phase in a child’s early years. It lays the foundation for their future growth and learning, setting the stage for their exploration of the world. By understanding and supporting sensorimotor development, caregivers can nurture a child’s overall development and help them accomplish important developmental tasks, setting the up for healthy continued growth through future stages of development..

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Bebko, J., Burke, L., Craven, J., & Sarlo, N. (1992). The Importance of Motor Activity in Sensorimotor Development: A Perspective from Children with Physical Handicaps. Human Development, 35(4), 226-240. DOI: 10.1159/000277170

Del Rio‐Bermudez, Carlos, & Blumberg, Mark (2022). Sleep as a window on the sensorimotor foundations of the developing hippocampus. Hippocampus, 32(2), 89-97. DOI: 10.1002/hipo.23334

Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings.  American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Developmental Theories. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-11-2022. Accessed 9-12-2023.

Papies, E. K., & Aarts, H. (2011). Nonconscious self-regulation, or the automatic pilot of human behavior. In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 125–142). The Guilford Press.

Rosenthal, J., Massie, H., & Wulff, K. (2006). A comparison of cognitive development in normal and psychotic children in the first two years of life from home movies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10(4), 433-444.

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