Phenomenological Psychology

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Comparison of Piaget’s and Erikson’s Stages of Childhood Development

July 4th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 12 Comments

What types of children behaviors demonstrate Piaget’s “preoperational stage” and his “concrete operational stage? What is the relationship between these two stages identified by Piaget and Erikson’s “initiative v. guilt” or “industry v. inferiority” stages? What behaviors show teachers or caregivers to be in Erikson’s “generativity v. stagnation” stage?

To address these questions I conducted an observation at Holmby Park located at 601 Club View Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90024, which is adjacent to Beverly Hills. The park has an extensive children’s play area. It appeared the demographic make-up of the children using the facility was approximately one-third of Middle Eastern descent, one-third white and one-third of Asian descent. Children appeared to range from approximately two years old to ten years old. Caregivers however were predominantly of Hispanic descent.


For Piaget the Preoperational Stage extends from age two to approximately ages six or seven. During this period the child acquires motor skills and develops a sense of self. She/he is capable of imaginative thinking and playful activity. While she/he can focus on discrete information items she/he is not capable of logical, discursive thought.

In my estimation the majority of subjects observed at Holmby Park were in Piaget’s Preoperational Stage. Here are some examples I observed of childrens’ behavior in that stage:

1. Imaginative solo play in the sand, construction of imaginary objects using simple plastic equipment

2. Solo play on playground equipment, particularly not involving complex motor skills such as sliding down a slide.

3. Not being physically far from caregiver; frequent looking at caregiver (even if caregiver otherwise occupied, e.g. in reading a magazine) for reassurance and approval.

4. Sitting with caregiver and playing simple games e.g. with hands or string (weaving string webs or mazes).

The Concrete Operational Stage extends from age seven to approximately ages 11 or 12. During this period the child becomes more capable of independently acquiring information about the world and thinking in terms of cause-effect relationships. The child also becomes less egocentric and more aware of the presence of others. Many potential utilizers of Holmby Park probably were in school when I conducted the observation, reducing the sample size for Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage. Here are some examples I observed of childrens’ behavior in this stage:

5. Introduction to and play with other children, even if personal identifiers (name, age) not clearly established.

6. Fantasy role-playing with other children, e.g. “you pretend to be this and I’ll pretend to be that” then typically enacted on playground play equipment.

7. Greater motor facility demonstrated by playing on more complex playground equipment, e.g. parallel bars.

8. Progressive gender identification, e.g. girls playing with gender-stereotypical objects such as dolls.


Erikson theorized there were eight stages of psychosocial development. Each had a syntonic (harmonious) element and a dystonic (disruptive) element. They reconciled in an ego quality or strength (a “basic strength”). Feist & Feist, 249.

Erikson’s third stage of development is the Play Age, which is approximately from age three to age five. During this stage the child develops fluid motor movement and coping skills. Rather than simply reacting the child begins interacting purposefully with the external world. She/he pursues goals, some of which are attainable (such as climbing through a jungle-gym) and some of which are not (for example, those arising out of fantasies and role-playing). The conflict between initiative and guilt becomes the play age’s dominant psychosocial crisis. Resolution of the antinomy produces the basic strength of purpose. Feist & Feist, 254.

Chronologically Erikson’s Play Age overlaps with Piaget’s Preoperational Stage. They are different characterizations of what appear to be essentially the same phenomena. From a chronological standpoint many of the subjects I observed appeared to be in Erikson’s predecessor stage of Toddler, which is characterized by autonomy versus shame and doubt; or even the infant stage, which is characterized by trust versus mistrust. Here are some examples I observed of childrens’ behavior in the Play Age:

9. A child catalyzing behavior of other children by instigating the play of a game of tag. Not clear if these other children were known or unknown to the organizing child; most likely a combination of both (illustrating industry).

10. A child recruiting other children (prior relationships also unknown) to assist in the construction of a more elaborate sand-structure than one child alone would be capable of creating (illustrating industry).

11. A name-calling (“bossiness”) episode when one child grew upset or discontented with the progress of group play on a jungle-gym type of structure (illustrating guilt).

12. Children making repeated trips back to their caregivers, sitting on the periphery of play activity, seeking contact and reassurance (illustrating guilt).

Erikson’s fourth stage of development is School Age, which is approximately from age six to ages 12 or 13. The child’s social world expands to include other children. The child develops knowledge of the external world, learns practical skills (such as how to read and write) and starts becoming inculcated in social norms such as principles of cooperation. The psychosocial crisis of this stage is industry versus inferiority. Industry means industriousness, a willingness to remain busy doing something and to complete a task. The counterpart of industry is inferiority, a sense one’s work is insufficient to accomplish one’s goals. From this conflict the child develops the basic strength of competence, which is the confidence to use one’s physical and cognitive abilities to problem-solve. Feist & Feist, 255.

Chronologically Erikson’s School Age overlaps with Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage. Here are some examples I observed of childrens’ behavior in the School Age:

13. Children sitting at a table doing homework, which appeared primarily to comprise reading assignments or arithmetic problems (illustrating industry).

14. Children seemingly ignoring instructions from adult caregivers (e.g. “come over here”) (illustrating industry).

15. Children standing on the sidelines of group activity seemingly wishing to participate but unable or not invited to do so (illustrating inferiority).

16. Children wandering about aimlessly, seemingly ruminating (illustrating inferiority).

Adulthood is Erikson’s seventh stage of development. It runs from approximately age 31 and extends to approximately age 60. During this period people begin to take their place in society and assume responsibility for their actions. The antinomies of adulthood are generativity versus stagnation. Generativity is producing work and creating things and ideas. One’s interests become expanded beyond one’s own immediate family unit to an altruistic concern for others (particularly young people) in general. It is the mode of orientation of teaching. The antithesis of generativity is self-absorption or stagnation. The individual becomes absorbed in her/his self and becomes self-indulgent, disabling her/him from transmitting social and cultural knowledge. These qualities resolve in care, which is a widening commitment to take care of the persons and ideas one values. Feist & Feist, 260.

Not all of the caregivers/caretakers I observed were in Erikson’s Adult Stage. Most were in the precursor stage, which is Young Adult, characterized by intimacy versus isolation. Some (those who were biological relatives of the subject children) were in the Adolescent Stage, characterized by identity versus role confusion. Erikson held that satisfactory resolution of each predecessor stage was a condition precedent to entry into a subsequent stage. That being so none of the psychosocial crises of the Young Adult Stage or the Adolescent Stages seemed particularly relevant to the discipline of child-care. They mainly pertain to the development of the individual self whereas for purposes of the observation it appeared the caretakers were there primarily for the convenience of the subject childrens’ parents. For those in the Young Adult Stage or the Adolescent Stage, child-care was not an integral component of the caregiver’s psychosocial profile. Here are some examples I observed of caretakers’ behavior in the Adult Stage:

17. Caregivers actively interacting with their wards by e.g. playing catch or “tag” with them (illustrating generativity).

18. Caregivers striking up conversational relationships with co-caregivers (it appeared on several occasions they previously had interacted and that coming to the park was a form of “play-date”) (illustrating generativity).

19. Caregivers not actively looking after child but rather busy engaged in private activity (e.g. reading) (illustrating stagnation.

20. Caregivers sitting on benches seeming to be asleep (illustrating stagnation).

Here are some of the things I learned from this observation:

1. Erikson’s stages of development are elastic from a chronological standpoint. There is considerable overlap of behaviors within the different age categories.

2. Erikson’s terms for the various psychosocial crises associated with each stage of development seem arbitrary. While clearly there are instances of behavior that fit within each counterpart there are many other behaviors that would be better described by use of some other diagnostic or symptomological criteria. This particularly is true when Erikson attempts to resolve each psychosocial crisis in a neat synthesis (the “basic strength”) somehow incorporating both the syntonic and dystonic elements.

3. To illustrate point #3 it seems highly unlikely that infants and children in Piaget’s Preoperational Stage and those in Erikson’s Play Age are able to develop goals and intentions of the sort both Piaget and Erikson assume. Goals and intentions are complex cognitive phenomena and the brain structure of subjects in each cohort simply is insufficiently developed to support the level of activity both Piaget and Erikson hypothesize. For this reason a model based on operant conditioning may be more explanatory. Operant conditioning as refined by Skinner envisions four types of reinforcement situations: (a) positive reinforcement (R+), which is a reward for increasing desirable behavior, causing it to go up; (b) extinction (EXT–↓), which is the removal of a previously-given positive reinforcer, causing undesirable behavior to go down; (c) punishment (PUN+↓), which is the administration of an aversive, causing undesirable behavior to go down; and (d) negative reinforcement (R–↑), which is the removal of previously-administered punishment, causing the desired behavior to go up. I observed many interactions between children and caregivers based on these simple formulas. For example, a caregiver might give the child a ball to play with (R+). If the child throws the ball into the street the caregiver might temporarily deprive the child of ball privileges (EXT–↓).

4. Finally I learned that the behavior of children at playgrounds is interesting to observe. It presents a microcosm of the world at large. It is not hard to envision the subject children maturing into adult versions of themselves exhibiting fundamentally the same psychological traits.


Feist, J. & Feist, G. (2009). Theories of Personality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.