According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children’s thinking occurs as they begin to adapt to their environment in increasingly satisfactory ways. Schemes are the techniques that children employ during adaptation. Schemes are patterns of actions that children transfer or generalize by repeating them under similar circumstances or to meet recurring needs. Schemes can be simple or complex patterns of action. An infant, for example, employs a simple eating scheme in turning toward, latching onto, and sucking a nipple that brushes his or her cheek.
An adult follows a much more complicated scheme for eating as he or she sits at a table, spreads a napkin in the lap, and uses a knife and fork to consume food. Schemes are reflexive for infants. As children grow and acquire additional sensorimotor abilities, their reflexive schemes are enlarged and enhanced. When they encounter a need or a new stimulus in the environment, children inventory their existing schemes to determine which might be used to meet the current need or explore the stimulus. If a match between the need or stimulus and a previously developed scheme is found, adaptation has occurred. If, however, children cannot identify a match, they attempt to achieve adaptation through either assimilation or accommodation.
During assimilation, children achieve adaptation by acting on the environment or objects in the environment to make them fit into existing schemes. Eventually, however, children will encounter a need or a stimulus that cannot be assimilated. They may respond in one of two ways. At the encounter, children may completely ignore or pass by the event without registering it, such as when an adult shows a child a more efficient way to use a tool but the child reverts back to the previous method without attempting what was modeled. A second response may occur when children are dissatisfied with their continued efforts to achieve a match between their existing schemes and an environmental stimulus. Children may use new information from the environment to adjust or modify existing schemes and meet their needs. Adjusting or modifying schemes to meet new needs is called accommodation.
For example, a young child may have an established scheme in which he or she calls any large item with wheels a car. The child points at a large wheeled item with a box on the back and says “car!” The child’s father responds, “No, that’s a truck!” The child repeats, “Truck!” and proceeds to identify another similar vehicle in the same way, indicating that he or she has modified or accommodated the scheme based on the new information.
In Piaget’s theory, assimilation and accommodation are processes of change. Children change or transform the environment to fit their existing schemes during assimilation, and they change their schemes to accept new environmental information during accommodation. Children and adults use both processes interchangeably and concurrently. Although play is basically assimilation, or the dominance of assimilation over accommodation, accommodation becomes dominant when children imitate another’s actions or roles or during periods of intense learning and development.
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