In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the purpose of children’s thinking is to help them adapt to the environment in increasingly efficient ways. The techniques children use to adapt to the environment are called schemes. Schemes are action patterns that children transfer or generalize by repeating them in similar circumstances or in meeting recurring needs. A scheme can be a relatively simple pattern of actions, such as a baby grasping and shaking a rattle, or it can involve a complex series of actions, such as those used by an older child taking up a bat and swinging to hit a ball. Children, regardless of their age, have sets of schemes that are known to and used by them. For infants, schemes are largely reflexive (grasping an object laid in the palm), but as children mature, reflexive schemes are enlarged and enhanced as additional sensorimotor abilities develop. When children experience a need or a new stimulus in the environment, they take stock of the schemes already developed to determine how the need might be met or the new stimulus explored. When a match between the need or stimulus and an existing scheme is found, adaptation has occurred. If, however, a match cannot be identified, children proceed to either assimilation or accommodation to achieve adaptation.
Adaptation is a process of limited change—limited because only some things actually change during adaptation; other things remain the same. When children assimilate, it is their schemes that remain largely the same. During assimilation, children act on the environment or objects in the environment to make them fit into their existing schemes. Piaget believed that play is basically assimilation because during play children are acting on what they already know. Rules for games, roles in dramatic play, and toys and play equipment give children the opportunity to practice previously acquired schemes for social interactions and pretend responsibilities. For example, a child playing firefighter uses what he or she has learned from books, television, and visits to the fire station to act out the role of firefighter. In omitting the firefighter’s training, fitness activities, and routine responsibilities around the station from his or her play, the child has unconsciously modified the role of firefighter to fit into existing schemes. The child has assimilated the role of firefighter, limiting it to only those things he or she has previously encountered.
Assimilation is the action of the child on objects in the environment, whereas accommodation is the action of the environment (objects) on the child. When accommodation occurs, children modify their schemes to fit new information or experiences in their environment. In Piaget’s theory, assimilation and accommodation actually work together. During interactions with the environment, children’s minds interpret information using existing schemes, but they also refine those schemes somewhat to fit particular experiences. Assimilation will dominate accommodation when children are intent on practicing recently formed schemes. Accommodation will dominate, however, during periods of intense learning and development.
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