Understanding Conservation in Child Development: Piaget’s Insights

what is conservation in child development

Understanding what is conservation in child development is crucial for parents and educators alike. This concept, first introduced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, refers to a child’s ability to recognize that certain properties of objects—such as number, volume, and mass—remain the same despite changes in the form or arrangement of the objects. It’s a fundamental aspect of cognitive development, marking a significant step in a child’s journey towards logical thinking.

During the early stages of development, children may struggle with this concept. They might believe that water poured from a short, wide cup into a tall, thin glass somehow increases in quantity simply because the glass appears fuller. However as they grow and progress through Piaget’s stages of cognitive development specifically during the concrete operational stage typically around ages 7 to 11 they begin to grasp that the amount of water remains constant regardless of its container’s shape.

What Is Conservation In Child Development

The Concept of Conservation

Understanding what is conservation in child development unlocks a fascinating aspect of cognitive growth. It’s essentially the realization that certain properties of objects or elements—such as volume, mass, and number—remain unchanged despite alterations in form or arrangement. This recognition doesn’t come innately but develops through stages as children grow and learn about their world.

For example, when a child witnesses water being poured from a short, wide cup into a tall, thin glass and can understand that the amount of water hasn’t changed, they’ve grasped the concept of conservation. Similarly, recognizing that a row of coins spread out has the same number as when they are closer together showcases this cognitive leap.

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

what is conservation in child development

Jean Piaget, a renowned Swiss psychologist, laid much of the groundwork for our understanding of conservation in child development within his theory of cognitive development. He proposed that children move through four distinct stages—sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational—each marked by unique characteristics and abilities.

Piaget highlighted that during the preoperational stage (ages 2 to 7), children struggle with understanding conservation concepts because they’re influenced by perceptual appearances rather than logic. It’s not until they reach the concrete operational stage (ages 7 to 11) that they begin to grasp these concepts more firmly. Through hands-on activities and problem-solving tasks during this critical phase, children develop an ability to think logically about concrete events.

The Stages of Conservation Development

Preoperational Stage: The Foundation

Understanding what is conservation in child development begins with exploring the Preoperational Stage, a critical period as outlined by Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist well-known for his work on child development. This stage, occurring between ages 2 and 7, lays the groundwork for children’s cognitive growth. It’s here they start to engage in symbolic play but still lack the understanding of conservation – the idea that quantity or amount does not change when nothing has been added or taken away, despite any transformation in shape or arrangement.

During this phase, children demonstrate egocentrism – they see the world solely from their own perspective. This viewpoint significantly influences their inability to grasp conservation concepts initially. For example, when presented with two identical glasses of water where one glass’s water is poured into a taller and thinner container, children at this stage will typically conclude that the taller container holds more liquid despite watching the transfer occur.

Key Experiments on Conservation

The Mass Conservation Experiment


Understanding what is conservation in child development unveils a crucial aspect of cognitive growth during early childhood. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s experiments, particularly the mass conservation experiment, stand out for their insightful exploration into this concept. Through his work, Piaget demonstrated how children’s ability to understand that quantity doesn’t change despite changes in the shape or appearance of objects is a pivotal developmental milestone.

In the mass conservation experiment, children are presented with two identical balls of clay. Observers then transform one ball into a longer, thinner shape while the child watches. When asked which piece has more clay, younger children (usually under seven years old) often choose the longer piece, indicating they haven’t yet grasped the idea of conservation—that the amount of clay remains constant regardless of its shape.