Seriation refers to the child’s ability to order objects along a single dimension, such as length, height, or weight.
According to Piaget’s theory of child development, children develop this skill around the age of 6 or 7 years old. However, there is a great deal of variation where some children will develop this ability much earlier.
Seriation in Piaget’s Psychology
Inhelder and Piaget (1958) explain serial-ordering:
“These operations relate to ability to generalize along a linear dimension or to arrange objects (or their properties) in series. They are based on the logic of relations rather than class logic: the signs are > and < (greater than or less than)” (p. xvi).
There are several different types of seriation tasks that can be used to assess children’s seriation abilities:
- Simple seriation: In simple seriation tasks, children are asked to arrange objects based on a single characteristic. Commonly, this characteristic is size, color, height, length, and shape. For example, a child might be asked to sort their dolls by size.
- Multiple seriation: Whereas simple seriation refers to ordering objects based on one characteristic, multiple seriation involves ordering objects based on two or more characteristics. For example, a child might be asked to arrange their toys by both size and color.
- Transitive inference: Transitive inference, also known as transitivity, is a more advanced version of seriation that may not emerge until later in the concrete stage of development. It involves asking children to deduce the logical order of objects based on indirect relationships. For example, if A is taller than B, and B is taller than C, then the child should infer that A is also taller than C.
At What Age and Developmental Stage do Children Develop Seriation?
This stage is characterized by the rapid development of cognitive skills. A child’s thinking becomes more logical as long as it relates to physical stimuli.
Abstract reasoning is out of reach of most children in this stage, although there are exceptions.
The concrete operational stage is characterized by several milestones in a child’s cognitive abilities.
In addition to being able to perform seriation, children can apply transitive inferences, are no longer limited by centration, and are becoming less egocentric.
- Standing in Line from Shortest to Tallest: Some teachers like to have their children line-up in order from shortest to tallest. This is a great transition strategy that also helps children learn about seriation and cooperating with others.
- Sorting sticks by length: Take your child outdoors and collect sticks with them for two minutes. Once you have a good pile, work with them to sort the sticks in order from shortest to longest. This helps the child to visually compare the length of objects and place them in the correct sequence.
- Organizing books by size: Take your child over to the bookshelf and play a game of rearranging the books. Ask them how they would like to categorize them – commonly, it’s by size, but they might be interested in sorting them by width or color.
- Ordering nested cups horizontally: Having a child order a set of nesting cups from smallest to largest by placing them next to each on the floor or table is a simple seriation activity. Stacking the cups on top of each other is not quite a pure seriation skill because the child will rely on which cup fits rather than which cup is the next biggest.
- Color gradient activity: Have a child get a range of green pencils of different shades and help guide them through the task of sorting the pencils by color graduation – lightest to darkest. Afterward, you could also ask them to sort the pencils by length.
- Organizing toys by weight: In this seriation activity, the child can arrange any household object in order of weight, from lightest to heaviest. This might require them to hold one object in each hand to compare before moving them up and down a list. This will help them develop an understanding of the concept of weight while also teaching them how to sort and compare.
- Arranging family members by age: A child can be asked if they can name every family member from oldest to youngest, starting from their grandparents down to themselves. This might require some scaffolding, such as reminding the child of the age of each family member.
- Sorting animals or objects by speed: An interesting seriation activity during a lesson on animals might involve arranging pictures of animals like cheetahs and kangaroos based on their speed, from the slowest to the fastest.
- Sand play with measuring spoons: Taking a set of measuring spoons and having a child create piles of sand ordered from smallest to largest is a great way for children to build psychomotor skills and learn about size seriation at the same time.
- Seriation of stairs: Arranging wood blocks in order from smallest to largest will form the shape of stairs. It’s a nice three-dimensional seriation task that is different from the usual serrations tasks that involve strips of paper.
- Seriation of sound: Although sound seriation is not often mentioned when discussing Piaget’s theory, it certainly is a stimulus that can be ordered along at least one dimension. For example, a child could rank sounds from quietest to loudest.
Case Studies of Seriation
1. Improving Seriation Skills
Being able to order concrete objects along a singular dimension is one of several essential skills for children to progress from purely perceptual-based thinking to abstract thought.
Although most kindergarten children have these skills and are ready for primary school, many are not.
Kidd et al. (2008) used the learning set method (Harlow, 1949, 1959) as the basis of a cognitive intervention.
The research team designed an intervention that:
“[teaches] children that the relation between objects in different problems is always fundamentally the same. The children develop an understanding of this relation and transfer it to new problems by analogical mapping” (p. 172).
Seventy-eight kindergarten children were randomly assigned to receive a cognitive intervention (instruction in seriation and conservation), art, or numeracy.
The study found significant differences in conservation and seriation abilities in children that received the cognitive intervention compared to art or numeracy training.
The researchers conclude that the study:
“indicates that instruction in these areas can promote early abstract thought. The effect sizes indicate that the effects of such instruction are appreciable” (p. 191).
2. Improving Seriation Skills in Head Start Children
Although lining-up a set of objects from shortest to longest might seem a quite simple task, it taps into a very fundamental cognitive ability that has ramifications for more advanced cognitive skills (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958).
According to Garrett et al. (1999), the ability to seriate at age 5 predicts “achievement as measured by standardized tests like the Metropolitan Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or California Achievement Test” (p. 257).
Therefore, developing a set of educational activities to improve this cognitive skill, and targeting those activities to specific children, could produce meaningful benefits.
Garrett and colleagues developed a set of 80 classification and 65 seriation games. Those games were played with 15 Head Start children in groups of three, using toy ponies and hand puppets, 10-minutes every day for four months.
At the end of four months, all children were tested on classification and seriation.
The children that received the intervention:
“…did significantly better overall than the 15 comparison children, whether tested with everyday objects, or with two-dimensional figures” (p. 260).
However, as the researchers noted, this was mainly due to the improved abilities of seven children, roughly half the sample.
3. Insertion into Series
Seriation insertion refers to placing an object somewhere into an already formed order of objects. This is a particularly difficult task for young children.
A more formal definition of insertion into series is:
“…the ability to relate an item to others in an increasing or decreasing series and insert the item in its proper place in that series” (Kidd et al., 2008, p. 166).
A demonstration of this task can be found on this page by Stanford University (it’s the 4th video down).
After Lizbeth has already ordered the sticks from shortest to longest, the instructor introduces another stick.
At first, the child has some difficulty and engages in trial-and-error placement. The instructor (apparently the child’s father) offers some guidance.
Eventually the child is successful and inserts the new stick in the correct location in the series.
There are several takeaways mentioned in the text below the video, one regarding assessment:
“First, don’t assume that a child’s initial failure is conclusive. Modifying the problem, or even doing a bit of direct instruction, may reveal unsuspected competence.”
4. Ethan, The Early Scientist
Teaching children about seriation often reveals that children which appear to be struggling, are actually working through the problem, diligently. It’s just that we can’t always see what they are thinking and have a tendency to interpret their pause as indicating they are having difficulty.
This may not be the case at all. Simply asking a child to explain their thinking often reveals a problem-solving process that doesn’t reflect struggling at all.
This is illustrated in a video at the bottom of this page from Standford University.
The instructor asks Ethan to choose the next stick to complete the “staircase.” There are two sticks left; blue and black.
Ethan chooses the blue one. As the instructor explains in the text below the video:
“The most likely interpretation is that he immediately sees from the way the sticks are lined up (with a common base) that the black is shorter than the blue.”
However, as you will see in the video, his thought process is actually very methodical, and precise.
Seriation involves ordering objects along a singular dimension such as length or height.
There is an abundance of educational toys available that are designed to improve seriation skills in children. Some of those items are quite ingenious and involve unique dimensions such as smell, touch, and force.
The seriation skills of children can be improved. A typical intervention involves engaging the child in numerous play-like activities that mimic seriation processes.
Interventions only need to be approximately 10-minutes per day, but extend over several months to be effective for some but not all children.
Seriation is a precursor cognitive skill that research has shown is directly linked to academic performance in young children. Which brings up a previously unmentioned point. By “young children,” we are referring to kindergarten age children 5 and 6 years old.
That is substantially younger than the age range identified in Piaget’s Concrete Operational stage, which starts at the age of 7.
Garrett, K. N., Busby, R. F., & Pasnak, R. (1999). Cognitive gains from extended play at classification and seriation. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 32, 257-263.
Harlow, H. (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review, 56, 51–65. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0062474
Harlow, H. (1959). Learning set and error factor theory. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science: Vol. 2. (pp. 492–538). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Inhelder, B., and Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking: From childhood to adolescence (A. Parsons and S. Milgram, Trans.). NY NY: Basic Books. (Original Work published in 1955).
Kidd, J. K., Pasnak, R., Gadzichowski, M., Ferral-Like, M., & Gallington, D. (2008). Enhancing early numeracy by promoting the abstract thought involved in the oddity principle, seriation, and conservation. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19(2), 164-200. doi: https://doi.org/10.4219/jaa-2008-780
McGonigle-Chalmers, M., & Kusel, I. (2019). The Development of Size Sequencing Skills: An Empirical and Computational Analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 84(4), 7–202. https://doi.org/10.1111/mono.12411
Piaget, J. (1952). The child’s conception of number. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child: Selected works vol. 5. Routledge, London.
Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2, 176-186. https://doi.org/doi:10.1002/tea.3660020306
Siegel, L. (1972). Development of the concept of seriation. Developmental Psychology, 6, 135-137. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0032205