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History And Developmental Theory

History and Developmental Theory


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Compare the historical views of     childhood to the modern views of childhood.
  • Discuss the modern study of child     development, including research methods and theories.
  • Define “developmental processes.”
  • Analyze how child development involves     biological, cognitive, and socioemotional processes and what factors in a     child’s life these processes affect.
  • List, in order, the periods of childhood     development and identify the age ranges associated with them.
  • Identify and explain several     developmental issues researchers are focusing on today.


Child development is a field of scientific study that has as its focal point the processes of change and stability from the time of conception through the period of adolescence. This lesson will approach the study of child development through the comparison of the historical views of childhood with the more modern views. The discussion of the modern study of child development will include the identification of the most important developmental processes, their characteristic tendency to overlap and to be interrelated, and their relationship to developmental periods. In addition, developmental periods will be delineated as a framework for understanding the complexities of childhood developmental phases. Further, several contemporary developmental issues will be identified and discussed.

Child Development: The Past and the Present

It was only in the late 1800s that the so-called modern study of children evolved from reliance on the philosophical approach to the application of the scientific method. Prior to that time, ideas about childhood included the Western philosophical views based on the principles of original sin, tabula rasa, and innate goodness.

  • By the sixteenth century, the prevailing image of childhood was based on the Puritan’s belief in original sin. The Christian doctrine was based on the idea that children were born as ignoble, evil beings that could only be civilized and saved from sin through harsh, punitive childrearing practices.
  • Approximately a century later, the English philosopher John Locke proposed that a child’s brain at birth is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, meaning that human characteristics are attained through experience. Thus, Locke espoused the idea that parents should interact with their children in order to “write” on the slates traits that would turn the children into successful members of the general populace.
  • In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed the view of innate goodness, believing that children are “noble savages” who are born good and should thus be allowed to grow with little interference or guidance from parents.
  • Early in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin first emphasized the developmental nature of infant behavior. It was Darwin, the originator of the theory of evolution, who fathered the study of child development through the belief that humans could better understand themselves by studying their origins (Papalia,  Olds, & Feldman, 2008).

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, developmentalists turned away from the conflicting views of religion and philosophy and began to pursue the study of childhood through the application of the scientific method. A number of advances had led the way for the scientific study of child development. James Mark Baldwin was helping organize psychology as a discipline, and scientists were beginning to discuss the importance of nature and nurture, or innate characteristics and external influences. The secret of conception had been discovered, and medical discoveries and more sanitary living conditions resulted in the survival of more children through infancy. In addition, newly enacted child labor laws and decreased requirements for child labor permitted children to spend more time in school. Thus, parents and educators became aware of the need for addressing children’s developmental issues. Further, the newly emerging science of psychology was bringing about the realization that people could increase self-understanding through knowledge of what had affected them in childhood.

Further advancement of the study of child development occurred early in the twentieth century when G. Stanley Hall published a book that, for the first time, established adolescence as a separate period of development. In the 1930s and 1940s,  research institutes were established at various universities, indicating that child psychology had been established as a true science with professional practitioners. Research-based information regarding the stages in motor development was provided by Arnold Gesell’s 1929 study, and sundry other major studies resulted in a great deal of information on long-term development.

Today, the study of child development derives data from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology,  biology, genetics, family science, education, history, and medicine. Thus the study of child development is, and always has been, an interdisciplinary approach.  In addition, the investigation of children’s development continues to evolve. There has been progress in understanding, as well as technological advances, and new questions build on or contest previous findings to further increase the amount of scientific knowledge (Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 2008).

Presently, the modern approach to childhood includes the identification of distinct developmental periods that encompass special times of growth and change and the mastery of new skills. Although it is true that much remains to be done in order to improve the lives of all children, today’s methodology directs a vast amount of research and funding in the care and education of the world’s children.

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