History of Developmental Psychology

Human development is the concern of many disciplines, including biology, sociology, anthropology, education, and medicine. In addition, the topic cuts across nations and cultures, adding to the diversity of subject matter and approaches. Developmental psychology is concerned with constancy and change in psychological functioning over the life span. As a discipline, it arose shortly after the emergence of scientific psychology in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its antecedents were different from those that led to the founding of experimental psychology.In its early years, developmental psychology was primarily concerned with child and adolescent development. Later, adult development and aging began to assume more importance. Developmental psychology began as a correlational science, focusing on observation, not on experimentation, and thus differed from traditional research psychology.

Prescientific Antecedents

Views of development have always reflected the culture in which they emerged. In one of the earliest views of the child, preformationism, a homunculus or miniature adult was believed to be contained in the semen or egg at conception. The homunculus was only quantitatively different from the adult. Preformationist views were largely abandoned on the biological level with the development of modern science.

Philosophical Bases of Developmental Psychology

From a philosophical perspective, John Locke (1632­-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) are the usual starting points for Western discussions of development. Locke is considered the father of modern learning theory. For him, the child was a tabula rasa or blank slate on which experience writes. The role of Locke and later learning theorists was to emphasize the role of the environment in development.

Rousseau is often identified as the father of classical developmental psychology. In his book Emile (1762), he championed a view that emphasized the natural unfolding of the child based on an innate blueprint. He was one of the first to argue that development took place in stages.

Baby Biographies

Early attempts to understand development can be found in “baby biographies,” descriptive accounts of children, usually written by a parent, and often biased. The German philosopher, Dietrich Tiedemann (1748-1803). is credited with creating the first baby biography (1787), but there was little follow-up to his work. Almost 100 years later, another German, biologist Wilhelm Preyer (1841-1897), kept a detailed account of the mental development of his son during his first four years. He published the results as Die Seele des Kindes (The Mind of the Child) (1882), a work frequently cited as beginning the modern child psychology movement. In America, the best known baby biography was a collection of observations of her niece, by Milicent Shinn (1858-1940), which she began in 1890. A popular version was later published as The Biography of a Baby (1900).

The Impact of Darwin

The theory of evolution contained in The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was the starting point for many Western developmental psychologists, both European and American. In addition, Darwin’s emphasis on individual differences and adaptation became important components of developmental psychology.

The German physiologist, Wilhelm Preyer, was inspired by Darwin and, in turn, was the inspiration for other European developmentalists including Karl Buhler (1879-1963). Charlotte Buhler (1893-1974), and William Stern (1871-1938). Darwin’s approach also led to the ethological school of development, which includes the work of Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) and Niko Tinbergen (1907-1988). The research and writing of John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) on loss and attachment are later expressions of this school. More recently, a Darwinian-based approach, “evolutionary psychology,” has emerged.

Among the American pioneers deeply affected by Darwin were G. Stanley Hall, one of America’s first psychologists, and James Mark Baldwin, also a pioneer psychologist. Hall’s main approach to development, recapitulation theory, was derived from Darwin through a German biologist, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Bald­win’s approach has been linked to the theories of both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

The Child Study Movement and G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924)

Among the many contextual forces which contributed to the rise of developmental psychology in the United States, the child study movement was the most important. This movement, which emerged during the latter part of the nineteenth century, focused on the welfare of children and, among other things, helped to bring about the passage of laws governing child labor and compulsory education. Its leadership was assumed by G. Stanley Hall.

Hall linked the new psychology and the movement. He promised to make an understanding of the child “scientific.” an approach that held appeal for many groups, particularly educators. He published a series of questionnaire studies which, though flawed, attempted to establish norms for children in a variety of areas.

In 1891, Hall published the first journal of developmental psychology, Pedagogical Seminary, later renamed the Journal of Genetic Psychology (the word genetic in these early years was a synonym for development). He wrote Adolescence (1904), a two-volume book, which revived an archaic word and offered a theory of development broader than the title suggested. He also wrote Senescence (1922) which was concerned with the second half of life. For all these efforts and more, he is frequently identified as the “father of American developmental psychology.”

Four Pioneer Developmentalists

James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934) proposed a stage theory of development which initially focused on cognitive development. Later, he extended it to include social development as well. He was largely a theoretician, not an experimentalist, and there is evidence that his work influenced both Vygotsky and Piaget. John Dewey (1859-1952). an American, is probably best known for his contributions to philosophy and education, but he also wrote on developmental issues. In contrast to many of his American contemporaries, his theory had a contextual emphasis which has sometimes been compared to that of Vygotsky. He focused on education, in part, because he believed it would establish the agenda for development. He established a “laboratory school” at the University of Chicago in order to observe and experiment with children in a more natural setting. Some of the questions he posed are still being asked today. Which aspects of development are universal? Which are expressions of local culture? Alfred Binet (1857-1911), a Frenchman. and the father of modern intelligence testing. conducted research on cognitive functioning, including memory. In addition to being a prolific writer, he was an advocate for educational reform. The experimental laboratory school he founded was probably the first in Europe. Binet’s work in intellectual development introduced many concepts which are still in use today. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian educator, also wrote extensively on child development. Trained as a physician, she first worked with developmentally disabled children. She investigated the writing of Jean-Marc Itard (1774-1838), whose work is often associated with the beginning of special education and his disciple Edouard Seguin (1812-1880). Many of the techniques she learned from them later became part of her Montessori method.

Psychoanalytic Approaches to Developmental Psychology

Developmental PsychologyPsychoanalytic approaches did not enter mainstream academic psychology until the 1930s, but their influence was eventually profound. Moreover, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of the movement, had an impact on popular culture unequaled by any other psychologist. While his method of psychotherapy is well known, it is not always appreciated that his theory is a theory of development. His followers were numerous and produced many different approaches.

Two important followers were his daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982), who became a distinguished psychologist in her own right, and Erik Erikson (1902­-1994). Both are “ego psychologists,” since they were more concerned with the conscious, rational part of the personality. Erikson is best known for his book Childhood and Society (1950), and for his description of the eight stages of man. While accepting Freud’s notions of psychosexual development, he discussed them within a broader cultural context.

Other psychoanalysts who had an impact on developmental psychology include Karen Horney (1885-­1952), particularly for her work on feminine psychology and her emphasis on life-span growth and self-actualization. Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) was a theoretical innovator in adult development and aging. Melanie Klein (1882-1960), who developed object relations theory, was a rival of Anna Freud, and emphasized the first 2 years of life, particularly the importance of the mother.

Normative Developmental Psychology

Until the 1940s, much of developmental psychology was descriptive and normative. Arnold Gesell (1880­-1961) was important in promoting this approach. Although his mentor. G. Stanley Hall, had tried to develop normative data on children, it was the work of Gesell that proved of lasting value. Gesell collected voluminous data on infants and children, particularly on their physical and motor development. Moreover, he organized the information to make it useful and available to parents.

The effect of his work was to encourage parents to relax and to trust more in nature. In the tradition of Rousseau, the natural unfolding of the child was more important than any interference on the part of parents or educators. Thus, he became a spokesman for the maturation position. Many of Gesell’s developmental norms are still in use today.

The Testing Movement

There had been many early attempts to develop measures of intelligence, notably by Francis Galton (1822-­1911), but they proved unproductive. However, Alfred Binet, in Paris, tried a new approach and the tests were almost immediately successful. Binet published scales in 1905, 1908, and 791 t. the year of his death, each scale more sophisticated than the last.

An American, and former student of G. Stanley Hall, Henry H. Coddard (1866-1957) brought a version of Binet’s scale to the United States. After trying it on a number of children, both normal and disabled, he declared the measure a success and immediately began sending copies of his translated version around the country.

Another former student of G. Stanley Hall, Lewis M. Terman (1877-1956), also an American, developed the most widely used version of the Binet-Simon scales, eventually referred to as the Stanford-Binet, which became the standard against which all measures of intelligence were compared. Terman also initiated the first longitudinal study of development, beginning in 1921. His sample, selected for being gifted in intelligence, continues to be followed today. Later longitudinal studies included the Harvard Growth Study (1922), the Berke­ley Growth Study (1928), and the Fels Institute Study of Human Development (1929).

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and Contextualism

Although Vygotsky has been dead for more than six decades. he is sometimes referred to as the most important contemporary developmentalist. His ideas are particularly suited for the contextualist theoretical framework which has became popular in recent years. Born and raised in Russia, Vygotsky was a Marxist who believed in the importance of the social and historical context to development. At the same time, he had an appreciation of the internal features of development. This ability to consolidate these two diverse positions has led some to see his work as forming the basis for an integrative theory of development.

Although he is often compared to Piaget, Vygotsky differed from him in substantial ways. For instance, he placed much more emphasis on the role of the parent and teacher in cognitive development. He emphasized the function of speech, particularly as an aid to the child’s development. His “zone of proximal development.” a construct describing the ability of children to perform beyond their current level, has been found particularly useful for teachers.

Learning Theory

John Watson (1878-1958), the father of behaviorism, ushered in a movement that differed in important ways from classical developmental psychology. Learning became the central issue for study. Hence, a model based on Locke rather than Rousseau became the standard. In his famous “Little Albert” experiment (1920), Watson attempted to show how a child’s emotional development could be understood in terms of learning. Later, Mary Cover Jones (1896-1987). with Watson’s guidance, conducted a study of a three-year-old boy to demonstrate how undesirable fears could be eliminated, and by so doing, began the field of behavior modification.

After his departure from academic psychology, Watson continued to write about child development, and his work became popular among parents. He was instrumental in promoting a scientific basis for child care. Eventually, he was replaced as the leader of the child-care movement by less rigid and more child-oriented specialists such as Benjamin Spock.

Influences were still felt from outside of learning theory. Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), for instance, was more interested in motivation and conflict than learning. He conducted some well-designed field studies which had a practical impact on changing developmental psychology. Still, the focus of psychological research at this time was on learning, although some of it strayed from Watson’s thinking.

One variation included the research of a group at Yale University under the intellectual leadership of Clark Hull (1884-1952). This group began a program of research that tried to combine learning theory and psychoanalytic theory. A member of the group, Robert Sears (1908-1989), applied learning principles to an understanding of the socialization of children. His work, with others, resulted in the book Patterns of Child Rearing (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957), a frequently cited assessment of child-rearing practices and outcomes. While the group was ultimately unsuccessful in uniting learning theory and psychoanalysis, they succeeded in moving developmental psychology away from a descriptive science to an empirically testable one. By the 1950s and 1960s in America, developmental psychology was dominated by these learning theory approaches.

Notable among more recent learning theorists was B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), a strict behaviorist, who stressed the role of operant learning. He and his followers performed many experiments demonstrating the role of reinforcement in everyday development, Skinner’s work led to widespread use of behavior modification techniques, particularly among autistic children and the developmentally disabled. A highly influential contemporary behaviorist, Albert Bandura (1925- ) has focused more on social learning than Skinner. He has emphasized the importance of modeling, and has conducted many experiments demonstrating how socialization takes place, including the development of aggression, altruism, and sex roles. More recently he has focused on issues of health psychology.

The Genetic Epistemology of Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

The impact of Jean Piaget’s theory on U.S. developmental psychology can hardly be overestimated. Although he contributed a chapter to the first Handbook of Child Psychology (1931), his early work was largely ignored in the United States. By the 1950s, however, a revival of his work began. His stage theory soon became the centerpiece for American developmental psychology, attaining its most important role in the 1970s. His theory was not only essential for most psychologists, it became essential for educators as well.

Piaget saw the child as a scientist, actively constructing increasingly more complex views of the world. At each stage of development, the child is constrained by the cognitive structures available. Piaget was criticized for his methodology and his apparent unwillingness to address the approaches of other prominent developmentalists. Although the era of his greatest prominence has passed, his theory still continues to have an impact on a broad range of developmental issues.

Life-Span Psychology

Initially, most developmental psychology focused on the child and adolescent. However, there were some early attempts to investigate the entire life span. In 1777, Johann Tetens (1736-1807), a German physicist and philosopher, published a book which addressed many life-span issues still of concern today. Friedrich Carus (1770-1808) had a view of development that was similar to that of Tetens. He wrote that aging was not simply about loss and decline, but was an occasion for growth and perfectibility. Adolphe Quetelet (1796-­1874) was probably the first to collect data on physical and psychological variables across the life span. Francis Galton (1822-1911), inspired by Quetelet, established an “anthropometric laboratory” in London in 1884, where he collected measurements on more than 9,000 people. His data constituted an early cross-sectional view of selected physical and psychological characteristics across the life span.

The work of these pioneers in life-span development was largely ignored. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s, with the publication of several textbooks on development, that life-span approaches became prominent again. There was additional interest in later developmental periods when several longitudinal studies began to come of age. Robert Havighurst (1900-1991) and Bernice Neugarten (1916- ), at the University of Chicago, were active researchers on development in the middle and later years. Later, the University of West Virginia became an important site for research in life-span development.

Centers of Research in Developmental Psychology

The Iowa Child Welfare Research Station was founded after World War I through the efforts of an Iowa housewife, Cora Bussey Hillis. She argued that if useful research could be conducted in order to understand animals, equally effective research should be directed to an understanding of the child. The Iowa Station was the first of many child development research centers to be established in the United States. Beginning in the 1920s, a number of institutes were established through the efforts of Lawrence K. Frank, initially with money provided by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

Developmental Psychology Organizations and Journals

There are literally hundreds of organizations which are concerned with issues of human development. Many developmental psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association (APA), which includes divisions devoted to Developmental Psychology; Adult Development and Aging; and Child, Youth and Family Services. The APA publishes several relevant journals, including Developmental Psychology and Psychology and Aging. The American Psychological Society is also the organizational home for many American developmental psychologists. Increasingly, however, developmentalists are found in specialty organizations. One prominent developmental organization is the Society for Research in Child Development, begun in 1933, with its own journal. Child Development, and a monograph series.

The Future of Developmental Psychology

Theorists no longer seem to be working on a “grand theory” of development; they are content with offering miniature theories. Greater attention has been paid to all ages of development so that the phrase “life-span development” more accurately reflects the science. As developmental psychologists have become more aware of the importance of context in development, they have become more vocal advocates for improving that context, particularly arguing for changes in government policy. There is increased awareness that values matter in development. and that science cannot provide those values. Although developmental psychology has traditionally emphasized research, a new subspecialty called applied developmental psychology, has emerged.


  1. Aries. P. ( 1962). Centuries of childhood. New York: Random House. A view of children through history.
  2. Borstelmann. L J. (7983). Children before psychology:Ideas about children from antiquity to the late 1800s. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.). Handbook of child psychology: Vol.1 History. theory. and methods (4th ed.. pp. 1-40). NewYork: Wiley.
  3. Cairns. R. B. 1997). The making of developmental psychology. In W. Damon (Ed.). Handbook of child psychology (5th ed.. pp. 25-105). New York: Wiley. A comprehensive history of developmental psychology.
  4. Charles. D. C. (1970). Historical antecedents of life-span developmental psychology. In L. R. Goulet & P. B. Baltes (Eds.). Life-span developmental psychology: Research and theory. New York: Academic Press.
  5. Dixon. R. A.. & Lerner. R. M. (1988). A history of systems in developmental psychology. In M. H. Bornstein & M. E. Lamb (Eds.). Developmental psychology: An advanced textbook (pp. 3-50). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  6. Eckardt. G.. Bringman. W. G.. & Spring. L. (Eds.). (1985). Contributions to a history of developmental psychology. Berlin: Morton. Contains several important essays on European contributors to developmental psychology.
  7. Hilgard. E. R. (1987). Psychology in America. New York: Harcourt Brace. The chapter on developmental psychology is spiced with relevant personal anecdotes and remembrances.
  8. Kessen. W. (1965). The child. New York: Wiley. An excellent source for original readings.
  9. Lerner. R. M. (1983). Developmental psychology: Historical and philosophical perspectives. Hillsdale. NJ: Erlbaum. Particularly useful for its emphasis on life-span development.
  10. Parke. R. D.. Ornstein. P. A., Rieser. J. J., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (Eds.). (1994). A century of developmental psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Original work published 1992.) A collection of excellent historical articles including some useful overview material.
  11. Ross, D. ( 1972). G. Stanley Hall: The psychologist as prophet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A rich biography of the father of American developmental psychology.
  12. Sears, R. R. (1975). Your ancients revisited: A history of child development. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.). Review of child development research (Vol. 5. pp. 1-73). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A history by one of the important contributors to the field.
  13. Senn. M.J .E. (1975). Insights on the child development movement in the United States. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 40 (Serial No. 161).

Back to Developmental Psychology