Arnold Gesell: Biography & Theory of Child Development

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  • 0:01 What Is Child…
  • 0:32 Who Is Arnold Gesell?
  • 1:09 Method of Observation
  • 1:32 Gesell's Theory
  • 2:44 Gesell's Spiral
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde
Much of what we know today about how children grow and thrive comes from early theorists like Arnold Gesell. Ever hear of him? His history, work, and theories are outlined in this lesson.

What Is Child Development Theory?

The term child development theory refers to the ideas of early pioneers in the field about children and their growth, including their cognitive, emotional and physical development. Much of the work of these physicians, psychologists and other scientists still influences our educational, physical and psychological approach to young people today, like B.F. Skinner's work with psychological conditioning. Let's take a look at Arnold Gesell's work.

Who Is Arnold Gesell?

Gesell performing an early observation.

Arnold Gesell was born on June 21, 1880 in Alma, Wisconsin. He became interested in child development while attending Clark University in Worcester, MA, and studying under professor G. Stanley Hall, an early psychologist. Gesell received his doctorate from Clark in 1906, then went on to study at the Yale Psycho-Clinic in New Haven, CT. He later received a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from Yale in 1915, an education he used to study his passion, child development.

Gesell's Method of Observation

In 1926, Gesell stumbled across a movie camera and came up with a groundbreaking idea: he could create controlled environments and use the camera and a one-way mirror to study and document children's reactions to specific stimuli. Gesell studied a total of about 12,000 children using this method.

Gesell's Theory

So, what did Gesell learn from all this movie making? Through his observations and research, Gesell concluded that children go through predictable stages of growth. In fact, Gesell's theory formed the basis for just about every other developmental theory since his time. Some of the key points associated with his theory include:

  • Although all children cycle through the same stages or sequences of growth, they don't enter the stages at the same time. Each child has its own unique pace.
  • Pacing is influenced by internal factors, such as physical and mental development, genetics, personality and temperament.
  • Pacing is also influenced by external factors, like parenting style, environment, peers, culture and health.
  • Children's development changes due to a feeling of equilibrium, or calm plateau's of learning, and disequilibrium, an unsettled time of rapid growth and learning.

Cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium

Gesell's theory was the first of its kind. In fact, he was the only theorist of his time to conclude that children develop in stages instead of by age.

Gesell's Spiral

Using the idea that children cycle through periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium, Gesell created a spiral-like pattern to describe how children develop. The cycles describe six stages occurring at half-year intervals, which last longer as a child grows. For example, younger children move through a cycle far more rapidly than older children. Just think of how much a toddler learns about language compared to a young teen.

Gesell identified six stages of growth:

  • Smooth
  • Break-up
  • Sorting-out
  • Inwardizing
  • Expansion
  • Fitting together

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