Traditional & Contemporary Theories of Motor Development

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the process of motor development as it applies to youth and children. We'll looks at traditional theories such as Piaget's cognitive theory, and contemporary theory such as dynamic systems theory.

The Amazing Hand

Gloria and Stu liked watching baby Timmy discover the world and how he could interact with it. He looked at lights with wonder, played his hand through running water, and tried to make small sounds. They had a video of him finding out that he had a tongue and that it was flexible and very hard to grasp. He heard a fly on the wall and tried to follow it with his eyes. But they had the most fun watching him try to use his hands.

Timmy first learned that if he held out his hand he could touch different objects of interest. He could flex his hands and reform them into many different shapes or he could flail them up and down. He had a hard time grasping anything at first, but eventually his chubby, little hands could gasp.

Then he started trying to manipulate his fingers and make his toys do what he wanted them to. Gloria and Stu watched as their little man progressed through gross and fine motor control and wondered how it occurred. What did Timmy feel as he was clumsily learning to use his hands, legs or tongue?

Motor Development

Motor development is the increased ability to use and control muscular movement. It's different from cognitive or emotional development in that it can be tracked in a fairly sequential manner.

Pediatricians work with a chart that allows parents to see how their child is progressing compared to what is considered 'normal'. The chart tracks height and weight and presents a timetable for milestones such as walking, gasping, sitting up, holding the head up and other important aspects of muscular growth and control.

If a child like Timmy was extremely slow to meet a milestone, his doctor would look at other factors and milestones to try and determine if there was a reason.

A great deal of research has been done to determine how children develop motor control and what happens internally to promote this essential growth. From this research, theories, some considered traditional (having existed for a long time) and others contemporary (newer theories), have advanced.

Traditional Theories

Though usually the word 'traditional' implies 'accepted', in this case, new theories have largely supplanted the old. However, modern motor development theory would not be as advanced as it is unless others had shown the way.

The groundbreaking discoveries of Jean Jaques Rousseau in the early 1700's, then John Dewey, Myrtle McGraw, Arnold Gessel, Jean Piaget and others in the early to mid twentieth century opened the way for contemporary theorists.

  • Rousseau was not the first to speculate about physical movement and how it occurs (da Vinci and others experimented with movement), but he was among the first to posit a theory. He believed that children react to their environment and explore how they could influence it.

  • Dewey and McGraw influenced others with their interest in kinetic energy as it related to motor development. They believed that muscle developed (and thus the entire motor system of the child) because it had to act against the gravitational field. McGraw believed that children try different actions to reach a goal and arrive at the most efficient movement through trial and error.

  • Arnold Gessel differed from Dewey and McGaw in that he completely negated the views of Darwin. He believed that a child motor capabilities developed as their central nervous system developed. Thus, his theory, along with parts of McGraw's theory, were called 'neuromaturational'. Gessel also developed the Gessel Developmental Schedules, which were among the first milestone charts.

  • The behavioral theory of development states that a child develops as they react to their environment.

  • Jean Piaget's cognitive theory tied motor development to the development of cognitive processes and opportunities for growth expressed in the child's environment.

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