Child Development

The study of the sequential physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes a child undergoes between birth and adolescence or adulthood.

Landmark publications on child development include:

  • 1946 Benjamin Spock publishes The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.
  • 1950 Erik Erikson publishes Childhood and Society.

    Childhood psychosexual development
    —As defined by Sigmund Freud, this encompasses the stages through which a child passes as he or she develops
    Cognitive development model
    —Pioneered by Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, this model divides child development into four stages of increasingly complex and abstract thought.
    —The inability to consider things from another person's perspective.
    Oedipus complex
    —Developed by Sigmund Freud, it is unconscious emotions and ideas stemming from a child's desire to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex, as well as some jealousies toward the other parent because of these desires.
    Phylogenetic development
    —Evolutionary history.

    The first detailed scientific study of child development was probably Biographical Sketch of an Infant (1877), which was written by English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882). He based this publication on a log he had kept on the development of his eldest child. In this work, Darwin advanced the hypothesis that each individual's development from birth to adulthood parallels or recapitulates the phylogenetic development (the evolutionary history) of the human species as a whole. In fact, he had made a similar observation about the development of the fetus. Darwin's ideas influenced the early study of child development, also known as the child-study movement, which arose in the late nineteenth century.

    In the United States, the most famous figure associated with Darwin's evolutionary approach was American educator and psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1846–1924), who was labeled “the father of child psychology in America” and became the first president of the American Psychological Association in 1892. In the next couple of decades, researchers developed intelligence testing, including the Binet-Simon Scale in France and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, which was became the standard intelligence test in the United States. Intelligence tests directed attention to the intellectual development of children, especially those considered either gifted or mentally disabled.

    As the century progressed, emphasis shifted from the study of children as a source of scientific knowledge to a more altruistic endeavor aimed at improving their welfare. From Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), known as the father of psychoanalysis, and Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) to American pediatricians Benjamin Spock (1903–1998) and T. Berry Brazelton (born in 1918), researchers, psychologists, and others have studied and written about child development to improve understanding, to promote well-being during the various stages of childhood, and to help children mature into healthy adults.

    Freud developed many theories about the enormous influence of childhood experiences on adult behavior and also proposed a five-stage chronological model of childhood psychosexual development

    American psychologist Arnold Gesell (1880– 1961) was among the first to undertake a thorough quantitative study of normal human development from birth through adolescence. Based on his work, Gesell produced reports that had a widespread influence on both parents and educators, and also created the Gesell Development Schedules, a tool used to assess motor and language development, adaptive behavior, and personal-social behavior in children between 4 weeks and 6 years of age. The Gesell Development Schedules are still used today.

    Probably the most famous theory of child development is the cognitive development model pioneered by Piaget. He divided child development between birth and late adolescence into four stages of increasingly complex and abstract thought, each qualitatively different from the ones preceding it, but still dependent on them:

    Object permanence is the term used to describe the awareness that objects continue to exist even when they are no longer visible. Following experiments with hiding toys under cloth, Jean Piaget held that infants do not build an understanding of object permanence until the age of 9 months.

    Object permanence is the term used to describe the awareness that objects continue to exist even when they are no longer visible. Following experiments with hiding toys under cloth, Jean Piaget held that infants do not build an understanding of object permanence until the age of 9 months.
    © Doug Goodman /Science Source

    Another well-known development theory that is structured in stages is one proposed by developmental psychologist and neo-Freudian Erik Erikson (1902– 1994) in Childhood and Society, which was published in 1950. His eight-stage theory encompasses the entire human lifespan, but much of it centers on childhood and adolescence. Each developmental stage in Erikson's scheme is concerned with a central conflict that encompasses trust versus mistrust in infancy; autonomy versus doubt and shame in early childhood; initiative versus guilt in the preschool period; and industry versus inferiority during the early school years. The goals of the first four stages create the foundation for the successful negotiation of the fifth stage, in which the adolescent must form a stable identity and achieve a sense of self.

    American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927– 1987) considered the development of moral reasoning from a different perspective. After studying the ways in which children aged 7 through adolescence respond to moral dilemmas, Kohlberg determined that moral development has several universal stages. Like the cognitive stages delineated by Piaget, these universal stages differ from each other qualitatively:

  • At around age 10, they progress to the conventional level, where their behavior is guided by the opinions of other people and the desire to conform.
  • During adolescence, children become capable of post-conventional morality, which entails the ability to formulate abstract moral principles, and act on motives that transcend self-interest and even social norms that conflict with their personal sense of justice.

    A child looks at identical glasses filled with the same amount of liquid to demonstrate Piaget's Liquid Conservation experiment

    A child looks at identical glasses filled with the same amount of liquid to demonstrate Piaget's Liquid Conservation experiment
    © Marmaduke St. John /Alamy

    Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development in childhood. He based his ideas on case studies conducted with child subjects, as well as observations of his own children. One of Piaget's principal theories was that children think differently than adults, a notion Einstein said was “so simple, only a genius could have thought of it.” Piaget's ideas have had a lasting influence on the field of education and the study of child development.

    Piaget's theory asserts that cognitive development in children consists of four stages: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. Piaget believed that this was the sequence of the stages, but that the ages corresponding to each stage would vary among individuals.

    The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth until roughly the age of two, or until acquisition of language. In this stage, children begin to develop an understanding of the world using sensory information (such as things they hear and see) and physical interaction (activities such as grasping and sucking). In the beginning of this stage, thinking is very egocentric and children lack an understanding of object permanence, believing that anything they cannot see no longer exists. This can be demonstrated bythe game peek-a-boo. Children begin to attain a sense of object permanence near the end of the sensorimotor stage.

    The preoperational stage extends from approximately age 2 to 7. It begins with language development; by the end of this stage, the child is moving away from egocentrism. Children use symbols in play during this stage.

    The third stage, the concrete operational stage, occurs during pre-adolescence, roughly from ages 7 to 11. This time marks the beginning of a child's understanding that others have different perspectives from theirs.

    The final stage is known as the formal operational stage, and generally occurs from age 11 to somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 years. This stage involves abstract thinking, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning.

    Piaget believed that there is no point in trying to teach children before they are ready. They must spontaneously and independently come to certain realizations by forming hypotheses and proving or disproving them for themselves. He also found that children construct schemata— frameworks or mental structures used to help store information—to organize and understand the world.

    Piaget conducted clinical interviews with children as part of his studies. This interview between Piaget and a nine-year-old child from Geneva, Switzerland focuses on the ability to understand sub-classification:

    Psychologists Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and Jerome Bruner (1915–) are two notable critics of Piaget's theory of stages, both believing that cognitive development is continuous and that Piaget did not put enough emphasis on language or on the effect of culture on development.

    Piaget's ideas have sparked further research into the ways in which children's thinking differs from that of adults. His theory of stages of development is applied today in the scheduling of school curricula and his studies on child development have had significant influence on the field of elementary education.

    In recent years, researchers in child development have focused increasingly on the developmental patterns and needs of minorities and women. American psychologist Carol Gilligan (1936–), for instance, found fault with her colleague Kohlberg's exclusive focus on white males in his initial research. In her own study, In a Different Voice, Gilligan differentiated between male and female moral development. In contrast to the male problem-solving approach to moral dilemmas based on an “ethic of justice,” she described a female “ethic of care” that is based on empathy and involves the perception of moral dilemmas in terms of conflicting responsibilities rather than competing rights.

    Much work has been done and will continue on child development. This has become a thriving area of study, because the early years of a child's life are key to his or her psychological health and overall development.



    Berk, Laura E. Child Development, 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012.

    Feldman, Robert S. Child Development, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012.

    Santrock, John. Child Development. 14th ed. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013.

    Shelov, Steven (ed.), and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. 6th ed. New York:Bantom Books, 2014.


    Mayo Clinic, “Child Development: Know What's Ahead.” (accessed August 24, 2015).

    MedlinePlus, U. S. National Library of Medicine, “Child Development.” (accessed August 24, 2015).

    PBS, “Child Development.” (accessed August 24, 2015).

    University of Michigan, “Developmental Milestones.” (accessed August 24, 2015).

    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Child Development.” (accessed August 24, 2015).

    Zero to Three/National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, “Behavior & Development.” (accessed August 24, 2015).


    Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 50 Church Street, 4th Floor, Cambridge, MA, 02138, (617) 496-0578,, .

    Foundation for Child Development, 295 Madison Avenue, 40th Floor, New York, NY, 10017, (212) 867.5777,, .

    National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1313 L St. NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC, 20005, (202) 232-8777, (800) 424-2460, .

    Zero to Three/National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, 1255 23rd Street, NW, Suite 350, Washington, DC, 20037, (202) 638-1144, .