Our Proud Heritage. True Then, Truer Now: The Enduring Contributions of Arnold Gesell
The educational ladder of the American public school system is a tall one and a stout one, but it does not reach the ground. —Arnold Gesell
Clinical psychologist and pediatrician Arnold Gesell wrote these words nearly a century ago, in an article titled “The Significance of the Nursery School,” published in 1924 in the inaugural issue of Childhood Education. The words were true then, and they’re truer now.
The ladder is still missing at least a few rungs. One is universal access to preschool and kindergarten. In Gesell’s words, “Nursery school [would] furnish a more solid support for the educational ladder” (1924, 18). Other rungs include early learning environments that truly acknowledge the full range of unique developmental and environmental needs of young children; full support for children from birth through age 3 and their families (including paid family leave); wages and working conditions that reflect the importance and high level of responsibility of early childhood educators; and sufficient appreciation of and investment in the potential of the rapidly developing young brain.
Over a century ago, Gesell began creating a map for child development and learning. His main contribution to child development was identifying the relationship between behavior and brain—in other words, between what children do and how their brains grow. He used this knowledge to document predictable, or normative, stages of growth among children, with the environment causing minor variations in the age at which a skill might emerge but never affecting the sequence or pattern. Gesell’s theory is known as a maturational-developmental theory. Although researchers no longer adhere to the notion of fixed stages of development (Siegler 2016), the norms Gesell established are still used today by psychologists, educators, and pediatricians to predict developmental changes (and to note when follow-up evaluations of development may be warranted).
An innovator and a wonderer, Gesell
- Carried out the first large-scale study of children’s behavior. His pioneering research used motion-picture technologies (which were revolutionary at the time) to document—and find clear, ordered patterns in—the development of about 10,000 children.
- Focused on studying children’s verbal, motor, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. The extensive archive of his lifelong research later enabled parents and teachers to better understand children’s development. Influential child development theorists, including Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky, drew on Gesell’s research. His concept of a stairstep model of growing abilities endured over several decades and now contributes to current concepts of development, which are somewhat more fluid but still show the progression that Gesell noted (Siegler 2016).
- Was the first to demonstrate that a child’s developmental age may be different from her chronological age. In a large-scale research study, he found a relationship between unreadiness at school entry and later school challenges. This research was the foundation for future developmental assessments.
- Was the first person in the United States to officially hold the title school psychologist, having been appointed to that newly created position in 1915 by the Connecticut State Board of Education. He bridged the gap between the child study movement, clinical psychology, and special education by evaluating children and making recommendations for special teaching—what we now call differentiated instruction.
- Developed sophisticated observational techniques, such as one-way viewing screens and recording methods that did not distract children. Such techniques are still used today because they are essential to understanding children’s natural behavior.
The child is a product of the environment, but development is directed by a blueprint.
Normative is just a glimpse of normal
Perhaps most important, Gesell warned us that “normative” is just a rough guide—a glimpse of variations in behaviors and abilities that fall within a normal range. This average, or so-called normal, growth path allows for the exploration of normative developmental trends and for the identification of important individual differences. Gesell understood then—and we still see today—that it is quite normal for individual children’s abilities to vary from their peers’ as they develop, due largely to differences in children’s environments and experiences. Gesell first made a statement to this effect in 1940:
In appraising growth characteristics we must not ignore environmental influences— cultural milieu, siblings, parents, food, illness, trauma, education. But these must always be considered in relation to primary or constitutional factors, because the latter ultimately determine the degree, and even the mode of reaction to the environment. The organism always participates in the creation of its environment. (Ames & Ilg 1976, 107–8)
Gesell’s enduring gift to child development is the ability to know what to expect and to have an objective means of observing when a child is illustrating a meaningful variation from the norm. His careful observations and documentation of thousands of children allowed teachers, doctors, psychologists, and parents to know when a child was demonstrating a need for support or intervention. The significance of his work has become even clearer in recent decades as researchers have routinely shown that interventions in early childhood are more effective and less costly than interventions later in life (Heckman 2017).
The possibilities of preschool
Economic studies show that high-quality birth-to-5 programs for children from under resourced families and communities can deliver a return on investment of 13 percent through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and employment (Garcia et al. 2017). In short, high-quality early childhood education reduces taxpayer costs down the line and helps prepare the country’s workforce for a competitive future.
Nevertheless, as Gesell prophetically wrote a century ago, “We have not yet tried out in any adequate way the possibilities of preschool education” (1924, 12). True then, truer now.
But Gesell was not one to sit on the sidelines; he sought to demonstrate what could be accomplished through excellent early education. Gesell founded the Guidance Nursery School at the Yale Child Study Center in 1918. Janet Learned, the school’s director, described the aims of the nursery school in an early brochure:
Our program is informally structured; responding to the needs, interests and maturity levels of individual children, and of each group as a whole. We plan each day’s activities to make use of a wide variety of materials and spaces to encourage curiosity, resourcefulness, growth and pleasure. We support children in developing relationships with other children and adults. We encourage children to participate in those activities which are satisfying to them, and help them to develop new interests. (The Gesell Institute of Child Development, n.d.)
This much was clear then, as it is now: ensuring strong relationships and providing high quality learning experiences are imperative to helping all young children—regardless of background—reach their potential. Existing brain science backs up Gesell’s key insights: The first three
of a child’s life are critical to a child’s overall brain development (Lally & Mangione 2017). Having consistently warm, responsive caregivers is of the utmost importance. What children learn before kindergarten—both academic knowledge and skills (like vocabulary and critical thinking) and social skills (like empathy and turn taking)—influences the course of their lives.
The Legacy of Arnold Gesell
1906—Gesell receives his doctorate in psychology from Clark University.
1911—Gesell founds the Yale Child Study Center (then called the Clinic of Child Development). While at Yale, he earns his MD in 1915.
1925—The Gesell Developmental Schedule is first published, outlining Gesell’s research findings regarding the order in which children typically develop abilities.
1950—The Gesell Institute of Child Development is established by Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg to further the work begun by Gesell.
2018—The Gesell Institute of Child Development continues today, dedicated to promoting the principles of child development.
Resources by and about Arnold Gesell
Arnold Gesell: Themes of His Work, by Louise Bates Ames (1989)
Biographies of Child Development: The Mental Growth Careers of Eighty-Four Infants and Children—A Ten-Year Study from the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, by Arnold Gesell (1939)
The Embryology of Behavior: The Beginnings of the Human Mind, by Arnold Gesell and C.S. Amatruda (1945)
The First Five Years of Life: A Guide to the Study of the Preschool Child, by Arnold Gesell
Infant and Child in the Culture of Today: The Guidance of Development in Home and Nursery School, by Arnold Gesell and Frances L. Ilg (1943)
The Pre-School Child: From the Standpoint of Public Hygiene and Education, by Arnold
“The Preschool Child: His Social Significance,” by Arnold Gesell (1923), Annals of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science 105: 277–80.
Studies in Child Development, by Arnold Gesell (1948)
Ames, L.B., & F.L. Ilg. 1976. Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful. New York: Dell.
Garcia, J.L., J. Heckman, D.E. Leaf, & M. Prados. 2017. “The Long-Term Benefits of Quality Childcare for Disadvantaged Mothers and Their Children.” Inequality, Social
Policy (blog). The Evidence Base.
Gesell, A. 1924. “The Significance of the Nursery School.” Childhood Education 1 (1): 11– 20. (Find excerpts in Childhood Education’s 125th ann. issue, 2017, vol. 93, no. 3.)
The Gesell Institute of Child Development. N.d. New Haven, CT: The Gesell Institute.
Heckman, J.J. 2017. “Four Big Benefits of Investing in Early Childhood Development.” The Heckman Equation
Lally, J.R., & P. Mangione. 2017. “Caring Relationships: The Heart of Early Brain Development.” Young Children 72 (2): 17–24.
Siegler, R.S. 2016. “Continuity and Change in the Field of Cognitive Development and in the Perspectives of One Cognitive Developmentalist.” Child Development Perspectives 10 (2):
Our Proud Heritage
Peg Oliveira, PhD, is the executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development. She is a developmental psychologist with a career in advocacy and social activism, specifically on issues of affordable child care, fair pay, and paid family leave. Currently, Peg creates professional development content and trainings that have a direct and immediate impact on how teachers see and teach children.
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