Early Childhood Education

Gesell, Arnold (1880-1961)


Arnold Gesell was a pioneer in the child study movement, best known for his belief in the genetic blueprint that he called “maturation.” Gesell was born in 1880 in Alma, Wisconsin, and studied psychology at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, where he received his doctorate in 1906. While attending college, Gesell was influenced by the work of one of his professors, G. Stanley Hall, who was one of the first psychologists to study child development. After graduation, Gesell was invited to teach at the State Normal School in Los Angeles, California. There he met and married a child psychology professor, Beatrice Chandler. In the summer of 1909, Gesell and his wife spent time at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble Minded Children. While working with these “backward” children, he became aware of a need to better understand normal development. In 1911, Gesell went to Yale as head of the Yale Clinic of Child Development. It was during this period of his life that he became convinced that medical training was critical to his study of young children. Gesell completed a medical degree at Yale in 1915.

Gesell began his work by studying retarded development in children, but soon concluded that it was first necessary to understand normal development. Gesell used novel methods for studying young children, including recording children on movie film while using controlled environments and specific stimuli. Using the technique of filming through a one-way mirror, Gesell amassed data on over 12,000 children. From this information, he concluded that children go through specific and ordered stages in their development. His research eventually led to the creation of a set of behavioral norms for infant development. Gesell charted behavior in the areas of motor development, language, adaptive behavior, and personal habits.

Gesell believed that development of the child begins at conception, and that development is under the control of basic biological systems, or a genetic blueprint that Gesell called “maturation.” The rate of this development may vary but the development itself unfolds in a set sequence. Environment and socialization have some effect over development, but it is the maturational process that takes primacy. Gesell felt that each child was unique and that teaching should be child centered to reflect these differences. He also believed that there were optimal times when a specific learning was most effective: when the child was “ready to learn.” Teaching should take place within this optimal period that is directed by the child’s maturational schedule. A failure on the part of the teacher or caregiver to correctly interpret the “readiness” of the child could lead to wasted effort on the part of the teacher, and also lead to unjustified punishment.

Gesell’s concept of readiness for learning has come under attack on many occasions. Some theorists feel that the environment and the activities that a child is exposed to can lead development into new areas and it is this interaction that spurs on the development. Gesell would argue that it is a waste of time to pursue new challenges in development before the child is ready, that new learning could not proceed without the maturity necessary to further that development. Frustration in learning is caused by children being exposed to new ideas before they are ready. Instead, children should be given “the gift of time” and allowed to wait until they are mature enough to be ready to learn. Many public school systems are presently basing their entry to school on Gesell’s behavior norms and maturational theory.

Gesell’s most noted work centered upon establishing “norms” for typical development in children. These norms were used to educate parents and caregivers of young children and help them become more aware of typical behaviors in children. His work also guided the development of supportive programs for young children. Gesell died in 1961, after publishing over 400 items, including books, articles, monographs, and films.

Further Readings: Gesell, A. (1930). The guidance of mental growth in infant and child. New York: Macmillan; Gesell, A. (1940). The first five years of life: A guide to the study of the preschool child. New York: Harper & Brothers; Peltzman, B. R. (1998). Pioneers of early childhood education: A bio-bibliographic guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; Pitcher, E. G. (1975). Guidance nursery school: A Gesell Institute book for teachers and parents. New York: Harper & Row.

Martha Latorre