Early Childhood Education

Maturationism

 

Maturationism is a theoretical perspective that emphasizes the contribution of biological processes to children’s development. Maturationists take the position that maturation (i.e., the process of growing from a genetic plan) is the central element in explaining how children grow and change. These theorists argue that a universal, invariant sequence of human development can be described and that factors within the genetic makeup of each individual determine the pace at which the sequence unfolds for that child. Maturationist theorists elevate the impact of nature (genetic inheritance) and downplay the importance of nurture (learning/experience) on children’s developmental progression.

Maturationist thinking is most often associated with the work of Arnold Gesell and his colleagues at the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University. From its beginnings in 1911, the Clinic’s project was to chart the developmental sequence of childhood from birth through ten years of age. Based on the concept of genetic predetermination (automatic unfolding of behavioral organizations as a function of innate biological structures), Gesell observed the sequence of development of thousands of children and described growth gradients that indicated norms for when developmental milestones would be reached across physical, emotional, and cognitive domains. Gesell and his colleagues are largely responsible for the considerable influence that maturationist thinking has had on parents’ and teachers’ understandings of child development.

The major principles of maturationist thinking represent the foundations of a perspective that has had a major impact on early childhood education theory and practice. Defining principles include the following: (a) biological processes, especially maturation of the central nervous system, are largely responsible for growth and change in human organisms, while environmental factors such as experience and instruction are thought to be of secondary importance; (b) each normal individual carries a complete set of human capacities, instincts, and drives, meaning that everything necessary is supplied by nature; (c) each normal individual goes through an orderly sequence of developmental milestones, and the sequence does not vary across individuals or groups; (d) each individual has a tailor-made genetic timetable that regulates the pace at which maturation proceeds, therefore a preset internal clock determines when developmental milestones will be reached; (e) the cycle of human growth is continuous and additive, so development builds on earlier development; and (f) by carefully observing the development of large numbers of children, it is possible to generate normative data that indicate when developmental milestones will be reached, and the average time when growth gradients will be accomplished can be described.

The widespread acceptance of the foregoing principles has had a significant influence on how educational researchers, policymakers, teachers, and parents think about young children’s development and what that means for curriculum design, program planning, and parenting. The assumption of genetic predetermination dominated the child study field and early childhood education during the first half of the twentieth century (Hunt, 1961). Most researchers, program developers, teachers, and parents of the era believed that a child’s biological inheritance essentially controlled his or her developmental progression. Environmental factors were perceived to be secondary. In Gesell’s words, “No environment as such has the capacity ... to generate the progressions of development” (Gesell, 1931, p. 211). In fact, it was widely believed that no benefit and potential harm could come from attempting to speed up children’s development through instruction, practice, or pressuring children to do more than they were ready to do. The remnants of this thinking continue to have a powerful influence on early childhood education today.

The concept of “readiness” has its roots in maturationist thinking and remains an important part of early childhood discourse. Readiness, from the perspective of maturationist theory, refers to a point in time when an individual has reached a level of maturation that will allow him or her to learn new behaviors, skills, or concepts. Accompanying this way of thinking about readiness is the notion that expecting children to accomplish tasks for which they are not ready can cause unwarranted frustration for children and for those trying to teach them. In terms of early schooling, this translates into attempts to tailor educational experiences to match the developmental levels of children, thus allowing children to develop at their own rates and making it the job of the school to adjust to the maturation levels of the students.

Maturationists’ contention that normalized patterns of child development can be described continues to dominate the thinking of many parents, pediatricians, and educators. Parents continue to measure the physical, cognitive, and social growth of their children against developmental norms established by Gesell and others. Pediatricians continue to report on young children’s developmental progress in relation to normative data, so that parents are told, for example, that their child is at a given percentile for language development and so on. Program developers, teachers, and other educationists continue to design curriculum and educational activities for children based on the belief that all (or at least most) children of a certain age are at the same developmental level and have the same basic capacities and needs. The following list provides an example of growth gradients described by Gesell, Ilg, and Ames (1977, pp. 342-343) in the domain of child-child interpersonal relations.

4 years—

• Will share or play cooperatively with special friends.

• Very conversational with friends. Good imaginative play.

• But much excluding, tattling, disputing, quarreling, verbal and physical.

• More interested in children than in adults.

• May spontaneously take charge of younger or shy child.

• May have special friends of same sex.

5 years—

• Plays well with other children, especially groups kept small.

• Does not insist on having own way and does not worry about behavior of others.

• Prefers playmates of own age.

• Some are too rough, too bossy, or cry too readily to get on well in unsupervised play.

• May play better with another child outside rather than indoors.

6 years—

• Marked interest in making friends, having friends, being with friends. Uses term “school friend” or “playmate.”

• Seems able to get along with friends, but play does not hold up long if unsupervised.

• Quarreling, physical combat. Each wants own way.

• A good deal of tattletaling.

• May be very dominating and bossy with some playmates.

• Much exclusion of a third child: “Are you playing with So-and-so? Then I’m not playing with you.”

• Cannot bear to lose at games and will cheat if necessary to win. Also thinks friends cheat or do things the wrong way.

• Many are said to be a “bad influence” on playmates or are thought to play with someone who is a “bad influence.”

• May prefer slightly older playmates.

Although less common than in the past, the concept that a nursery school setting is best for young children is another legacy of maturationist thinking. Gesell, Ilg, and Ames (1977) summarized the implications of maturationist theory for educational practice in the following statement: “Parents and teachers who think that a child is so plastic that he or she can be made over by strenuous outside pressure have failed to grasp the true nature of the mind. The mind may be likened to a plant, but not to clay. For clay does not grow. Clay is molded entirely from without. A plant is primarily molded from within, through the forces of growth” (p. 12). Traditional nursery schools, which are set up more like children’s gardens than academies, are designed to provide a safe, nurturing environment that allows the natural development of children to progress at its own pace. The popularity of nursery school approaches has waned as accountability pressures on early childhood programs have increased and expectations for young children’s academic performance have escalated. Concurrent with these changes has been a gradual decline in the influence of maturationist perspectives.

Some of the limitations of maturationist theory include its inability to explain environmental effects on children’s development, its lack of attention to individual differences among children, its excessive concern with normal development, and its lack of usefulness in guiding children’s development and learning. Critics complain that maturationists’ overemphasis on biological factors ignores the impact of experience and learning, arguing that genetic inheritance alone cannot adequately explain the complex processes of human development. They also make the case that individual differences are often overlooked or stigmatized when maturationist theory is applied. Weber (1984, p. 58) uses the example of the popular film series produced by the National Film Board of Canada, which characterized particular ages such as the “Terrible Twos and Trusting Threes,” to make the point that normative concepts associated with maturationist thinking led to overgeneralizations that ignored differences in individual development. In addition, others have critiqued the lack of useful information available from just

knowing how children compare to group norms provided by maturationist scientists. Thomas (1992), for example, summarizes, “Group averages are of limited use in explaining a child’s past, predicting his future status, or suggesting what should be done to guide his development” (p. 71). These limitations may help to explain why the maturationist theoretical perspective seems to have lost much of its currency in the early twenty-first century.

Further Readings: Gesell, A. (1931). Maturation and the patterning of behavior. In C. Murchison ed., A handbook of child psychology. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press; Gesell, A., F. L. Ilg, and L. B. Ames (1977). The child from five to ten. New York: Harper and Row; Hunt, J. M. (1961). Intelligence and experience. New York: Ronald Press; Thomas, R. M. (1992). Comparing theories of child development. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Weber, E. (1984). Ideas influencing early childhood education: A theoretical analysis. New York: Teachers College Press.

J. Amos Hatch