Early Childhood Education

Child Study Movement


The child study movement, inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, began in the United States in the early 1880s. The movement attracted and was supported by the work of such luminaries as G. Stanley Hall, John Dewey, Arnold Gesell, and John Watson, as well as a housewife by the name of Cora Bussey Hillis. With the realization that little was scientifically known about how children grow and develop, Hall and Gesell set out to collect a large body of data describing the growth and development of children from infancy to adolescence.

The normative data on children’s growth and development collected by Hall and Gesell influenced what parents, teachers, pediatricians, and clinicians came to expect as normal development at each age. The child development research stimulated by the child study movement reinforced the importance of the early childhood years and pointed to the desirability of early childhood programs.

G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) played a pivotal role in the organization and support of activities of the child study movement. In 1884, Hall became the first professor of psychology in the United States when he was given a professorship at Johns Hopkins andJohn Dewey was one of Hall’s first students. Because Hall believed children progressed through stages of development like flowers unfolding automatically, he thought it was important to observe children under natural conditions to formulate a theory of social development. Children, therefore, became subjects of laboratory study. In 1888 Hall founded the Child Study Association of America, shortly before becoming president of Clark University, a position he held until 1924.

Child study clubs were formed in regions all over the United States and large amounts of data were collected by parents, teachers and academic researchers until the early 1900s. Teachers at the elementary and secondary levels were encouraged to document children’s learning and their teaching practices, thus contributing to the developing field of educational psychology. Hall gave extensive questionnaires to large numbers of children of all ages to study “the contents of children’s minds.” He asked questions regarding interests, fears, shyness, imaginary playmates, dreams, friendships, teasing, bullying, favorite toys, and more. Data from questionnaires was aimed at helping teachers learn what knowledge and experiences children had upon entry to kindergarten. Averages of all the items were taken as typical development. The National Education Association established a Department of Child Study in 1893.

Another major contributor to the Child Study Movement was another of Hall’s students, Arnold Gesell (1880-1961). After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology in 1906, Gesell set up a “psycho-clinic” at Yale’s New Haven (CT) Dispensary so that he might study every facet of the development of infants and children from white, middle-class families (motor skills, social behavior, and personality characteristics) and then establish “norms” or descriptions of typical development at each age level.

Also in 1906, Cora Bussey Hillis, an Iowa housewife and mother, proposed the idea of a research station at the University of Iowa for the study of children and the improvement of child rearing. She reasoned that if raising hogs and corn could be improved by research so could child rearing. This led to the establishment of the University of Iowa Child Welfare Research Station in 1917. The Iowa facility and the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit became the models for other child development institutes that were set up across the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Because one of the main purposes was the dissemination of information about children to parents, teachers, and college faculty, a number of publications were launched: university monographs, research journals (Child Development), and magazines (Parents’ Magazine). The new research institutes also awarded graduate degrees in child development. Upon graduation, these new professionals found employment in colleges and universities, as well as in a variety of applied settings.

The 1920s were the “golden age” for the study of children in the United States. New private and government funds were forthcoming to support child study and parent education. The Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial provided millions to foster child development as a growing field of scientific endeavor. Under the direction of Lawrence Frank, funds were awarded to establish major child research centers at the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, and the University of Minnesota. Financial support was also provided to existing research centers at Yale and the University of Iowa. Smaller research institutes were launched at the University of Michigan and in Washington, DC, and funds were provided for individual research projects. Reflecting the growing interest in and importance attributed to the study of child development, The Society for Research in Child Development was founded in 1930.

The research contributions of these pioneers in child study were summed up in 1930 by Florence Goodenough (Cairns, 1998).

• Mental testing—All research institutes were investigating mental testing. Iowa documented the effects of an enriched environment on intelligence. Minnesota and Fels studied stability and change in intelligence. Stanford disputed any research claims that intelligence was malleable.

• Longitudinal study—Most researchers believed that longitudinal studies were necessary, but did not have the funding or the guarantee that their institutes were permanent enough to undertake long-term studies. Fels Institute and Berkeley, however, began systematic longitudinal studies.

• Behavioral and emotional development—Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Minnesota, California, and Washington University (St. Louis) studied children’s fears, specifically how emotions arise and how fears are learned and unlearned. This was an outgrowth of Watson’s research at Johns Hopkins.

• Growth and physical maturation—Early research at Iowa addressed the physical development, care, and feeding of children. Gesell at Yale made graphs of normal development for use in identifying atypical development. The Fels Institute examined relationships between physical and behavioral development.

• Research methods—John Anderson and Goodenough at Minnesota, among others, saw the need for better observational research techniques. Goodenough explored new ways of assessing personality and intelligence (including her Draw-A-Person test).

Most of the work at the newly founded institutes focused on the pragmatic question of how to best raise children and the methodological issues of how to study children. Major theoretical development was left to others.

Further Readings: Brandt, R. (1980). The child study movement. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia School of Education; Braun, Samuel J., and Esther P. Edwards (1972). History and theory of early childhood education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Cairns, Robert B. (1998). The making of developmental psychology. In Richard M. Lerner and William Damon, eds. Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 1, 5th ed. Theoretical models of human development. New York: Wiley, pp. 25-105; White, Sheldon H. (1992). G. Stanley Hall: From philosophy to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology 28(1), 25-34.

Carol S. Huntsinger