2.2 Child Development: When did the study of Child Development begin?

Chapter Two

History and Significance of child development study


2.2 Describe the historical development of child development study           

When did the study of Child Development begin?

Scholars and philosophers throughout all ages have suggested ways to rear and educate children.  Their views continue to influence child psychology and education. The modern era of research began in the late 1880’s. This is when the study of children began to take shape as a scientific endeavour.  However, interest in the nature of children has ancient roots. Some of the ancient philosophers whose views have had a profound impact on child development include John Locke, Rousseau and Charles Darwin.


A. John Locke(1632-1704)

He was an English Philosopher.  He saw a child as an incomplete adult; governed by strong urges and desires that need to be controlled.  He believed that the environment played a crucial role in the child’s growth and development. He advocated constant supervision in order to appropriately mould the child’s development.  He thus believed that people are capable of influencing the child.


At Locke’s time, most scholars held that heredity largely determined the differences between human beings.  That is what we become determined by our genetic make up. In contrast, Locke believed that education and experience were fundamental determinants of development.  He proposed that at birth, the child’s mind was a “tabula rasa”, or blank slate ready to be written by the environment (Krogh, 1994). It is receptive to all kinds of learning hence guidance and education was essential during childhood.


The goal of education according to Locke was to enhance self discipline and self control.  Locke therefore advised parents and educators to teach self discipline as early as possible so children would learn to deny themselves the satisfaction of their own desires.


B. Jean – Jacques Rousseau (1912 – 1778)

He was French – Philosopher.  He wrote almost a century after Locke.  According to Rousseau the environment was a critical determinant of development.  He argued that children did not need strict supervision. Rousseau saw a child as a “noble being” that possesses intuitive knowledge of right and wrong but encounters pitfalls because of restrictions imposed by the society.  Rousseau suggested that children be allowed to explore the world and use the environment to suit their needs and interests. In contrast to Lockes “tabula rasa” notion, Rousseau regarded children as having abilities and interests which change as they grow and as they learn about the world.  The role of the adult is therefore to provide children with opportunities to explore and learn.


As we have seen, Rousseau and Locke held different views about the nature of the child and the role of education.  These views brought about a fundamental division among researchers referred to as the nature – nurture controversy. That is, the debate about whether human traits are genetically endowed or wholly shaped by experience.



Locke and Rousseau contributed to our understanding of children and encouraged the study of childhood although their ideas were based on speculation and philosophical beliefs rather than on scientific study.


C. Charles Darwin

He came up with a scientific approach to the study of children.  His works on natural selection and evolution development of human beings sparked interest in the study of human beings.  The publication of his “Origin of Species” (1859) is considered the most important force in establishing child study as a scientific endeavour.


Darwin brought about the notion of the evolutionary process.  He argued that human beings are not set apart from other species.  Transmission of traits occurs through heredity. His writings sparked an interest in the study of any possible link between the human being and such species as apes and the biological make up of adults and children.


Darwin argued that just like the origin of man could be traced from that of apes, the origin of adults could also be traced from his origins, which are in the nature of the child.  Scientists began to see children as interesting objects to study. This was the beginning of the study of child development as a scientific endeavour.


D. Early Observational Studies (Baby Biographies)

Observation was one of the first methods used to study children.  Carefully recorded observations were compiled into day-to-day accounts of children’s development known as baby biographies.  Darwin in particular used this method to study his own son. Darwin son’s baby biography was written in 1840-1841 and published in 1877.  Several other baby biographies were written, compiled and published. They paved way for later discoveries in child development.


E. G. Stanley Hall and Early Experimental Studies

With time an interest in children as objects of scientific study grew.  Child development studies became more objective and scientific. With time, researchers studied large groups of children.  G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924) was one of the most notable scientists in child development study. He began experimental research on child development.  Hall investigated the child’s mind in order to understand the mind of the adult. He developed a tool called a “questionnaire” which is still in use today.





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