Arnold Gesell


Child development theory has many influences. One could hardly mention the origins of child development theory without mentioning Arnold Gesell (1880 – 1961). Born in Alma, Wisconsin, Arnold Lucius Gesell was a psychologist and pediatrician. As a professor at Yale, he was known for his work in child development. As the oldest of 5 children, he first saw child development in his younger siblings as they grew.

Gesell received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1906. His Ph.D. in psychology was obtained from Clark University located in Worcester, Massachusetts. He took on an assistant professorship at Yale in 1911. The first years at Yale were productive, as he worked toward his M.D. which was completed in 1915. He believed that in order to properly research child development, medical knowledge would be required.

Read about language development in children.



One of Arnold Gesell’s first things he accomplished at Yale was to set up a clinic which would later be known as the Clinic of Child Development. There, he was the Professor of Child Hygiene from 1930 until 1948. His clinic gave way to the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine.

Initially Gesell’s work focused on developmentally disabled children. Arnold Gesell believed that in order to properly assess the developmentally disabled, he must first understand how non-impaired children develop. He became so involved with child development, that by 1919 his career was mostly concerned with normal child development and the study of such.

He is perhaps best known for developing the Maturational Theory of child development, or Gesell’s Maturational Theory. This theory was developed during the course of 50 years in which Gesell performed countless observational studies while at the Yale Clinic of Child Development. The Maturational Theory breaks down behavioral norms for young children that show milestones of development in a predictable way. His belief was that infants and young children show mental development milestones similar to how they show physical development milestones.

The Gesell Developmental Schedules were also an important part of his work. The schedules were a series of metrics used to determine the development of young children and infants. The original scale does not meet today’s standards of clinical assessment, but was revised for modern use. The Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised Technical Report was put together from data gathered in 2008-2010 and is intended for educators.

When it came to parenting, Arnold Gesell advocated for a child-centric approach. What this means is that he believed parents should give the child direction and guidance, but not be overly strict with rules and their development. According to Gesell, a child’s development was pre-determined genetically, and pushing milestones did more harm than good. A good analogy of this is how a flower grows. We provide the location, dirt, and pot, also the basic needs and care. The flower will grow and blossom how it is supposed to if all of the basic needs are met. This is not to say that he did not believe in discipline.

Arnold Gesell was an early adapter of technology for use in his studies. His use of motion picture cameras and one-way screens was the first for his field of study. He invented the Gesell dome. The Gesell dome is a one-way mirror in which children underneath can be observed without interruption and distraction. In the 1940’s and 1950’s he was known as a leading authority on child development and parenting.

Another interesting part to Gesell’s work and child advocacy was his influence on adoption. He worked with important adoption organizations in his day and believed that there should be minimum standards for adoption agencies. Adoption record confidentiality was something of utmost importance to Gesell. He worked tirelessly to promote scientific methods of selection and matching in adoption. He also believed that agencies ran by trained personnel were preferable to baby farms and the black market.

While Gesell believed that a child’s growth was impacted by both heredity and environment, the lion’s share of his work focused on physiological development. This has led to some criticism over the years and the Maturation Theory has fallen out of favor due to the lack of study on environmental factors, such as a child’s learning. His work is often brought up during heated debates pertaining to nature versus nurture. Arnold Gesell’s studies influenced child development theory for decades and his work laid a foundation for concepts we see today. He has also been referred to as the father of child development theory.