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Arnold Gesell’s Maturational Perspective

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Arnold Gesell’s Maturational Perspective


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            The psychologist, Arnold Gesell (1880-1961), is one of the first psychologists to comprehensively associate the components of physical, social, and emotional achievements among children most especially ages five. Gesell has focuses in his theoretical approach on developmental norms derived from other developmental theoretical foundations (e.g. psychoanalysis – stages of development, Piaget’s theories of development, etc.). According to Piek (2005), Gesell’s theoretical propositions on development and maturation are founded using his experiences and studies in directing the Clinic of Child Development (p.

34). During his studies, Gesell has focused in the children’s process of achieving physical and psychological development. Maturational characteristics and developmental variations are carefully observed during the process of Gesell’s observations. According to Haywood and Getchell (2004), Gesell has centered his attention on developmental milestones in ten major areas, specifically (1) motor characteristics, (2) personal hygiene, (3) emotional expression, (4) fears and dreams, (5) self and sex, (6) interpersonal relations, (7) play and pastimes, (8) school life, (9) ethical sense, and (10) philosophic outlook (p.


            Gesell’s focus in these developmental milestones has resulted to his theoretical proposition of maturational perspective of child development, which connotes the idea of child development based on planned, naturalistic and predetermined patterns of life. As for the study, the main emphasis is on Arnold Gesell’s maturational theory, which tackles the issues based on (1) historical significance of Gesell’s maturational theory, (2) application of the theory, and (3) criticisms of the theoretical perspective.


Overview on Arnold Gesell’s Maturational Theory

The most notable achievement of Gesell is his proposition of the “normative” approach in studying children. Gesell has formulated his normative perspective pertaining on the maturational milestones of children, which implies a fixed and pre-plan of development. Researchers who have studied the development of young children from a maturational perspective most often describe similarities in the behaviors of typically developing children (Slentz and Krogh 2001 p.17). According to Piek (2005), the work of Gesell has been considered as one of the most influential theoretical concepts in the 21st century pediatric principles. Arnold Gesell has investigated the development of both movement and cognition, dividing them into the functional categories of (1) motor, (2) adaptive, (3) language and (4) personal-social behavior (p.34). The theory of Gesell explores the developmental changes the child’s body or behavior as a result of a normal physiologic development he termed as maturation. The aging process or so-called maturational perspective is his idea of child’s patterned development being dictated by the pre-planned natural maturational course.

According to Slentz and Krogh (2001), Gesell has observed thousands of young children, especially during his experience in directing the Clinic of Child Development at Yales in 1915, and documented the precise timing and sequence of milestones according to the functional categories of his analysis (p.17). Gesell’s perspective of maturation is evidently derived from the biological, physiological, and evolutionary fields of child development. Hence, Gesell proposes a theoretical view wherein biological patterned development, social influences and cognition are all intertwined.

According to Salkind (2004), Gesell believes that the sequence of development is determined by the biological and evolutionary history of the species; hence, development of the organisms is essentially under the control of biological systems and the process of maturation (p.16). As supported by Haywood and Getchell (2004), the maturational perspective describes the developmental modifications and shifts of functionalities in the maturational processes, specifically in terms of the four elements: (1) social components, (2) physical and biological characteristics, (3) adaptation and cultural flexibility, and (4) the standard cognitive development of human being (p.17).  Gesell has focused his attention in explaining the power of biological forces and the momentum of development. In a logical sense, Gesell’s maturation perspective supports the proposition that each child’s genetic separatism or uniqueness and significant multi-faceted biological makeup influence the developmental process regardless of potential external influences.

According to Dewey and Tupper (2004), the maturational perspective of Gesell incorporates the idea of development derived from inevitableness and surety, which implies a fixed pattern of maturation and development (p.11). According to the assumptions of the theory, the development of motor component is an integral and innate process facilitated by the biological or genetic time clock. Haywood and Getchell (2004) acknowledge the possibility of delaying or speeding up the developmental processes through various environmental or genetic factors; however, the developmental course is said to be absolutely fixed and non-modifiable in any case possible (p.17). Gesell provides the idea that both biological and evolutionary history of human development is brought by an invariable sequence and organized pattern.

According to Michel and Moore (1995), Gesell’s theory of maturation perspective defines human development as unitary process governed by biological and evolutionary processes (p.345). Behavioral and psychological components of development are also governed by the developmental sequence based on his observation among infants and children. Gesell has acknowledged these patterns of developments as requisites of survival (e.g. when an infant first learns how to suck the nipples their mother to obtain milk until they learn how to eat solid food). Order or patterned sequence of development manifest despite of cultural multi-diversities and the basic sequential form of motor development is pre-determined by endogenous factors (e.g. genetic makeup, biological compositions, physiological normalness, etc.). Michel and Moore (1995) have added that the environmental components can support, reflect or distort the behavioral form, which eventually modifies the phasing of development; however, environmental components cannot produce the actual developmental sequence (p.345).

According to Gordon, Browne and Cruz (2003), maturation is the process of physical and mental growth determined by heredity and maturational sequence that holds the growth pattern even upon conception (p.155). In fact, according to the cross-cultural study of Michel and Moore (1995), the order of motor development followed the similar sequence in children from different cultures, which somehow confirms the idea of Gesell’s proposed maturational sequence (p.345). Gesell interrelates both maturation and growth, while introducing the idea of growth quality as a nullified terminology since growth pattern is predetermined. Gordon, Browne and Cruz (2003) have mentioned that the theory of Gesell is more inclined in a qualitative sense linking the process off child growth, development and maturation with the aging process (p.155).

Historical Significance Maturational Perspective

Gesell and other contemporaries of his time (e.g. Piaget, Freud, etc.) have proposed that development follows an organized pattern influenced by the biological and evolutionary history of the species. According to Piek (2005), maturational perspective has dominated the field of motor development in the early half of the 20th century (p.34). In a historical sense, the conception of Gesell’s idea of maturation sequence has started in 1915 when he first opened his clinic – Clinic of Child Development. During his experience as a pediatric physician and psychologists, he managed to observe developmental milestones among his patients. During the span of his clinical exploration, he is able to encounter the aid of Stanley Hall in 1920. According to Salkind (2004), Gesell’s theory has been influenced by the Darwinian perspective of G. Stanley Hall as manifested by his idea of tenets recapitulation theory, which studies the individual development background (p.16).

Darwinian perspective and hereditary foundations of Gesell’s maturational theory is undeniable. According to Haywood and Getchell (2004), Gesell’s theory has utilized an illustration of identical twins to show his co-twin control strategy wherein developmental stages under sequential pattern can be directly observed (p.17). In the strategy, one twin receives a specific training under experimental treatment, while the other receives no special training as per control treatment. In the result, the control develops naturally based on the recapitulation despite of the absence of training. In the recapitulation theory, the proposition involves the belief that development of species is reflected in the development of the individual, which consequently imply a standard series of stages that recount the developmental sequence (Salkind, 2004 p.16).

The study of Gesell has been considered by the pediatric and psychological groups during the 1940s. Myrtle McGraw has teamed up with Gesell and further examined the process of development underlying the co-twin strategical development in 1943. According to Haywood and Getchell (2004), McGraw and Gesell have considered the effects of maturation of the central nervous system as manifested by the appearance of new skills (p.17). From then on, various acknowledgements on Gesell’s maturational perspective have aroused, and Gesell’s response is to publish his discoveries and ideas in writing.

One of the most influential writings of Gesell’s is his 1945 book together with another psychologist, Catherine Amatruda, entitled, The Embryology of Behavior, which describe the seven principles of behavioral development. In this book, Gesell introduces the endogenous control exemplified by principles of maturational pattern in sequential processes. Gesell and Amatruda argue that environment can influence the appearance of the developmental chances, but it cannot affect the actual patterns of maturation since it is derived in a hereditary fixed order. Meanwhile, other famous writings of Gesell that incorporate his idea of sequential maturation are The Preschool Child from the Standpoint of Public Hygiene and Education (1923 – gives emphasis on the psychoanalytic inclinations of Gesell’s theory), The Mental Growth of the Preschool Child (1925 – emphasizes the cognitive component in sequential development), and An Atlas of Infant Behavior (1934 – gives emphasis on developmental milestones and the stages of development). Gesell’s theoretical perspective of maturation has been used as supporting basis by other theoretical frameworks, such as the nature and nurture and theory of Gesell Dome.

During the late 1940s, Gesell’s peek of conceptual acknowledgement has been reached and the popularity of his concept has influenced various concepts on child development, developmental milestones and behavioral patterns. In 1948, the colleagues of Gesell have established an institute in New Haven, Connecticut, and named after Arnold Gesell and his first clinic, the Gesell Institute of Child Development. According to Haywood and Getchell (2004), the use of maturational perspective as a research tool in motor development has began to wane during the 1950s. The maturationists’ emphasis on the nervous system as the one system triggering behavioral advancement evolved to almost single-minded significance (p.18). Some of the most commonly cited periods influenced by Gesell’s maturational perspective involve (1) the normative descriptive period and (2) biomechanical descriptive period. During the entry of 1970s and 1980s, Gesell’s research on maturational sequences and developmental milestone has been utilized as significant resources of pediatric behavioral study.

Major Criticisms of Maturational Perspective: Behaviorist versus Maturationalist

Meanwhile, the work of Gesell and his normative literature have been criticized by behavioral psychologists claiming that Gesell have not actually considered the natural individual differences during child development. According to another theoretical perspective on child development, behaviorism, early childhood entails diverse differentiations due to the manifestations of diverse forms of behavior. Gesell’s focus on developmental norms has somehow connoted that a normative pattern or fixed standard form of growth that excludes the natural humanistic differentiation. According to Gordon, William and Cruz (2003), maturation determines the sequence of development based on a precise age, but should only be considered as an approximation based since sequential developmental stages largely depend on the rate of development unique to every person. Behaviorism differs from maturational perspective in terms of relying growth in the concept of environmental influence and the large contribution of internal and external behavior that actually dictate the pattern of growth. Behaviorism is another theory that has contributed various early studies of child development, which include learning theory (incorporating the influences of parents, social atmosphere and cultural environment with behavioral modification) and Erikson’s personality development or psychosocial theory (using behavioral input as standard influences for building up the child’s sets of behavior). Behaviorism and maturational theory differ most especially in its focal points: behaviorism theory’s focus on behavioral influence and Maturationalist emphasis with hereditary, instinctive and pre-determined development.

Meanwhile, growth, by natural principle (maturational perspective), is uneven and considered to bring forth unpredictability and individual growth variations (p.155). In the study of Rosengren, Salsbergh and Kamp (2003), the concepts of development and learning are discussed in different theoretical orientations, including maturational perspective of Gesell. A TASC-based approach has been presented as an alternative examination that focuses on (1) tasks, (2) adaptation and (3) selection of behaviors influenced by direct constraints. The experimental study observes how the respondents resolve the specified goals of under a local environment and similar constraints in order to appropriately prove the learning and developmental patterns. Unfortunately, the results of the study show diverse and multi-faceted nature among behavioral patterns and developmental tasks influenced by learning and strain in the environment.

Meanwhile, in the study of Burkham, LoGerfo and Ready (2007), Early Childhood Longitudinal Study is used in order to investigate the maturational patterns (1) among those repeating kindergartens, and (2) subsequent cognitive effects of the event. Evidences through the results of the study suggest that kindergarten repetition does not entirely provide additional cognitive benefits in literacy or mathematics performance. In fact, average population of kindergarten repeaters still perform below their peers in consideration of literacy skills both at the end of kindergarten and at the end of first grade (effect size [ES] = -0.20 and -0.24, respectively) (Burkham, LoGerfo and Ready 2007). The findings propose that differentiations are influenced by the children’s background and the school environment. Contrary to the theoretical principles of Gesell’s maturation and sequential development, child development is apparently influenced by the complexities of setting and background character of the child. Hereditary and gene-based growth patterns are not entirely applicable in some cases, such as the case of the respondents in the study. According to of Burkham, LoGerfo and Ready (2007), most children appear to receive little or no cognitive benefit from repeating kindergarten, which implies a certain variations of cognitive differentiations between those that pass kindergarten and those that repeats the curriculum.

However, as opposed from the two above studies, McCartney and Berry (2005) have arrived with evidence that hereditary fixations influencing task persistence and behavioral activities are actually brought by a series of developmental milestones. The behavioral orientation on task persistence somehow appears to influence the competence of controlled subjects, particularly children below the age of 5, in specific behavioral components: (1) self-regulation in carrying out tasks and (2) persistence in uplifting cognitive performance. In the study of task persistence, Deater-Deckard and colleagues have implicated possible links between the genetic nature of task persistence and the influence of environment in such pursuit. According to the findings of the study, task persistence has increased over time, whereas the contribution from the shared environment decreased during the transition from early to middle childhood (McCartney and Berry 2005). In response to the theory of Gesell, the findings of McCartney and Berry (2005) agree to the genetic nature of developmental tasks and the place of environmental influence in the phase of development. Evidently, the results of the study show more considerable influence of genetically obtained behavior brought by sequential development than environmental manipulation.

Personal Stand Point

            In response to maturational perspective, there are two conflicting ideas being introduced by the theoretical concepts, particularly (1) patterned growth and development observed among children regardless of cultural origin or background, and (2) the primary influence of genes in the process of growth and development. Despite of the major criticisms claiming (1) the absence of differentiations and establishment of uniqueness and (2) the environmental influences as primary modifier of developmental tasks, Gesell’s sequential maturational perspective can still be considered appropriate. In a logical sense, a patterned development entails fixed developmental outcome dictated by the inherent genetic make-up. The patterned development includes those requisite skills that are considered as the basic composition of developmental tasks, such as motion, feeding, etc. Meanwhile, the influence of genetic make-up provides a certain variation in the end outcome of development among every individual.


            In conclusion of the study, Gesell’s theory tackles the maturational perspective, which proposes a sequential development that follows an organized and genetically manipulated phases of developmental milestones. Maturational perspective employs the concept of biological and evolutionary development influenced by Darwinian concept of development. The theory utilizes four main components of development, namely (1) social, (2) physical and biological characteristics, (3) adaptation and flexibility, and (4) cognitive development. Meanwhile, major criticisms of the theory are founded within behaviorist context, which involves the (1) inconsideration of uniqueness and differentiation and (2) the influence of environment in child development.


Burkam, D. T., LoGerfo, L., & Ready, D. (2007, June). The Differential Effects of Repeating Kindergarten. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 12, 103 – 136 .

Dewey, D., & Tupper, D. E. (2004). Developmental motor disorders: A Neuropsychological Perspective. New York, U.S.A: Guilford Press.

Gordon, A., Williams, K., & Cruz, B. (2003). Beginnings & Beyond: Foundations in Early Childhood Education. New York, U.S.A: Thomson Delmar Learning.

Haywood, K., & Getchell, N. (2004). Life Span Motor Development. Chicago, U.S.A: Human Kinetics.

McCartney, K., & Barry, D. (2005, September). Gene–environment processes in task persistence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 407-408.

Michel, G. F., & Moore, C. L. (1995). Developmental Psychobiology: An Interdisciplinary Science. London, U.K: MIT Press.

Piek, J. P. (2005). Infant Motor Development: Normal & Abnormal Development. Chicago, U.S.A: Human Kinetics.

Rosengren, K. S., Savelsbergh, G. P., & De Kamp, J. (2004, January). Development and learning: a TASC-based perspective of the acquisition of perceptual-motor behaviors. Infant Behavior and Development, 26, 473-494 .

Salkind, N. J. (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Human Development. Chicago, U.S.A: SAGE Publishing.

Slentz, K. L., & Krogh, S. (2001). Early Childhood Development and Its Variations. London, U.K: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Cite this Arnold Gesell’s Maturational Perspective

Arnold Gesell’s Maturational Perspective. (2016, Jul 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/arnold-gesells-maturational-perspective/

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