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Arnold Gesell (1880-1961)

Prior to the early twentieth century, scientific observations of children were not common. Arnold Gesell was one of the first psychologists to systematically describe children's physical, social, and emotional achievements, particularly in the first five years of life. In fact, the developmental norms established by Ge-sell and his colleagues are still used by pediatricians and psychologists today.

Gesell was born and raised in Alma, Wisconsin, and received a doctorate in psychology in 1906 from Clark University. In 1911 he began a faculty position in education at Yale University. While fulfilling the requirements of his teaching and research position, he also worked toward a doctorate in medicine, which he earned in 1915. While at Yale, Gesell established and directed the Clinic of Child Development, where children's achievements in terms of physical and psychological development were observed and measured. Gesell's observations of children allowed him to describe developmental milestones in ten major areas: motor characteristics, personal hygiene, emotional Arnold Gesell was one of the first psychologists to systematically describe children's achievements in terms of physical and psychological development. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann) expression, fears and dreams, self and sex, interpersonal relations, play and pastimes, school life, ethical sense, and philosophic outlook. His training in physiology and his focus on developmental milestones led Gesell to be a strong proponent of the "maturational" perspective of child development. That is, he believed that child development occurs according to a predetermined, naturally unfolding plan of growth.

Gesell's most notable achievement was his contribution to the "normative" approach to studying children. In this approach, psychologists observed large numbers of children of various ages and determined the typical age, or "norms," for which most children achieved various developmental milestones.

When Gesell retired from Yale in 1948, his colleagues established a private institution in his name in New Haven, Connecticut, called the Gesell Institute of Child Development. During the 1970s and 1980s Gesell's research prompted many books and articles to be published by researchers associated with the institute. These writings became popular with parents and teachers because they described the typical behaviors to be expected of children at each age; however, Gesell's writings have been criticized by other psychologists because he did not readily acknowledge that there are individual differences in child development, and his focus on developmental norms implied that what is typical for each age is also what is desirable. Nevertheless, his practice of carefully observing, measuring, and describing child development created a foundation for subsequent research that described both average developmental trends and individual differences in development.


Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications, 4th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Thelen, Esther, and Karen Adolph. "Arnold Gesell: The Paradox of Nature and Nurture." In Ross Parke, Peter Ornstein, John Rieser, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler eds., A Century of Developmental Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994.

Thomas, R. Murray. Comparing Theories of Child Development, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Publications by Gesell

Gesell, Arnold, Francis Ilg, Louis Bates Ames, and Glenna Bullis. The Child from Five to Ten. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Sherry L. Beaumont

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 4