Theoretical Perspectives of Child Development

There are three theoretical perspectives of child development into which early childhood educators typically fall: Maturationsist, environmentalist/behaviorist, constructivist/interactionist. The summaries to follow will help delineate the role of each and how different theorists relate to them.

Maturationist’s View of Child Development

Maturationism is an early childhood educational philosophy asserting the child as a growing organism in which knowledge exists. Based on Arnold Gessell’s work, maturationists believe “genetic factors play a larger role in development than environmental ones” (Maturationist, 2005). The biological process of development is the maturing of predictable stages and programmed patterns of behavior. The child is expected to acquire knowledge “naturally and automatically” from external sources only as maturation creates a readiness for it (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory [NCREL], 2004).


The maturationist teacher functions primarily as an observer to determine signs of development and as a provider of an environment that places few demands on the child (Hand and Nourot, 1999). “The role of education is to passively support this growth rather than actively fill the child with information” and expectations (Maturationist, 2005). As such, maturationists believe in providing children with rote memorization tasks and additional time to mature rather than providing them guidance, problem solving techniques, and reinforcement.


John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky all wrote on the importance of placing developmentally appropriate demands on young children. Each advocated that education should be well planned and organized, based on the child’s interests, building on past experiences (Garhart Mooney, 2000). Curriculum should be meaningful and grow out of real home, work and other life situations, helping the child understand their world (Garhart Mooney, 2000).


Maria Montessori and Erik Erikson also believed that children learn from their environments and should be taught to care for their environment, keeping it clean, organized and orderly (Garhart Mooney, 2000). “The idea that freedom follows responsibility is an important concept in Montessori philosophy. Opportunities to ‘respond with ability’ and corresponding freedoms are given” (Schmidt & Schmidt, 2008b, p. 19). Thus, maturity is deepened with experience and knowledge; experience and knowledge that comes from meeting a set of meaningful expectations.


The maturationist philosophy initially appears to be consistent with that of traditional Seventh-day Adventists with one important exception: The idea that the adult is to place few demands on the child. Adventists believe it is through “little attentions often repeated” that help in the development of the child’s character (White, 1954/2002, CG, p. 37, ¶1; p. 193, ¶1). These “little attentions” span the entire development of the child: behavioral, sensorial, academic and spiritual. For instance, Adventists believe the young child should be brought up “learning important habits of useful labor,” working “quickly and thoroughly” to complete a given task (White, 1990, 7MR, p. 3, ¶1; p. 14, ¶1). Adventists believe young children require time to mature as they develop new skills; yet they also value the necessity of providing guidance, problem solving techniques, reinforcement and expectations.

Environmentalist/Behaviorist’s View of Child Development

Environmentalists, often known as behaviorists, believe knowledge exists outside the child and is acquired piece by piece as the child masters a sequence of skills and sub-skills (Hand and Nourot, 1999). Development is seen as progressive changes in the child’s observable behavior as shaped by the environment over time (Hand and Nourot, 1999; NCREL, 2004).


According to B. F. Skinner, the behaviorist teacher’s function is to plan, carry out, and evaluate instruction and to supply appropriate reinforcement for learning and behavior, producing the correct response from the child (NCREL, 2004; Hand and Nourot, 1999). Teacher-directed learning and activities requiring little relational interaction between the adult and child, such as rote activities and workbooks, are commonly used by environmentalists/behaviorists (NCREL, 2004).


In contrast, Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky advocated that the early childhood teacher should be helping the young child develop new skills. They observed that new skills should be acquired through educational practices that are child centered, active and interactive, safe and appropriate for each individual’s developmental level (Garhart Mooney, 2000).


In addition to the educational practices of Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, Montessori and Erikson both wrote that teacher initiated and directed experiences often interfere with a child’s learning (Garhart Mooney, 2000). Montessori and Erikson demonstrated how children learn best through repetitive sensorial experiences that increase their competence (Garhart Mooney, 2000). Rather than learning through external, teacher controlled reinforcements for successive approximations, sensorial materials are hands-on materials, designed to be self-correcting in order to enhance and further develop the child’s senses, concentration and ability to work independently (Schmidt & Schmidt, 2008b). Montessori taught that the child’s sensorial experiences created and retained memory with the teacher being a “link” between the child and the environment (Schmidt & Schmidt, 2008b, p. 21, ¶6).


As with the maturationsist theoretical model of children’s development, the environmentalist’s philosophy is in harmony with that of traditional Seventh-day Adventists with one exception: The concern centering on the child producing the correct response or behavior rather than character development. Adventists teach it is only through the development of correct character that consistent, favorable behavior can be ensured. Based on the writings of Mrs. White, Adventists believe that young children must be perseveringly guided in their behavior and choices; they must be taught what is right versus wrong and the why behind each (White, 1897, RH, ¶10; White, 1913/2002, Counsel to Parents, Teachers and Students [CT], p. 143, ¶1; White, 1954/2002, CG, p. 201, ¶3). 


Constructivists/Interactionist’s View of Child Development

In 1996, Fosnot defined constructivism as a theory describing “knowledge as temporary, developmental, non-objective, internally constructed, and socially and culturally mediated…” (as cited in Jones & Shelton, 2006, p. 2, ¶3). This definition expresses the fluid and dynamic facets of knowledge, requiring personal and active attainment by the learner (Jones & Shelton, 2006). In addition, Fosnot’s definition is a reminder of how the attainment of knowledge is influenced and determined by the environments to which the learner is exposed (Jones & Shelton, 2006).


Constructivists, or interactionists, view children as active participants in the learning process as they interact both with the environment and those around them (NCREL, 2004). More importantly, development progresses through several stages as a child is motivated to inquire and to extend understanding and skill through the activities in which they initiate and engage (Hand and Nourot, 1999; NCREL, 2004).


The role of the constructivist/interactionist teacher is seen as guiding individual inquiry and providing an environment conducive to interaction (Hand and Nourot, 1999). This requires much attention to be given to the environment, ensuring the adequate provision of developmentally appropriate materials for exploration and manipulation. As the children move from one activity center to another, they engage in conversations with the attending adults who work to provide meaningful experiences for the young learners (NCREL, 2004). Attentive adults who are able to communicate appropriately and meaningfully to young children are of great importance.


The majority of child development theorists are more closely aligned with the constructivist philosophy. Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky firmly believed that education must involve the social world of the child and the community, preparing them to live more fully and be socially responsible beings.


The same is true of Montessori. One of the most important life skills taught within a Montessori school is how to work and play with others in a peaceful and caring classroom community (Montessori Foundation, 2008). From toddlerhood, children are taught how each individual is responsible to other community members based on a developing social conscience, values, ethics and interpersonal skills (Montessori Foundation, 2008).


As would be expected, traditional Seventh-day Adventist early childhood professionals find the constructivist philosophy most compelling. Constructivism seems to bring together the maturationist’s belief that maturity happens naturally and predictably and the environmentalist’s belief that skill mastery occurs in stages while at the same time, incorporating the individualism of each child and corporate needs of the community in which the child lives.

Garhart Mooney, C. (2000). Theories of Childhood. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Hand, Ada and Nourot, Patricia. (1999). First class, a guide for early primary education, preschool-kindergarten-first grade.  Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.
Jones, M. & Shelton, M. (2006).Developing your portfolio: Enhancing your learning and showing your stuff: A guide for the early childhood student or professional. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
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Schmidt, M. S. and Schmidt, D. C. (2008b). Montessori Vocabulary Made Clear, In Special issue, Tomorrow’s Child: 18-24.
Montessori Foundation, The. (2008). Lessons in grace, courtesy and community service, In Special issue, Tomorrow’s Child: 38-39.
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (2004) Theories of child development and learning. Retrieved September 29, 2006 from: 
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