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Theories of Human Development Essay


Human development is a very complex process and no single theory can be sufficient enough to explain these processes. This paper focuses on various theories that attempt to explain the development processes and factors that influence them. The study explores different theories of motor development, their pros and cons.

The paper also examines theories of cognitive development focusing on Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of development. The two cognitive theories are compared and contrasted citing some of their impact on the provision and practice used in working with children in the early years. These theories demonstrate that human development is a gradual but progressive process that occurs in stages.


Human development varied and extremely complex process. Therefore, no single theory can manage to explain human development exhaustively as a result of this complexity. Each theory tries to explain a limited range of development and this is the reason why particular areas of development often have cutthroat theoretical views, each attempting to explain the same facet of development (Barnes 1995).

Theories of human development are an array of ideas that are based on scientific proofs and efforts to explain and predict individual behaviours and development. From this definition it is very clear that theories attempts to provide vivid explanation from a messy mass of information (Neaum 2010).

Theories of development are categorized into minor and major theories. Minor theories of development deals with specific area of development; on the other hand major theories are the category that attempts to explain wider area of development. Some of the major theories of development include motor development, Cognitive development, Social cognitive development, evolution and ethology, psychoanalytic theories and humanistic theory (Neaum 2010).

Theory of Motor Development

One of the major milestones in the development of infants is the achievement of various motor developments. The development of motor skills has a major impact on other facets of development. The ability of a child to act on the effects of his/her surrounding has significant implications on other aspects of development, and each and every accomplishment enhances the child’s level of independence. (Cohen 2002).

At birth a child has several well developed motor skills, which comprises of staring, suckling, grasping, breathing, crying-necessary for the infant’s survival. Nevertheless, the common impression of a new born baby is one of uncoordinated lack of ability and overall weakness. Movement of their body reveals weakness in the muscles and deficiency in coordination, and takes a number of weeks before the baby can lift their head in an appropriate posture.

The infant’s muscles at this time are not able to function well therefore the infant is not able to perform basic activities. By the end of infancy, about a year and a half, the toddler can perform all the basic activities through complex coordinated movements (Bremmer & Slater 2003; Cohen 2002).

A child develops various motor skills progressively with time. These skills are attained by a child within a considerable age bracket for example some children start moving with their hands by 5 months while others as late as 12 months. These features of development are well elaborated in the two theories of motor development: maturational theories and dynamic system theory (Bremmer & Slater 2003).

The pioneer of maturational theories is a psychologist by the name Arnold Gesell who studied motor activity of infants up to the age of nine (Thomas 2000). Gesell concluded that motor development takes place in two directions. The first direction is known as the cephalocaudal trend and begins from the upper part of the body to the lower parts.

He stated that movement starts from the head, to the arms and trunk, then finally to the legs. The subsequent direction is the proximodistal motor trend. This begins from the centre of the body outwards to the peripheral parts. In other words head, trunk and the pelvic girdle gain impulses before the limbs and their joints.

The above two direction of motor development, fronted Gesell to the opinion that maturation solely shapes the motor development. In other words development is directed by a maturational schedule specifically connected to the central nervous system and to the development of the muscles (Bremmer & Slater 2003: Thomas 2000).

Gesell’s hypothesis was first disapproved by Myrtle McGraw in 1945.McGraw conducted a research on identity twins and established that training accelerated motor development. Besides McGraw’s results there are other studies which suggest that a pure maturation theory does not hold water.

First, the fact that the development of motor skills exhibit gradual but progressive behaviour does not necessarily mean it is a genetic characteristic. This can be proven by professional skills which are acquired gradually from simple practice to a professional level, but there is no evidence to suggest any links to genetics. Maturational theory does not elaborate why disparity exists among individuals in attaining motor abilities (Thomas 2000).

The shortcomings of the maturational theories led to the development of dynamic systems theory. The dynamic system theory holds the opinion that infants develop skills in diverse ways. Dynamic system theory ties motor development to a vibrant and advanced interaction of three key factors- growth of the nervous system, body abilities, and environmental constraints and sustainability.

In spite of the criticism of the maturational theories, experts have demonstrated that motor skills are acquired both at early infancy age and throughout life. In addition, child’s participation plays an important role in the development of motor skills (Bremmer & Slater 2003).

Piaget’s Theory of Development

According to Piaget, children shape their own development. Children’s’ behaviour and development are inspired mostly by internal factors than external factors (Cohen 2002). Piaget stated that children learn to adjust to their surrounding and because of the cognitive adaptations they gain the capacity to understand their environment.

Adaptation is common to all living things and children are not left out. Children continually build more advanced understandings of their environment (Broadhead 2010). Piaget’s theory describes children as intrinsically active, constantly interacting with the surrounding, in such a style as to mould their own development. Since children are viewed as the most vibrant agents in developing their own world, Piaget’s theory is usually known as constructivism theory (Broadhead 2010).

Piaget asserts that for a child to acclimatize to a particular surrounding, two important processes are necessary; assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation entails treating everything around as if they are familiar. For instance infants always put everything they are given in their mouth since the only activity the acquitted to is suckling. They also treat everybody they meet in the same manner (White 2002).

Accommodation on the other hand involves altering or changing of behaviour and thoughts to adjust to a new environment/situation. Similar situation applies when a child meets new people; she has to adjust her way of thinking to understand the new person. Accommodation and assimilation takes place at the infancy stage and the instances above shows how accommodation and assimilation can take place simultaneously (Saxton 2010).

The process of assimilation and accommodation remains intact throughout an individuals’ life and helps them to counter new challenges/ experiences they encounter in their life (Long 2000). These dual processes are also known as functional invariants because they remain constant throughout an individual’s life time. However, cognitive structures changes to enable the infant acclimatise to the new challenges a head. (Miller 1993).

Piaget categorized four stages of human development, each with distinctive characteristics. These stages are sensorimotor stage, Pre-operation stage, Concrete Operations stage, and the Formal Operations stage (Bremmer & Slater 2003). Sensorimotor stage occurs from delivery to about 2 years.

It is the most remarkable and dramatic stage of development. A child is transformed from a helpless new born baby to the thinking and knowing baby (cognitive individual). These changes occur due to infant’s actions on objects and people in its surrounding. As this stage approaches its end, a child now is capable of reasoning through thoughts as well as action (Bremmer & Slater 2003).

Pre-operational stage takes over from the sensorimotor period up to seven years. A child at this stage is capable of solving practical problems by use of tools intelligently and by support of the adult members.

The child is also capable of communicating and representing information and thoughts through symbols. These capabilities develop progressively but there are some outstanding constraints to a child’s thinking at this stage. Children at this stage are egocentric and have illogical way of thinking (Thomas 2000). Concrete operational stage occurs between seven to eleven years.

One of the main characteristic of this stage is centration. A child tends to focus more on one facet of a situation leaving out others. Last but not the least is the operational stage which occurs at eleven years. At this stage a child is capable of solving problems related to the physical world, but the only constraint here is to do with the sphere of potential. When a child gets to final stage of cognitive development these restrictions are eliminated (Bremmer & Slater 2003).

Vygotsky’s theory

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky lived in the same era as Piaget. He was the first psychologist to acknowledge the importance of adults in children’s development (Daniels 1998). According to Vygotsky, the development of a child’s intellectual capabilities is shaped by a didactic/informative relationship with knowledgeable individuals (Thomas 2000).

One of the most intriguing aspects of Vygotsky’s work is the claim that higher mental capabilities are first met and used proficiently in social interactions, and only later on being assimilated and processed as a person thought processes. For example, children initially use language at a competently during social interactions; later on they internalize and rearrange it. (Daniels 1998).

Therefore, the main premise in Vygotsky’s theories is that social interaction plays a major part in the cognitive development (Johnston & Nahmad-Williams 2009). Vygotsky believed there was a gap between children’s knowledge and what the children could acquire from the surrounding. At every stage of human development the child possesses a specific threshold of information, a transitional optimum. After the transitional optimum is the zone of proximal development.

This zone contains problems and information that are very difficult for a child to understand or solve. This zone, can nevertheless, be examined and comprehended with the help of a knowledgeable peer or adult. The adults can direct a child since they have more grasp of the complex knowledge or way of thinking (Collins & Cook 2001).

Comparing and contrasting the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky

All the above theories of development concurred that a child’s cognitive development occurred in stages (Thomas 2000). However, these stages were told apart by different styles of thinking. Piaget was the first to classify child reasoning and thinking at various stages of life. Piaget believed that children progressed through four characteristic stages explained above. He also speculated on adaptation, and development (Barnes 1995).

The adaptation theory also referred to as the constructivism theory entails three basic processes which play a major role in a child’s cognitive development. These processes are adaptation, accommodation, and symmetrical balance. Assimilation (adaptaion) entails the incorporation of fresh ideas into the already existing cognitive structure.

Accommodation on the other hand entails adjustment made to the mental structures to accommodate the incorporated ideas. Lastly, equilibrium entails finding the balance between self and the surrounding, between accommodation and assimilation. When a child experiences a novel idea, a state of imbalance arises until she is able to assimilate and accommodate the idea.

Assimilation and accommodation enables a child to form a cognitive structure also known as schema, and with each stage of development comes new ways of organizing knowledge with the attainment of new cognitive structure. Cognitive structures/ schemas help the child in understanding the world around. A child learns by assimilating new ideas or by integrating the already existing ones to generate bigger ideas (Saxton 2010; Thomas 2000).

In contrast to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky mostly associated with the social constructivist theory made the following conclusions: Culture -which is a superior mental efficacy of an individual came as a result of social processes. Vygotsky also claimed that language- regarded as a human social and psychosomatic process is natured by cultural tools. Last but not the least, introduced a concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which states that a child’s potential is restricted to a definite time limit (Thomas 2000).

Vygotsky believed that adults and children’s’ peers had the responsibility of imparting great knowledge and experience to the younger ones (Daniels 1998). This theory supports the discovery model of learning and thus recognise a teachers as the most important person in nurturing a child’ intellectual abilities.

According to Vygotsky, a child learns cultural elements and tools through socialization. These comprised of languages, set of laws, art, music among others. From Vygotsky’s point of view language is a pattern of figurative representation, which has been made ideal over generations and generations and enables a child to understand the surrounding. Language formed the main difference between the basic thinkers and the advanced thinkers (Neaum 2010; Slater & Bremner 2003; Thomas 2000).

According to Vygotsky’s theory, Zone of Proximal Development had to do with a child’s present and potential capabilities to carry out something. He classified the task of solving a problem as those that can be solved without help, those that requires help and those that can not be performed even with help. He believed the notion of Zone of Proximal Development suggested an improved shift in the direction of learning and enhanced understanding of the educational process (White 2002; Thomas 2000).

The idea of Zone of Proximal Development paved way for other new ideas such as scaffolding. Scaffolding encompasses all forms of aid that a child receives to improve his/her intellectual development. Scaffolding is synonymous to the scaffolding in the building and construction and is only used temporarily.

In other words, a child can be taught and helped in doing something and thereafter left alone to perform the task on his/her own. Vygotsky believed that the background of a child and the account of the child’s culture needed to be understood since it supersedes the cognitive structuring process described by Piaget’s theory (Long 2000; Thomas 2000).

Piaget believed that the order in which children experienced the various stages of development was universal, but recognized that the tempo at which each child went through these stages was flexible and relied upon other factors. These factors included maturity, surrounding, influence from the society among other factors.

Since different skills are required at each stage of development, Piaget believed that children should not be coerced into learning or gaining knowledge until the child was prepared cognitively. “On the other hand, Vygotsky believed that instruction came prior to development and that instruction guides the learner into the Zone of Proximal Development” (Long 2000; Thomas 2000; Cohen 2002).

To be noted is that Piaget and Vygotsky had a lot of divergent outlooks which incorporated Piaget’s proposal that changes in cognitive comes before the linguistic advancement, contrary to Vygotsky who believed that language provides a child with more liberty of thinking and results to additional cognitive growth (Cohen 2002).

Piaget had more faith in the development of thinking and that language was transferred from an individual to the society. Vygotsky on the other hand believed that individuals acquired language from the society (Thomas 2000).

According to Vygotsky, language moved from the societal domain to an individual level. Vygotsky believed that children begins by expressing their own discourse and then transform to the language of the society. This became internalized as the child grew to adulthood.

In contrast, Piaget asserted that egocentric speech was basically a complementary tool to a child’s actions and thus subsided as the child grew older. Even though the both disagreed on the purpose of egocentric speech, they both concurred on its significance to cognitive development (Neaum 2010).

Piaget and Vyygotsky believed the rapport between a person and the society as very important. However, Vygotsky believed that adults and peers were the one who had the greatest responsibility of imparting their great knowledge to the young generation.

Vygotsky never believed that a child could grow and develop individually with external environmental factors playing a major role in his/her cognitive development. He also believed that a child was not capable of developing without learning from other people within his or her surrounding (Cohen 2002)

Piaget upheld the opinion that children were naturally inquisitive about their individual abilities and their surrounding and that they improved their knowledge as a result of their biologically controlled cognitive changes. Piaget also believed that children were only capable of learning in each and every stage at a time and ignored the role played by a child’s activities on his/her thinking processes.

In contrary, Vygotsky stages of development were smooth and steady processes. He believed that child’s understanding was a matter of social interaction. For Vygotsky, culture and social facets played a major role in his theories than Piaget’s theories (Thomas 2000; Broadhead 2010).


Theories of human development are an array of ideas that are based on scientific proofs and efforts to explain and predict individual behaviours and development. Human development being a complex process has been explained by numerous theories; the most dominant theories of human development being the cognitive theories of Piaget and Vigotsky.

Vygotsky believed that an individual’s intellectual development continues infinitely, unlike Piaget who believed it ends after 15 years. There are certain factors that can interrupt constructivism theory supported by both Piaget and Vygotsky and these include brain disorders, autism and other special cases that can interrupt the stages of development.

All though Vygotsky and Piaget had certain differences, they contribute a lot to the theories of development. They both acknowledged the role played by the society and knowledgeable individuals in child’s development. The theory of motor development concurs with the other two theories in that human development takes place gradually and in stages.

Dynamic system theory of motor development acknowledges the influence of the environment besides the physiological factors in a child’s development. This is in line with both Piaget and Vygotsky. However, the maturational theories of motor development have numerous shortcomings. These include failure to recognize the role played by external factors in child development, individual difference in attaining motor skills among others.


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