Research in Child Development Then and Now

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Research in Child Development Then and Now


Winter, Metta, Human Ecology


Observational research in the field of human development had its beginnings early in the history of the college when the nursery school program begin. The nursery school offered a living laboratory for faculty and students studying child behavior psychology, and guidance. Those pioneering efforts in research and education continue today through the work of faculty members like Professor Steven Robertson, who closely observes infants to learn more about cognitive development.

The Human Textbook

FOOD. CLOTHING. SHELTER. In the early 1900s, these three human essentials shaped the home economics curriculum at Cornell, where students could enroll in courses in food and nutrition, textiles and apparel, home management. and household art, among others. As home economics grew from a department to a school to a college, the curriculum grew to include more contemporary human needs, and courses on the family and human relationships were developed.

In 1925 the Department of Family Life was organized, and that same year the college received a grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial. The grant allowed the college to broaden its focus further, this time to include child development and guidance and parent education. With funding from the grant, the college established a nursery school and developed courses in child training and guidance. Initially, preschool children between the ages of two and one-half to four and one-half were enrolled.

Home economics students took child guidance as a required course, and both staff and students studied the children at the school and in their homes. They observed the children's daily routines and coordinated those observations with study in child hygiene, nutrition, psychology, and behavior. One graduate-level course had students observe, record, classify, and analyze nearly 1,000 single events in a child's daily life.

Using record sheets and summary sheets to document their observations, the staff and students developed guides to interpret the data collected and to educate parents about child behavior and guidance. Through their observations, the students learned about the factors that influence child behavior, how children develop, and how their development is influenced in the family context.

The nursery school program became a living laboratory for students and faculty, and the children in the program were the human textbook" for the courses taught:

What these children do, how they behave differently at home and at school, how they develop, what they eat and how much they sleep, why they select this toy or that and how long they play with it, what sort of clothes they wear, how much sunshine they get, what their parents do with them at home--all this and much more are the ever-changing pages for class discussion. (From the seventh annual report of the College of Home Economics, 1931)

The program continues today as the Early Childhood Center at Cornell, and the objectives have changed little--to teach students to discover through observation the factors that influence child development and behavior, to demonstrate the highest quality early childhood education and care, to offer parent education and support, and to provide an environment for research.

Let's face it, studying infants is a real pain in the neck," says Steven Robertson, referring to his research on infant cognitive development. "They're either crying or falling asleep or spitting up, so it's tough to design experiments that allow us to figure out what's going on inside their heads."

For this very reason, the trend over the last 25 years among cognitive scientists studying early infant development has been to separate the mind from the body. They've tried to be clever, Robertson says, about sidestepping the physicality of babies to get to the "pure mind."

From his point of view, the notion of the disembodied mind just doesn't wash. …

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