Developmental psychology is a scientific approach which aims to explain how children and adults change over time.
A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus upon development during childhood, as this is the period during an individual's lifespan when the most change occurs.
Developmental psychologists study a wide range of theoretical areas, such as biological, social, emotion, and cognitive processes. Empirical research in this area tends to be dominated by psychologists from western cultures such as North American and Europe, although during the 1980s Japanese researchers began making a valid contribution to the field.
The three goals of developmental psychology are to describe, explain, and to optimize development (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980).
To describe development it is necessary to focus both on typical patterns of change (normative development) and on individual variations in patterns of change (i.e. idiographic development).
Normative development is typically viewed as a continual and cumulative process. However, it should be noted that people can change if important aspects of one's life change. This capacity for change is called plasticity. For example, Rutter (1981) discovered than somber babies living in understaffed orphanages often become cheerful and affectionate when placed in socially stimulating adoptive homes.
When trying to explain development, it is important to consider the relative contribution of both nature and nurture. Nature refers to the process of biological maturation inheritance and maturation. Nurture refers to the impact of the environment, which involves the process of learning through experiences.
One of the reasons why the development of human beings is so similar is because our common specifies heredity (DNA) guides all of us through many of the same developmental changes at about the same points in our lives.
Developmental psychology as a discipline did not exist until after the industrial revolution when the need for an educated workforce led to the social construction of childhood as a distinct stage in a person's life. The notion of childhood originates in the western world and this is why the early research derives from this location. Initially developmental psychologists were interested in studying the mind of the child so that education and learning could be more effective.
Developmental changes during adulthood is an even more recent area of study. This is mainly due to advances in medical science enabling people to live to an old age.
Charles Darwin is credited with conducting the first systematic study of developmental psychology. In 1877 he published a short paper detailing the development of innate forms of communication based on scientific observations of his infant son, Doddy.
However, the emergence of developmental psychology as a specific discipline can be traced back to 1882 when Wilhelm Preyer (a German physiologist) published a book entitled The Mind of the Child. In the book Preyer describes the development of his own daughter from birth to two and a half years. Importantly, Preyer used rigorous scientific procedure throughout studying the many abilities of his daughter.
In 1888 Preyer's publication was translated into English, by which time developmental psychology as a discipline was fully established with a further 47 empirical studies from Europe, North America and Britain also published to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge in the field.
During the 1900s three key figures have dominated the field with their extensive theories of human development, namely Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and John Bowlby (1907-1990). Indeed much of the current research continues to be influenced by these three theorists.
Piaget believed that children think differently than adults and stated they go through 4 universal stages of cognitive development. Development is therefore biologically based and changes as the child matures.