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Evaluation of Human Development Theories

This essay is going to give a critical reflection of human development theories. It will compare and contrast human development theories, linking the theories to the events observed of a child aged three and a half years in a nursery setting, over six weeks. It will also evaluate the recording method used and what I have learnt relevant to the social work practice. For the purpose of maintaining confidentiality in accordance with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), (2012), Guidance on Conduct and Ethics for Students, the child has been named under the pseudonym of Eva.

Eva is a three and a half year old girl of black African origin and lives with her parents. She is the youngest in a family of three and has a sister and a brother. Both her parents work full time and she attends nursery full time. The nursery offers a wide range of activities and encourages free play.

Observation Log 1

Cognitive Development

I conducted six observations on Eva, over a period of six week in a nursery setting and one of the theories I was able to link to the observations, is the cognitive development theory. This theory is associated with the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and his work focused on understanding how children view the world. Piaget believed that from infancy, we have the basic mental structure on which all subsequent knowledge and learning are based and due to biological maturation and environmental experience, the mental processes will have a progressive reorganization. Piaget’s assumption was that children are active participates in the development of knowledge and they adapt to the environment through actively seeking to understand their environment. He suggested that cognitive development happens in four stages, 0 to 2 years being the sensori motor, 2 years to 7 years the preoperational, 7 to 12 years the concrete operations, and 12 years and above the formal operations. (Beckett and Taylor 2010)

According to Crawford and Walker (2008), Piaget assumed that in the preoperational stages, (the stage Eva is) children have not yet mastered the ability to apprehend, offer judgment, inference or think actions through. He believed that children in this stage are considered to be egocentric by showing difficulty in seeing things from a point of view other that their own. They also engage in monologues, in which they will be talking, but not interacting with each other. During my observation, this was really evident and I noticed it on several occasions on Eva and the other children during free play. (Appendix ..) They also focus their attention on one aspect of the situation and have difficulty seeing that a situation may have a number of dimensions. Piaget called this centration and this was also shown in Appendix ….. They also lack reversibility by failing to understand that working backwards can restore whatever existed before.

Piaget also believed that children build their understanding of the world through activities for example dramatic play. This was evident when the nursery class was rehearsing for the Christmas concert. She showed an understanding that a baby needs feeding and also talking to. At the preoperational stage they also learn skills like drawing, language and sort objects in groups. This was demonstrated in Appendix .. and …. . This showed that she understand the concept of shapes, objects and drawing skills.

However, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), also did a study on cognitive growth and did not see children as individual explorers of knowledge, but as learners from social interactions. He emphasised the role of language and the importance of relationships and interactions between children and adults. He believed that the members of the culture, for example teacher, parents or siblings, construct the child’s learning. While Piaget believed that children should not be presented with problems and materials beyond their developmental ability, Vygotsky believed that a knowledgeable adult can help them achieve the skills through what he termed as scaffolding. He referred this period of scaffolding as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). For example during my observation Eva was playing with wooden blocks and was supposed to fit them through holes. (Appendix …) The teacher helped her to fit in one of the blocks and later she managed to fit in the rest.

Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that children build their knowledge through experiences. However, Piaget believed this happened through exploration with hands on activities. In contrast, Vygotsky believed that learning was not limited by stage or maturation. He believed that children move forward in their cognitive development with the right social interaction and guided learning. He argued that they learn through interactions, social and cultural experiences and interactions with adults. Vygotsky saw the adult as vital to the process of scaffolding the child’s learning.

Piaget’s concept have been criticised of denying other aspects of thinking such as intuition and creativity and also not examining and explaining individual differences in children. Vygotsky’s theory draws attention to the role of social and culture interaction and identifies the principle of scaffolding in the children’s learning. Nevertheless, Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that the children actively participant in their intellectual development.

Observation Log 2

Play and Learning

As I was doing my observations, I noticed that Eva was engaging in play when I was observing her for other developmental theories. According to Szarkowicz (), this is because play can be used in many different ways by children and it is an authentic way for them to demonstrate their competence in a range of developmental areas. Szarkowicz () states that, children engage in play either from a social perspective or from a cognitive perspective. When interpreting how Eva engaged in play, I can use Parten’s (1932) social stages of play. Parten’s theory looked at the social aspects of play, particularly the way play develops from being an individual solitary activity into a cooperative social experience.

Parten (1932), categorised children’s play into six stages, unoccupied play, solitary play where a child plays alone and onlooker play (Appendix …) where the child watches others play and this is to about 2 years. The other stages that can be seen from the age of 4 are parallel play (Appendix …), where the child plays with similar toys next to another child or children, associative play where the child plays near others and share the same toys and cooperative play where the children who play together with the same toys (Appendix..). Bee and Boyd () states that, the ability to join groups of other children, and the desire to do so begins, at an early age and progresses through a developmental sequence. Parten discovered that children of different ages actually played together differently. They engage in different levels or categories of social play. However the stages of play are not in sequence and children may often engage in different stages of social play depending on factors such as the child’s familiarity with the situation, temperament, or playmates. This was evident in Eva’s play and what surprised me was that she actually played in all the stages.( Appendix …)

According to Piaget (1972) play promotes mental and social abilities and helps children learn how to express and manage their feelings. Piaget argued that for children to think things through they need to play and by doing so, play facilitates and transforms the children’s thought processes. He categorised play into sensory motor, symbolic and games with rules. He proposed that when in infancy up to about to 2 years, a child is in the sensory motor stage and uses motor skill and senses to explore objects and their environment. During the preoperational stage, children engage in imaginary games and fantasy role play which he called symbolic play. (Appendix …) And finally in the concrete operations stage, children are capable to play games following rules of games. Piaget saw play as assimilation of new materials into existing cognitive structures and in his analysis he saw play as relaxed practice time rather than time for learning and grasping in new information. (Casper and Theilheimer 2009)

I also looked at other theories and Smilansky (1968) proposed three stages of play based her work with Piaget’s but expanded to include functional play which takes place in the first two years. Smilansky (1968) identified four types of play thus, functional play, constructive play, dramatic play, and games with rules. However, his work emphasised the importance of considering the child’s cognitive development when exploring the child’s levels of play. (Casper and Theilheimer 2009)

According to Sheridan (), children discover the world through play and they use their senses and movements. Play is a way of constructing knowledge, developing intellectual abilities and building social skills. Piaget believed that a child could use play to mirror obnoxious experiences or experiences where he or she had no power. He believed that children often imitate and role play an adult who has power for example a teacher who is ferocious because they can imagine themselves in the position of power and this facilitates them to deal with being powerless. This is also common with children witnessing or involved in violent households.

Observation Log 2

Language Development

The next theory I considered in my observation is the language developmental theory and I looked at the theories Chomsky, Piaget and Vygotsky. I believe language is an important part in human development because it a major medium of social interaction. According to Beckett and Taylor (), the vocabulary of children between the ages of 3 to 6 expands from 2 word sentence to more complex sentences. They believe that as the children’s vocabulary increase, they learn the rules of grammar and they become able to use different forms of words. Whilst I was observing Eva, I noticed that most of her conversation and responses were two or three word sentences and it made me more interested on language development.

Chomsky (1957) believed that sentences are routinely created practically every time. He believed that we have internal rules that enable us to decide which sentences are grammatical correct and convey our intended meanings. Chomsky believed that children have innate abilities, a genetic program to learn language and once they begin to hear language around them, they automatically understand the structure of that language. He argued that this is because of the biological dispositions, brain development and cognitive readiness. His theory emphasises the need for language in the environment to stimulate children’s innate abilities. (Crain 2005)

According to Piaget’s theory, children are born with basic action schemas and during the sensory-motor period (birth to 2 years) they use these action schemas to assimilate information about the world. Piaget’s theory suggested that during the preoperational stage children’s language rapidly progress due to the development of their mental schemas, which allow them to accommodate new words and build simple sentences. (Appendix ….) Piaget’s theory describes children’s language as symbolic, allowing them to venture beyond what is termed as here and now. During this stage children engage in small talks about things as the past, the future, people, feelings and events. They begin to build sentences of three or more words and their grammar becomes complex. They start to use Where, What, Why, for example, “What is that?” (Appendix ….)

Piaget proposed that, during the sensory-motor period, children’s language is egocentric and they talk either for themselves or for amusement. During this period, their language often shows instances of what Piaget termed animism and egocentrism. Animism refers to children’s tendency to consider everything to be alive, including non-living objects. Since they see things entirely from their own perspective, their language suggests their egocentrism.

Vygotsky’s theory of language development suggests that children begin by realising that words are symbols for objects and they develop curiosity to what objects are called. It is then followed by the egocentric or private speech stage from 4 to 7 years, where they often talk aloud to themselves as they perform tasks or solve problems. Finally the private speech wanes and speech becomes more internalised.

Piaget and Chomsky both agreed that children are not moulded by the external environment but they create mental structures on their own accord. Chomsky proposed that children automatically create grammatical forms according to the genetic design and in contrast, Piaget proposed that cognitive structures emerge from the child’s own effort. Chomsky also believed that language is a highly specialised mental faculty that progresses independently and children learn entirely on their own. However, Piaget viewed language as more closely related to general cognitive development. Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that children are active learners and they contribute to their own development. They both believed that children build ways of understanding and knowledge of the world through their activities. However, Piaget believes it happens primarily through physical manipulation of objects around them and Vygotsky that it is socially mediated.

Language development deals with how a child develops his/her language skills during their growth period. Nativists (Chomsky) believe that language is innate and unique to humans. Cognitive theorists (Piaget) believe language is not innate but a product of cognitive development. Finally, social interactionists (Vygotsky) believe that language acquisition is a result of both biological and environmental factors.

Evaluation of the observation process

(how I managed the process and as an observer how may have affected the process)

Evaluation of recording method

Reflection (feelings, attitudes, beliefs and professional values, anti oppressive)

Ruch (2009) states that, reflective practice enables the practitioners to acknowledge the actual or potential emotional impact of the observation and be able to transfer the awareness to practice.

What I learnt

McKinnon (2009), states that child observation is a process which enable the worker to be responsive rather than intrusive through watching and listening in an alert and informed way that raises awareness and sharpens understanding. It involves learning how to monitor feelings and reactions and how they can provide information. The observation process provided me with an opportunity to focus on the vulnerability, resilience and the relative powerless of children in a nursery setting. It also provides me with knowledge and skills on how to conduct an observation and according to McKinnon (2009), well developed observational skills can act as a safeguard. It also provided me with an opportunity to discover and have a deeper understanding of how children communicate, play, engage with adults and most importantly about their development.


As a social worker student I need to have knowledge on human life course development in order to understand their use in practice as the practice requires me to take a holistic approach and understanding of an individual’s circumstances.

Social work practice involves interactions between people, which are influenced by each person’s life course and their experience and perceptions about their own life. As a social worker student I need to have and understanding of how people develop and place people’s life situations in the context of the expectations of normal life course development. This will enable me to appreciate that a person’s experience, their growth and life experiences have a direct impact on who they are and how they see their world. The social work profession is based on the supposition that people can be helped and supported to change and grow as a result of their experiences. Therefore, in order for me to be sensitive and appropriate in my communications with people and in the services I offer and provide, I need to appreciate and understand their life course and what makes them who they are. Understanding how people grow and develop is central to the role and task of a professional social worker. Crawford and Walker (2007)


As you examine different theories of development, you will find that some (such as Erikson and Piaget) are criticised for being too committed to identifying stages, ignoring the diversity which is found in psychosocial experience and behaviour -while others are criticised for failing to take account of the sequence in which changes occur, not being clear enough about which changes become possible at which stage, and which changes are ruled out until a certain level of maturity is reached.

According to Moffatt (1996) argued that some models of human development are cultural biased and they did not include some aspect for example person’s experience, race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

All of these theories have their own way of interpreting language development, and to some extent, they all seem to be highly convincing. However, out of the four theories, the social interactionist view appeals to me the most; so my theory of language development is definitely the social interactionist view. Unlike Piaget, Vygotski considered language to be key to development. Although Piaget acknowledged language with development with terms such as ‘egocentric speech’, he did not believe it predominant, saying it was due to the child’s inability to think from another perspective. Vygotski however, believed talking out loud gives the child a way to organize their thoughts and guide their actions.

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