A New Synthesis
Indiana University BloomingtonThe study of the acquisition of motor skills, long moribundin developmental psychology, has seen a renaissance inthe last decade. Inspired by contemporary work in move-ment science, perceptual psychology, neuroscience, anddynamic systems theory, multidisciplinary approaches areaffording new insights into the processes by which infantsand children learn to control their bodies. In particular,the new synthesis emphasizes the multicausal,
con-textual, and self-organizing nature of developmentalchange, the unity of perception, action, and cognition, andthe role of exploration and selection in the emergence ofnew
Studies are concerned less with
childrenperform and more with how the components cooperate toproduce stability or engender change. Such process ap-proaches make moot the traditional nature-nurturedebates.
f one asks parents about their babies, one will almostsurely hear about the child's motor milestones. "Mel-anie just learned to roll over." "Jason is finally sittingup alone.'
"I have to babyproof the house because Caitlinjust started to crawl."It is no wonder that proud parents report on theseevents. New motor skills are the most dramatic and ob-servable changes in an infant's first year. These stagelikeprogressions transform babies from being unable even tolift their heads to being able to grab things oft"supermarketshelves, chase the dog, and become active participants infamily social life.It is also no wonder that motor skill developmentwas Ihe first topic in the scientific study of infancy. Longbefore developmental psychologists became interested inthe mental lives of infants, there was a rich tradition ofcareful descriptive and quasi-experimental study of howthe bodies of infants grow and change. Pioneer develop-mental scientists such as Mary Shirley, Arnold Gcsell,and Myrtle McGraw spent the 1920s through 1940s con-ducting observations of how infants gain control of theirmovements. To modern developmentalists, the incredibledetail of their observations and the resulting behavioralcategory distinctions are both amazing and somewhat ex-cessive. Gesell, for instance, described age norms for 58stages of pellet behavior, 53 stages of rattle behavior, andso on for 40 different behavioral series (Gesell & Thomp-son, 1938).But Gcsell (Gesell & Thompson, 1938) and McGraw(1943) were more than just observers and describers. Theywere also important theorists, interested in why infantsuniversally pass through a series of motor milestones.Both of these early workers concluded that the regularitiesthey saw as motor skills emerged reflected regularities inbrain maturation, a genetically driven process commonto all infants. Gesell was especially clear in assigning pri-macy to autonomous changes in the nervous system andonly a secondary and supporting role to infants' experi-ence. Some researchers claimed that this maturationalurge was so strong that even restricting infant movementson cradleboards, a practice of the Hopi people of thesouthwest, did not deflect this timetable (Dennis & Den-
1940).In some ways, these pioneers did their jobs too well.Their descriptions of motor milestones and stages wereincorporated into all the textbooks. Their age norms be-came the bases of widely used developmental tests, andtheir maturational explanation was accepted as gospeland is still believed widely today. (The Hopi study, forinstance, is frequently quoted in textbooks, despite manysubsequent examples of experiential effects on infantmotor development.) It seemed as though researchersknew everything they needed to know about motor de-velopment: It provided the universal, biological groundingfor the more psychologically interesting aspects of earlydevelopment—cognition, language, and social behavior.Indeed, by the 1960s, the motor field was moribund asdevelopmentalists moved toward Piaget, behavior modi-fication, and ethological theories of social attachment.
Frances Degen Horowitz served as action editor for this article.This research was supported by a gram from the National Institutesof Health and a Research Scientist Award from the National Instituteof Mental Health.Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to F.s-ther Thelen. Department of Psychology, Indiana University; Bloomington,IN 47405.
February 1995 • American Psychologist
Copyright 1995 hy the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-fl6(>X/9.V$2 00
50. No. 2, 79-95