Why It Matters: Lifespan Development

Why study lifespan development?

Three generations of women in a family: young adult, middle-aged mother, and older grandmother.

Welcome to the study of lifespan development! This is the scientific study of how and why people change or remain the same over time.

Think about how you were five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. In what ways have you changed? In what ways have you remained the same? You have probably changed physically; perhaps you’ve grown taller and become heavier. But you may have also experienced changes in the way you think and solve problems. Cognitive change is noticeable when we compare how 6-year olds, 16-year olds, and 46-year olds think and reason, for example. Their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world are probably quite different. Consider friendship—a 6 year old may think that a friend is someone with whom they can play and have fun. A 16-year old may seek friends who can help them gain status or popularity. And the 46-year old may have acquaintances, but rely more on family members to do things with and confide in. The way that a person experiences friendship differs as well—psychosocial change refers to changes in emotional experience, social roles, and relationships that occur across the lifespan. For example, psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that we struggle with issues of trust, independence, and intimacy at various points in our lives (we will explore this thoroughly throughout the course.)

This is a very interesting and meaningful course because it is about each of us and those with whom we live and work. One of the best ways to gain perspective on our own lives is to compare our experiences with those of others. In this course, we will strive to learn about each phase of human development and the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes, all the while making cross-cultural and historical comparisons and connections to the world around us.

In addition, we will take a lifespan developmental approach to learning about human development. That means that we won’t just learn about one particular age period by itself; we will learn about each age period, recognizing how it is related to both previous developments and later developments. For instance, it helps us to understand what’s happening with the 16-year old by knowing about development in the infant, toddler, early childhood, and middle childhood years. In turn, learning about all of that development and development during adolescence and early adulthood will help us to more fully understand the person at age 46 (and so on, throughout midlife and later adulthood).

Development does not stop at a certain age; development is a lifelong process. We may find individual and group differences in patterns of development, so examining the influences of gender, cohort/generation, race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, education level, and time in history is also important. With the lifespan developmental perspective, we will gain a more comprehensive view of the individual within the context of their own developmental journey and within social, cultural, and historical contexts. In this way, this course covers and crosses multiple disciplines, such as psychology, biology, sociology, anthropology, education, nutrition, economics, and healthcare.

Think It Over

Wherever you are in your own lifespan developmental journey, imagine yourself as an elderly person about to turn 100 years old (becoming a “centenarian”). If researchers want to understand you and your development, would they get the full picture if they just took a snapshot (so to speak) of you at that point in time? What else would you want them to know about you, your development, and experiences to really understand you?

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