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Why do people turn out the way they do?
Question motivates students and scholars at the Institute of Human Development and its Child Study Center

| 23 April 2003

 

kids

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Institute of Human Development’s preschool was located in a converted villa on Bancroft Way. The home’s garden was turned into a playground. In 1960, the school moved just south of campus.
Photo courtesy of Child Study Center

In 1928, 75 years ago, Berkeley child psychology professors Harold Jones and Nancy Bayley established the Institute of Child Welfare — an organized research unit that would study the factors that affect human development from the earliest stages of life.

Its creation was funded by a grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foun-dation. In keeping with the award’s guidelines, the institute included a nursery school, which both provided quality day-care for local children and gave scholars and students easy access to a young population for observation and research. Berkeley was one of only five such sites set up around the country.

“This kind of partnership was a very radical for its time, and is still pretty rare,” explains Philip Cowan, psychology professor and director of the Institute for Human Development (IHD). “There weren’t even a lot of pre-schools in the country during the late 1920s, let alone one tied to a research institute.”

Shortly after its inception, the Institute of Child Welfare (which was re-named the IHD in the late 1940s) conducted three groundbreaking studies that, since 1928, have followed a group of Berkeley infants and Oakland children, the surviving members of which are now in their 70s and 80s. It became one of the largest, broadest, and most well-known longitudinal studies ever done, says Cowan.

“It started with a very simple question: Do people stay the same as they grow up, or do their personalities and intelligence change with age?” he says. “That is, does a youthful troublemaker continue that pattern in adulthood? Does a high-achieving child stay that way throughout life?”

Using the massive amount of data collected over the last 75 years, says Cowan, researchers have found that people are more or less consistent over time. Certainly shifts can happen, usually due to life-altering events (such as the Depression or World War II) or genetic forces — and some change temporarily during early adulthood — but, he says, there is a core streak of predictability.

At the same time these studies were being launched, the institute opened its preschool, which occupied part of a turn-of-the-century villa on Bancroft Way (where portions of Boalt Hall now stand). The home’s garage was converted into a classroom and its garden became a playground. It primarily served the children of Berkeley faculty and staff.

The guiding philosophy behind the preschool was that a child’s environment could positively affect his or her development. So the goal was to create a space where “the children’s, rather than researchers’ or teachers’, purposes would strike the dominant note,” said Catherine Landreth, director of the school in its early years, quoted in historical documents about the center. She wanted a place “in which a young child can independently take care of his physical needs and independently embark on a variety of play activities, [which] fosters a sense of adequacy.”

By 1957 the preschool had outgrown its Bancroft Way site, so a new building — the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center — was constructed on Atherton St., southwest of campus. The structure was designed by Berkeley architecture professor Joseph Esherick, but Landreth gave him extensive input to ensure that the school’s layout would encourage the children’s curiosity and inquiry.

Based on their collaboration, the single-story, ranch-style center (which opened in 1960) features an outdoor play area that is accessible virtually all day long via sliding doors, and partially protected by an overhead canopy. Fantasy play is nurtured in two-level indoor playhouses, while tactile play is supported by several sand-and-water stations outside. Easels and art materials are accessible in both areas.

And while the children are busy exploring and learning, researchers and students can observe them (with parental consent) from an unobtrusive gallery — hidden by one-way screens — that runs the entire length of the school, both inside and out.

“The information gathered here helps us develop curricula and create an atmosphere that is most conducive to the emotional, social, and intellectual well-being of children,” says Cowan. “These findings are used not only by the teachers at the center, but by developmental psychologists and pre-school instructors around the world.”

Since 1993, the Child Study Center — which enrolls 48 students between the ages of three and four annually — has been run by the campus’s Early Childhood Education Program, which oversees eight other day-care and preschool programs on campus. However, it remains closely tied to the institute, with one of the center’s teachers serving as a liaison between the two groups.

“By working together,” says Cowan, “we can bring the latest in research and clinical work with children and families to those on the front lines of the most important task in the world — providing a solid educational foundation for young children.”