In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Childhood Studies

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Overviews
  • Early Educational Theory
  • Early Child Study 1877–1889
  • Child Study 1890s
  • G. Stanley Hall and His Legacy
  • Child Study 1900–1920
  • The Chicago School of Sociology and 1930s
  • Scholars on the 19th to 20th-Century Shift in Childhood

American Literature Childhood Studies
Holly Blackford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0161


The term “childhood studies” refers to the growing field of academic study that places the child and childhood at the center of inquiry. Modeled on gender studies and ethnic studies, childhood studies embodies a multidisciplinary approach to studying childhood in global, institutional, historical, and cultural contexts. However, like many fields, the study of childhood has a longer history than typically acknowledged. What was called “child study” emerged in the late Victorian period and became known as “developmental psychology.” The pioneer in this field was Charles Darwin, who published a sketch of his infant in 1877 and launched a trend of studying children to document evolution. The framework of the early pioneers was called “recapitulation,” which was the theory that individual development echoed the sequence of phylogenetic development. This framework was dismantled by 1911 with the work of Franz Boas in anthropology, but myriad fields used developmentalism to study children and improve institutions addressing youth. The juvenile justice system, medical clinics, educational reform, children’s literature, and even playground reformers used material from child study researchers to address the needs of children. G. Stanley Hall founded several journals to address child study research, which reported on the Child Study Movement across many nations, though admittedly a problematic Western framework can be seen in most of the published studies. In the 21st century it is common to cite Philippe Aries’s work on “the invention” of childhood in the Middle Ages as initiating the new framework of childhood studies, an admittedly plural term that seeks to better situate multiple childhoods in the multiple frameworks reflective of global contexts. Childhoods are varied and culturally constructed. Even the recent UN Child Rights convention was Western-centric in its thinking. Pioneering works in sociology, geographies, anthropology, citizenship, agency and consumerism, and literature all contribute to new conversations about childhood and to graduate programs that provide forums for intellectual exchange. Topics of inquiry and methods differ in childhood studies; some studies deploy the methods of social sciences to study the lived experiences of children and childhood; some use the methods of anthropology, archival work in excavating childhood materials, or historical and literary work that situate ideas of childhood in particular ways. Although methods and conclusions differ, and advocacy and outreach remain practical arms of the field, all scholars working in childhood studies seek as much as possible to make children and childhood the focus of inquiry, whatever their tools.

Textbooks and Overviews

The following includes textbooks and overviews for students new to the field of childhood studies, including the emergent subfield of children’s geographies in Holloway and Valentine 2000. Corsaro 2011 and Qvortrup, et al. 2011 present the major questions and debates about children from a sociological and historical perspective, while Pufall and Unsworth 2003 demonstrate the participatory social agency of children. James and Prout 1997 focus on the burgeoning field of childhood studies in its early stages, discussing methods and approaches; Kehily 2008 reviews those questions from a later vantage point, and Duane 2013 explores the implications of the field of childhood studies for other fields of humanist inquiry.

  • Corsaro, William. The Sociology of Childhood. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2011.

    This textbook covers childhood from a sociological point of view, positing a global and historical perspective for the problems of children.

  • Duane, Anna Mae. The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies in the Humanities. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.

    This collection surveys the way in which childhood studies as a perspective is shifting areas of inquiry in various fields, and makes the point that childhood studies is essential to all questions of history, ideology, and analysis. To re-think the categories of adulthood and childhood, as they emerged historically and continue to define identity and social structure, is to re-think congruent fields as well.

  • Holloway, Sarah, and Gill Valentine. Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    This book provides an introduction to the new and emergent field of children’s geographies, which theorizes the child’s world as a world of social construction through children as agents and social actors.

  • James, Allison, and Alan Prout. Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    This is an excellent introduction to the subject of methods, approaches, and issues in the study of childhood in the 21st century.

  • Kehily, Mary Jane. An Introduction to Childhood Studies. New York: Open University Press, 2008.

    This textbook introduces students to the core debates and founding of the field in university inquiry in the 1980s.

  • Mills, Jean, and Richard Mills. Childhood Studies: A Reader in Perspectives of Childhood. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    This overview provides an historical and sociological introduction to cross-disciplinary perspectives in 21st-century childhood studies.

  • Pufall, Peter, and Richard Unsworth. Rethinking Childhood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

    This volume contextualizes children’s agency in a variety of social contexts.

  • Qvortrup, Jens, William Corsaro, and Michael-Sebastian Honig. The Palgrave Handbook of Childhood Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    This thorough and comprehensive overview tackles the “big” questions of childhood studies: the interrogation of child development; the historical construction of generations, family, and age; methods and agendas for research; Western bias in thinking about childhood in the academy; media, consumerism, and other elements of culture that profoundly intersect with questions in childhood studies.

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