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Child Development Theories in Children's Literature

Updated on February 23, 2017
Jesse Wilcox Smith "A Child's Garden of Verses"
Jesse Wilcox Smith "A Child's Garden of Verses" | Source

Applying Theories to Children’s Literature

Children’s literature offers a wonderful mixture of magic and reality. Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” gives an interesting interpretation of the horrors of reality and magic associated with childhood. The story also can be used to analyze child development. Models based on the philosophic and scientific studies by Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg shed light on child development. There are several ways to breakdown child development. Children’s literature reflects these models. Each model can assist parents, family, and educators in choosing children’s literature that will appeal to a child at each developmental stage. Writers of children's literature can also benefit from understanding child development models to create stories that appeal to a specific target audience. Beyond the models of child development children’s literature can be analyzed through different critical approaches, such as historical criticism. The story of “James and the Giant Peach” serves as an example of how child development theories are revealed in children’s literature.

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl | Source

“James and the Giant Peach”

Roald Dahl created the story “James and the Giant Peach” as a fantasy tale about an unfortunate boy who goes on and amazing journey. The story opens with James living and idyllic life on the beach with his loving mother and father. Conflict erupts when James’ parents are eaten by an angry rhinoceros and James is sent off to live with his cruel aunts. Seven-year-old James is mistreated and living a life of loneliness and misery when magic enters into his life. A strange man gives James a paper bag holding magical green crystals that will transform his life once he eats them. Unfortunately, James runs away so excitedly that he spills the magic crystals. They disappear into the ground under an old peach tree. From the enchanted tree a giant peach grows. On a particularly sad evening James sneaks off to inspect the peach and follows a strange tunnel right into the peach’s pit. Inside the pit he finds a room holding enchanted insects. James and his new friends roll away from the horrible aunts’ house in England and take a marvelous adventure across the ocean to America, where he lives happily ever after. Dahl’s magical tale provides insight into several of the theoretical models of child development.

Theoretical Models

Philosophical and scientific studies have researched child development. Leaders in this field present accepted models of the stages of child development. Each of the models presented represent different aspects of child development, such as intellectual and cognitive development, social development, and moral development.

Jean Piaget Sculpture Switzerland
Jean Piaget Sculpture Switzerland | Source

Piaget’s Cognitive Theory of Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed the model of the cognitive theory of development. It is divided into stages. The first stage is the sensorimotor period which is from infancy to about 2 years old (Russell, 2009). Children in this stage are egocentric and understand only what they are currently experiencing through their senses. The idea of object permanence does not apply at this point. Children’s literature at this stage offers a pleasant experience with books and story time (Russell, 2009). Tactile books and books with rhythmic sounds can be entertaining to children in this stage.

The next stage is the preoperational stage with is between two and seven years old. This is a stage where children start to develop logic, although they are incapable of understanding generalizations about the physical world such as reversibility, assimilation, or accommodation (Russell, 2009). Children at this stage do not understand abstract concepts well, but they do understand rudimentary concepts, such as colors, shapes, and sizes (Russell, 2009). Stories enjoyed at this age include books talking animals and animated machines.

The third stage is the period of concrete operations between the ages of seven and eleven. At this stage children can understand rudimentary logic, begin problem solving, understand time and spatial relationships, and become aware of the people around them and their role in society (Russell, 2009). Children at this stage can appreciate more complex stories about family and friend relationships as well as some historical stories.

The final stage is the period of formal operations. This stage occurs during the ages of 11 to 15. By this age children understand formal logic, exchange of ideas, the viewpoints of others, and roles in society (Russell, 2009). Children at this age can read books about complex problems, including works about difficult problems in society and relationships.

Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson | Source

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson divided childhood into five stages of psychosocial development. The first stage, trust versus mistrust, is from birth to eighteen months. At this stage children must develop trust of their caregivers. Books recommended for this stage should provide security and reassurance (Russell, 2009). The second stage is autonomy versus doubt, and this stage occurs from eighteen months to around three years. At this stage children start to explore their independence and overcome doubts of what they are capable of doing (Russell, 2009). Imaginative books that have capable characters are recommended for this age group.

The third stage in Erikson’s model is initiative versus guilt. This stage occurs between the ages of three and six. This is when a child determines their own responsibilities and an understanding of conflict (Russell, 2009). Books for this stage include stories that help children to understand their emotions and roles. The next stage is industry versus inferiority at the ages of seven to eleven. Children at this age understand the concepts of success and inferiority. Stories that help to develop a better understanding and acceptance of themselves and others are good for this age group. The final stage is identity versus role confusion when a child reaches adolescence. Children at this age struggle with their own identity, both culturally and socially (Russell, 2009). Books that help children to learn about themselves and others are good for this stage. Adolescent children want books that are open and honest while offering stories about characters like themselves (Russell, 2009).

Kohlber's Model of Moral Development
Kohlber's Model of Moral Development | Source

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Judgment

Lawrence Kohlberg offers three levels in the development of moral reasoning, and each of these three stages has two stages (Russell, 2009). The first level, which occurs up until around seven years old, is the preconventional level. At the youngest ages children react to the immediate consequences of their actions. The first stage is the punishment/obedience orientation stage when a child learns to avoid punishment (Russell, 2009). The second stage is the instrumental/relativist orientation stage when a child learns that good behavior is rewarded (Russell, 2009). Children’s literature that reinforces these ideas is good for this level.

Second is the conventional level, which occurs between the ages of seven and eleven. At this point children learn the value of family, friend, and community. The first stage is the interpersonal concordance orientation. This is when children conform for the approval of others and to avoid disapproval (Russell, 2009). The second stage is the “Law and Order” orientation when a child conforms to avoid disrupting the social order (Russell, 2009). Children’s literature that addresses peer pressure and issues of fairness are appropriate for this age.

The final level is the postconventional level. The first stage is the contractual/legalistic orientation when a child recognizes the value of social contracts and rules to promote the common good (Russell, 2009). The second stage is the universal/ethical/principle orientation when a child understands the concepts of choosing ethical principles and possibly defying laws if the laws are considered to do more harm than good (Russell, 2009). Stories about social values and difficult social realities, such as gang violence and corruption, can be understood by children who have reached this level.


Models and “James and the Giant Peach”

The models of child development can be applied to Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach.” In the story the main character, James, is seven years old. Children often prefer to read stories about a child who is their age or slightly older. A seven year old child would classify in the preoperational stage of Piaget’s model of cognitive development. The understanding of rudimentary concepts with a blurring of abstract concepts allows children of this age to accept the idea of talking animals. Roald Dahl creates some very imaginative characters in “James and the Giant Peach.” James becomes friends with insects that have eaten the magic crystals and become human-sized. A spider, grass hopper, earthworm, centipede, silkworm, ladybug, and glow-worm are all talking insects serving as support characters in this amazing journey with James.

Using Erikson’s model this story would appeal to children in fourth stage, industry versus inferiority. James exhibits the characteristics of a boy in this stage as he is determined to succeed in transporting him and his friends to safety on the giant peach. With each new problem James uses logic to figure a way out, and his insect friends cheer him on as their hero. This story would appeal to a child in this stage as providing an inspiring tale of success.

Applying Kohlberg’s theory of the development of moral judgment this story would fall into the readership of children in the conventional level. At this point a child understands the value of family and community. James was mistreated by his own family, his aunts, and wants to return to the happiness he remembers with his parents. He joins the group of insects on this journey, and they become his community. For acceptance by this community he works to gain their acceptance. First he helps centipede off and on with his boots repeatedly despite not wanting to because he does not want to upset him. He also finds ways out of difficult situations to save his group of friends. This builds his status in the group; and finally, when they are rescued from the Empire State Building James stands up for his insect friends.


Literary Criticism

One approach to literary criticism is historical criticism. Historical criticism must take into consideration the author’s background, political events, and social factors shaping the story, as well as philosophy and special circumstances from when the story was written (Russell, 2009). Roald Dahl lived in the English countryside which is most likely why he created the setting of “James in the Giant Peach” in a small English town (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012). He created the stories as entertainment and bedtime stories for his own children. Although Dahl had been active in the military, he suffered an injury and later retired. It was then that he began his writing career. His travels and adventures combined with his imagination allowed Dahl to create magical adventures for children. “James and the Giant Peach” was written in 1961. The climax of the story offers James and his friends as newcomers to the United States. At first the people fear that the peach is a bomb which reflects the political atmosphere of the Cold War (The People History, 2012). When the people realize that it is not a bomb they consider that the peach and the newcomers may be from space. This space reference is consistent with the time since the United States was active in the space race in 1961 launching Alan Shepard as the first man into space aboard the Freedom 7 (The People History, 2012). An understanding of the historical background assists in understanding Dahl’s motivation when writing “James and the Giant Peach.”

Painting of Child Reading by Lilla Cabot Perry
Painting of Child Reading by Lilla Cabot Perry | Source

Children’s Literature

The study of child development provides insight into the process of growing up. Children’s literature can reflect that process. Well written stories offer characters that fit into the categories for a child at a specific age. These characters are realistic and child readers can relate to them. Authors can also use these models to decipher what children are experiencing at a particular age and what concepts and situations would appeal to them in a story. Those who write for children and those who provide books for children to read will benefit from understanding the process of child development and use that understanding to create and provide wonderful stories for children to read.


Dahl, R. (1961). James and the giant peach. New York, NY: Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2012). Roald Dahl. Retrieved from

Russell, D.L. (2009). Literature for children: A short introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn Bacon

The People History. (2012). What happened in 1961. Retrieved from


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      Ismael Morelles 2 years ago from UNITED STATES

      great post. do you have any children books of your own?

    • marieryan profile image

      Marie Ryan 4 years ago from Andalusia, Spain


      Particularly interesting is the concept of historical criticism, and the author's background, political climate etc. at the time of writing. Very interesting article. Voted up!

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      Elena@LessIsHealthy 4 years ago

      Great article! And interesting too...Up!