Definition and Explanation of Lifespan Development Psychology

Updated on June 10, 2016

What is Lifespan Development?

This article focuses on discussing the questions; "What is lifespan development?" and "How do we define lifespan development in psychology?" It is an old saying that the only thing that remains the same is change. Changes are always occurring through the course of a person’s life. From the point of conception changes begin to occur and they continue through the moment of death. Lifespan development is the name psychologists have given to the physical and cognitive changes that occur throughout a person’s life (Boyd & Bee, 2009).

Define Lifespan Development Perspective

What is lifespan development psychology? Boyd and Bee (2009) explain that psychologists who study human development have recently adopted the lifespan perspective which “maintains that important changes occur during every period of development and that these changes must be interpreted in terms of the culture and context in which they occur” (p. 4). Before this the subject of development was often limited to childhood. This new perspective gives the same level of importance to changes in adulthood which had previously been focused exclusively on changes in childhood (Boyd & Bee, 2009). In order to define lifespan development psychology we must understand the different context by which it is characterised. Lifespan perspective is characterized by an emphasis on plasticity, interdisciplinary research and a multi-contextual view of the nature of development (Boyd & Bee, 2009).These are the main points of life span development.


Plasticity means that the ability to change is not restricted to any period of life but that people of all ages are able to react and adapt to their environment (Boyd & Bee, 2009). People of any age are able to learn. They can develop new habits or shed old ones.

Multi-Contextual Development

The multi-contextual view of development comes from the understanding that there are many overlapping groups in people’s lives. There are as many contexts that changes occur in as there are groups to which a person belongs. Family, friendships, work relations, neighborhoods and cultures are a few of the interrelated context in which changes may be viewed (Boyd & Bee, 2009).

Periods of Development and Domains

Scientists divide the periods of development into eight roughly defined categories: prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood and late adulthood (Boyd & Bee, 2009). Scientists also divide the variety of changes into three categories called domains (Boyd & Bee, 2009).

The Physical Domain

Changes which occur biologically are categorized in the physical domain (Boyd & Bee, 2009). A thirty year-old man is obviously much taller and heavier than when he was a boy. Over the years he has grown in size, he has acquired facial hair and his eyesight has slightly diminished to the point where he now requires glasses. Each of these changes is biological in nature and is part of the physical domain.

The Mental Domain

Mental functions have changed as well. His memory is not as sharp as it once had been but he believes that his reasoning skills and his ability to solve problems has shown improvement with age. Mental functions such as problem solving, and memory are considered part of the cognitive domain (Boyd & Bee, 2009).

The Social Domain

As a boy I had few friends, most of whom were male Caucasians. As an adult I have a vast network of friends. A greater amount of racial diversity can be seen among the friendships in my adult life than there had been in my childhood and there is more of a balance between male and female relationships. Changes in the kinds of relationships we build, our ability to establish relationships, the way we interact with others and the way we think about ourselves are all considered to be part of the social domain (Boyd & Bee, 2009). The three domains are divided to simplify discussion but are not in reality separated (Boyd & Bee, 2009). A change in one domain has consequences in each of the other two (Boyd & Bee, 2009).


Social and Non-Social Play in Early Childhood

One contemporary concern of lifespan development according to Luckey and Fabes (2005) is the behavior of nonsocial play during the period of early childhood. Evidence suggests that some forms of nonsocial play in early childhood may be healthy while other forms may be detrimental to the child’s development (Luckey & Fabes, 2005). Children who play independently in a constructive way such as playing with puzzles or coloring are believed to be engaged in a healthy activity (Luckey & Fabes, 2005). Children who are isolated and unengaged in an activity or are engaged in a non-constructive activity are believed to have trouble in social development later in life (Luckey & Fabes, 2005).


Peer Socialization Among Youth

A connected but separate concern of lifespan development is the nature of peer socialization among youth within different environments and the level of formality in each environment (Heath, 2005). The belief that there are only two classifications of either formal or informal for social interactions is currently considered outdated (Heath, 2005). Heath (2005) asserts that “peer socialization, generally thought to be highly informal, turns out with close examination to fluctuate across a range of organizational characteristics” (p. 351). Social activities may overtly seem to be formal in nature, however as Heath (2005) explains “games, as well as spontaneous interactions, can be highly formal, ritualized, and tightly structured, often governed by goals, operational strategies, and rules of correction” (p. 351).


The span of a person’s life can be dissected and examined in many ways. Development can be viewed through the progressive assertions from one stage to another. The process of aging is ongoing and the passage from one period to the next seems subtle and gradual. While the study of life can be compartmentalized with every portion separated and sectioned off; life itself cannot be divided but must be lived within the context of all the preceding periods which have already come to pass and those which may well still remain ahead.. Each period of life may be viewed separately and discussed within divided categories but each period of life remains connected in one lifespan.


Boyd, D. and Bee, H. (2009). Lifespan Development (5th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Heath, S. (2005). Strategic Thinking, Learning Environments, and Real Roles: Suggestions for Future Work. Human Development (0018716X), 48(6), 350-355. doi:10.1159/000088252.

Luckey, A., & Fabes, R. (2005). Understanding Nonsocial Play in Early Childhood. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(2), 67-72. doi:10.1007/s10643-006-0054-6.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Very informative content, well Do you think that the life span development may be impacted by the cultural context.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      7 years ago from Dublin, Ireland


      Thank you - so often parents would consider learning languages something not to really matter, "something them rich people do" - and learning languages can be really so useful, besides its being pleasant. :)

    • Wesley Meacham profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesley Meacham 

      7 years ago from Wuhan, China


      What you describe is actually called the critical period. This is actually what I do. I teach English as a Second Language in China. What I've seen in real life fits with what I've been taught. I have seen students in their mid twenties to thirties dramatically improve their speaking ability in one to two years of study. There are two important parts to this statement that I'm making. First I say imporve... not start from zero. Second I'm interstested in them being able to epress themselves oraly and be understood. What I have been taught and what I see in real life is that the critical period mostly effects an individuals ability to learn and improve grammar. This doesn't mean that the student can not improve in other areas.

      At the same time, I've been studying Mandarin for the last year and a half. Now, I'm 33 years old and prior to coming to China I knew aboslutely no Chinese. Today I can order food in a restaurant, give directions to a taxi driver and communicate some very simple and basic things. Am I fluent...? By no means. Of course not. And I know that I never will be. But I'm able to communicate what I need to most of the time in a language that I had no exposure to before two years ago.

      To me this shows plasicity. I agree that there are limits. Obviously there are limits to how fexible the brain in and how much a person can learn and when but just because there are limits doesn't mean that the basic concept is wrong.

      I do agree with you that it is much better to study a second language prior to the age of 14.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 

      7 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I have to disagree on plasticity. Humans can learn many languages, yet if the human being has no exposure to another language, about age 14 his or her brain will get 'defined' on one language only.

      It is really important for kids to learn languages before it's too late.


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