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Twenty Years and Going Strong: A Dynamic Systems Revolution in Motor and Cognitive Development


  • Preparation of this manuscript was supported by NIH RO1MH62480 awarded to John P. Spencer.

concerning this article should be addressed to John P. Spencer, Department of Psychology and Delta Center, E11 Seashore Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242; e-mail:


Abstract— This article reviews the major contributions of dynamic systems theory (DST) in advancing thinking about development, the empirical insights the theory has generated, and the key challenges for the theory on the horizon. The first section discusses the emergence of DST in developmental science, the core concepts of the theory, and the resonance it has with other approaches that adopt a systems metatheory. The second section reviews the work of Esther Thelen and colleagues, who revolutionized how researchers think about the field of motor development. It also reviews recent extensions of this work to the domain of cognitive development. Here, the focus is on dynamic field theory, a formal, neurally grounded approach that has yielded novel insights into the embodied nature of cognition. The final section proposes that the key challenge on the horizon is to formally specify how interactions among multiple levels of analysis and across multiple time scales create developmental change.