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Early childhood education


Early childhood education

Early childhood education is a branch of educational theory which relates to the teaching of young children up until the age of about eight, with a particular focus on education, notable in the period before the start of compulsory education.


  • Context 1
  • Theory 2
    • Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Learning Theory 2.1
    • Piaget’s Constructivist Theory 2.2
    • David Kolb Experimental Learning Theory 2.3
  • Research 3
  • International agreements 4
  • Formal education during early childhood 5
  • Notable early childhood educators 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • External links 9


The first twenty years of a child's life are spent in the creation of a child's first "sense of self"; most children are able to differentiate between themselves and others by their second year. This is a crucial part of the child's ability to determine how they should function in relation to other people.[1] Early care must emphasize links to family, home culture, and home language by uniquely caring for each child, which is known as the key worker system. Parents can be seen as a child's first teacher and therefore an integral part of the early learning process.[2]

Infant education is the education of children before they would normally enter primary school. The term "Infant" is typically applied to children between the ages of 1 month and 12 months.

Early childhood education focuses on children's learning through play, based on the research and philosophy of Jean Piaget. This belief is centered on the "power of play". Play meets the physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social needs (PILES) of children. Tassoni suggests that “some play opportunities will develop specific individual areas of development, but many will develop several areas.” [3] Depending on the child's interests will influence the development of skills in different areas of play. It is important practitioners promote children’s development through play by using various types of play on a daily basis.

It has been thought that children learn more efficiently and gain more knowledge through play-based activities such as dramatic play, art, and social games. The theory of play stems from children's natural curiosity and imagination, allowing topic lessons to occur.[4] Key issues of play are having a healthy and safe environment, having plenty of space, correct supervision, quality of care/environment, the attitudes of the practitioner and their cultural awareness as well as a good knowledge of the Early Years Foundation Stage.


The Developmental Interaction Approach is based on the theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, John Dewey and Lucy Sprague Mitchell. The approach aims to involve children in acquiring competence via learning through discovery.[5] A theory is a group of ideas meant to explain a certain topic. In practice theories are used to manage behaviour, understand how children learn and to understand special needs.[6] The five developmental domains of childhood development are:[7]

  • Physical: how well a child is developing physically, including eyesight and motor skills
  • Social: interactions with others[8] Social development involves pupils' understanding their responsibilities and rights as members of families and communities (local, national and global), and an ability to relate to others and to work with others.[9]
  • Emotional: creating emotional connections and developing self-confidence. "Emotions are more than just physical mechanisms to tell others how we are feeling. They are behaviours that direct our thinking and subsequent actions in response to events."[7] Emotional connections develop when people relate to each other, share feelings, are open and vulnerable.
  • Language: how well a child communicates, including how they present their feelings and emotions.
  • Cognitive skills: Cognitive skills are how children organise information. Cognitive skills include problem solving, creativity, imagination and memory.[10] Cognitive skills are part of the brains impact to help children understand the world. Cognitive skills develop through a process. Firstly the sensorimotor period followed by the pre-operational period then the concrete operational period and finally a formal operational period. Piaget believed that children showed prominent differences in their cognitive thinking as they developed through the process. [11]
  • Language development: At 3 months children use different cries for different needs. At 6 months they recognise basic sounds of spoken language and imitate this by babbling. The first 3 years are when children pick up their native language and need to be exposed to communication with others. "Normal" development is measured by the rate of vocabulary acquisition.[12] Chomsky suggests, “very young children (1 and 2 years-old) can only acquire language because they are born with the predisposition to do so”.[13]
  • Spiritual: the development of a person's religious views.[7] Pupils' spiritual development involves the growth of their sense of self, potential, strengths and weaknesses, right and wrong and will to achieve.[14]

Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Learning Theory

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed a "socio-cultural learning theory" that emphasized the impact of social and cultural experiences on individual thinking and the development of mental processes.[15] Vygotsky's theory emerged in the 1930s and is still discussed today as a means of improving and reforming educational practices.

Vygotsky argued that since cognition occurs within a social context, our social experiences shape our ways of thinking about and interpreting the world.[16] Although Vygotsky predated them, he is commonly classified as a social constructivist. Social constructivists believe that an individual's cognitive system is a result of interaction in social groups and that learning cannot be separated from social life.[17]

Vygotsky proposed that children learn through their interactions with more knowledgeable peers and adults. His concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with help.[18] According to Vygotsky, “what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the [child’s] actual developmental level tomorrow”.[15] This theory heavily influenced contemporary early educational practices by increasing focus on material within the ZPD. Vygotsky proposed that children should be taught materials that employ mental processes within the ZPD.

ZPD encourages early childhood teachers to adopt “scaffolding”, when a knowledgeable partner adjusts the amount and type of support to fit the child’s learning needs over the course of the interaction.[19]

Vygotsky advocated that teachers facilitate rather than direct student learning.[20] His approach calls for teachers to incorporate students’ needs and interests while developing curricula. He believed that every student should actively participate in a reciprocal interaction with their classmates and educators.

Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory has also proven especially important for the education of the mentally disabled. According to Vygotsky, “special education was the creation of what he called a ‘positive differential approach’; that is, the identification of a disabled child from a point of strength rather than disability”.[21] He believed that providing the appropriate scaffolding enables them to develop abstract thinking. Scaffolding includes specially trained teachers, a differentiated curriculum and additional learning time.

Piaget’s Constructivist Theory

Piaget gained influence in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although Piaget himself was primarily interested in a descriptive psychology of cognitive development, he also laid the groundwork for a constructivist theory of learning.[22] Piaget believed that learning comes from within as the child constructs their own knowledge. He said that, “If logic itself is created rather than being inborn, it follows that the first task of education is to form reasoning.” Piaget redefined teaching from transmitting knowledge to observing and guiding children in building their own knowledge.[23]

According to Piaget’s theory, when young children encounter new information they attempt to accommodate and assimilate it. Accommodation involves adapting mental schemas and representations in order to make them consistent with reality. Assimilation involves fitting new information into their pre-existing schemas. Through these two processes, young children learn by equilibrating their mental representations with reality.[24]

By applying Piaget’s theories to school programs, experiences become more hands-on and concrete as students explore through trial and error.[25] He believed that early childhood education includes encouraging exploration, manipulating objects and experiencing new environments. Piaget found that children learn from mistakes.

Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction was particularly influential in mathematical education.[26] Through reflective abstraction, children construct more advanced cognitive structures out of the simpler ones they already possess. This allows children to develop mathematical constructs that cannot be learned through equilibration alone.[27] In Piagetian theory, children create empirical abstractions of objects based on their concrete experiences. They then use reflective abstraction in order to create mental relationships between empirical abstractions. A child might have an empirical impression of six marbles, but the number six that she uses to group them is a reflective abstraction. Such a relationship has no existence in physical reality, and thus must be constructed by the child.[28]

According to Piagetian theory, language and symbolic representation is preceded by the development of corresponding mental representations. Research shows that the level of reflective abstraction achieved by young children was found to limit the degree to which they could represent physical quantities with written numerals. Traditional elementary school mathematics is taught as if math is social knowledge that can be transferred, but Piaget held that logico-mathematical knowledge must be constructed by the child. Children can invent their own procedures for the four arithmetical operations, without teaching any conventional rules.[29]

Campbell found that second graders individually constructed ways to accomplish a difficult mathematics task. This demonstrated that teachers need to work with children to improve their thought processes, allowing the child owns what she learns and is encouraged to independently solve more difficult problems.[30]

Piaget’s theory implies that computers can be a great educational tool for young children when used to support the design and construction of their projects. McCarrick and Xiaoming found that computer play is consistent with this theory.[31] However, Plowman and Stephen found that the effectiveness of computers is limited in the preschool environment; their results indicate that computers are only effective when directed by the teacher.[32] This suggests that, according to the constructivist theory, the role of preschool teachers is critical in successfully adopting computers.[33]

Davy states that the British Children's Act of 1989 links to play-work as the act works with play workers and sets the standards for the setting such as security, quality and staff ratios.[34] Learning through play has been seen regularly in practice as the most versatile way a child can learn. Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) suggested that children should be given free school meals, fruit and milk, and plenty of exercise to keep them physically and emotionally healthy. Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) believed play allows children to talk, socially interact, use their imagination and intellectual skills. Marie Montessori (1870-1952) believed that children learn through movement and their senses and after doing an activity using their senses.

David Kolb Experimental Learning Theory

David Kolb created the experimental learning theory in the hope to show how children need to experience things in order to learn, for example putting certain objects through certain shaped spaces. The experimental learning theory was influenced from other theorists such as John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget. Specifically picking up on how Piaget believes in the process of how children learn new things, He calls these three stages of learning equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. The experimental learning theory is a different learning process from such theories as the behavioural learning theory as children are not treat or rewarded for learning and they do not learn in the same way as other children. Children are looked upon as individuals and therefore able to learn in a way that is best for them. For example children are able to play in a garden with mini beasts and instead of a practitioner or professional telling the child what a certain mini beast looks like, a child can see for themselves what a certain object may look like. However it is important that children are also given the guidance from a practitioner as children still need to find answers to their questions. This is because even though a child may have seen what a certain object may look like, they may not know their name. This is when a practitioner or professional needs to support the child and give the basic information. In addition Kolb also believes in his experimental learning theory that practitioners or professionals need to question the child on what they think, asking such questions as “why do you think this?” “who do you know who is like this?”. From this the children will be able to use their knowledge of what they already know and adapt it to learning new information, again linking into piaget beliefs of equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. According to Kolb he states “ the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming experience.” To go alongside Kolb’s theory he made an experimental learning cycle to show how his theory works. In this cycle it shows that the first stage children go through is the concrete experience and this is where a child is going through a new situation or observing something new, the second stage is the reflective observation where children will watch the new situation and look at how things are done, this is the stage where the child begins to understand what is happening and the reasons why. The third stage in Kolb’s cycle is abstract conceptualization and this means when a child begins to plan/think of how to implement what is happening. The final stage in Kolb’s cycle is the active experimentation, this is when a child has seen what is happening had a through understanding, thought about how to test what they have seen and begin to try out their own plan to the world around them.


In Ypsilanti, Michigan, 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families who were randomly assigned to a group that did not receive preschool education were five times more likely to have become chronic lawbreakers by age 18 than those who did receive it.[35]

The aforementioned study also found that low-income individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program earned on average, by age 40, $5500 per year more than those who were not.[36] Furthermore, the study found that low-income people who were in preschool programs as a child are more likely to graduate from high school, own homes, and have longer marriages. Another study, The Abecedarian Project, shows that low-income children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.[37]

Children who lack sufficient nurturing, nutrition, interaction with a parent or caregiver, and stimulus during this crucial period may be left with developmental deficits, as has been reported in Russian and Romanian orphanages.[38] Children must receive attention and affection to develop in a healthy manner. There is a false belief that more hours of formal education for a very young child confers greater benefits than a balance between formal education and family time. A systematic, international review suggests that the benefits of early childhood education come from the experience of participation; more than 2.5 hours a day does not greatly add to child development outcomes, especially when it detracts from other experiences and family contact.[39]

"Why Does Infant Attention Predict Adolescent Intelligence?" by Sigman, Cohen, and Beckwith. This study found that speaking often to children between the ages of 8 and 24 months of age could significantly improve intelligence later in life. It appears in volume 20 (1997) of the journal Infant Behavior and Development.

A report by Rose and Feldman, August 1997 edition of Child Development suggests that visual recognition skills and tactile-visual skills at ages 7 to 12 months are a significant indicator of later IQ scores.

Visual stimulus and response time as early as 3 months is an indicator of verbal and performance IQ at age 4 years: Dougherty and Haith of the University of Denver, "Infant Expectations and Reaction Time as Predictors of Childhood Speed of Processing and IQ", published in volume 33 (1997) of the journal Developmental Psychology.

Otitis media (a condition that affects hearing) significantly impacts the advancement of infants. "The Effect of Otitis Media with Effusion (ie., with fluid accumulation) on Infants' Detection of Sound" by Lynne Werner and Jeffrey Ward from the University of Washington, Infant Behavior and Development, 20 (2), 1997.

Robert Titzer, of Southeastern Louisiana University, reported on a longitudinal case study in which an infant who was exposed to an interactive video involving words was able to visually recognize more than 100 words by 12 months of age and more than 500 words by age 15 months.

In May 2007, Slate Magazine published an article discussing the results of a working paper by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dimitriy Masterov of the University of Michigan about the social and economics benefits of nursery school for disadvantaged children, claiming that more investment in such children at an earlier age is needed to supplement the role of the family.

The reasons given include the importance of early years in cognitive development, the trouble many families have in providing adequate early-childhood nurturing, and the advantage such programs give students starting the next step in their education. The study considered a number of early childhood educational pilot programs for at risk children, similar to Head Start, but more intense, such as the Perry Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Over 40 years of the children's lives, participants showed greater literacy, higher grades, greater likelihood to graduate high school, higher post-high school employment rates, higher earnings, less need for welfare, committed less crime, and had lower rates of teen pregnancy. The rate of returns to the children was estimated to be 16 percent (about 3/4 of this is calculated from the decreased social cost due to lower crime and less prison spending).

The authors also propose that the return on investment declines with age. This study is noteworthy because it advocates spending as an economic investment in a society's future, rather than in the interest of justice.[40]

International agreements

The first World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education took place in UNESCO and the city of Moscow. The overarching goals of the are to:

According to UNESCO a preschool curriculum is one that delivers educational content through daily activities, tuition and furthers a child's physical, cognitive and social development. Generally, preschool curricula are only recognized by governments if they are based on academic research and reviewed by peers.[42]

Preschool for Child Rights have pioneered into preschool curricular areas and is contributing into child rights through their preschool curriculum.[43]

Formal education during early childhood

In several countries/states, for example the United Kingdom, an infant school caters for the earlier years of primary education and for children aged between four and seven years of age. The schools separate the children into age groups, to be taught and in some cases the youngest children are taught in a different building and have a separate outdoor space. Many countries/states, also have fixed structure's such as England follows the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), and Italy which follows a different structure which is the Reggio Emilia[44]

Several theorists support pre-school education due to the benefits of the experience from the opportunity to an early education.[45] It is important for parents to stay engaged in their child's education, even if they are getting most of their education from a daycare, nursery pre-school, or school.[46] Refer back to the theory section of this page for more detail on theory.

Rousseau recommended that a teacher would help the child to develop further if they exploited the child's interests because this was the best way of making sure children were getting the information that was most essential to them. He was not satisfied because people were mainly concerned in devoting themselves to what they thought was right rather than what the child is capable of. [47]

Notable early childhood educators

See also


  1. ^ Oatley, Keith; Jenkins, Jennifer M (2007). Understanding emotions (2nd ed.). Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 211.  
  2. ^ Footnote Anning, A and Cullen, J. and Fleer, M. (2004) Early childhood education. London: SAGE.
  3. ^ Tassoni, P. (2000) S/NVQ 3 play work. London: Heinemann Educational.
  4. ^ Winner, Melinda (28 January 2009). "The Serious Need for Play". Scientific American. 
  5. ^ Shapiro, N.; Nager (1999). "The Developmental-Interaction Approach to Education: Retrospect and Prospect". Occasional Paper Series (New York: Bank Street College of Education). 
    "Bank Street Developmental Interaction Approach". State of New Jersey Department of Education. 
    Casper, V; Theilheimer, R (2009). Introduction to early childhood education: Learning together. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  6. ^ Maureen Daly; Elisabeth Byers; Wendy Taylor (2006). Understanding Early Years: Theory in Practice. Heinemann Educational Publishers.  
  7. ^ a b c Jonathan Doherty; Malcolm Hughes (2009). Child Development: Theory and Practice 0-11. Addison-Wesley Longman, Incorporated.  
  8. ^ Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective. Pearson Education, Limited. p. 3.  
  9. ^
  10. ^ Sally Neaum (17 May 2013). Child Development for Early Years Students and Practitioners. SAGE Publications.  
  11. ^ Doherty, J. and Hughes, M. (2009). Child development: theory and practice 0-11. Harlow: Longman.
  12. ^ NIH (2011) Speech and language development milestones, USA: NIDCD: (accessed 15th April 2014).
  13. ^ Teresa O'Dea; Penny Mukherji (2000). Understanding Children's Language and Literacy. Nelson Thornes.  
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ a b Cole; John-Steiner, Scribner, Souberman (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. 
  16. ^ Jaramillo 1996.
  17. ^ Oxford, R (1997). "Constructivism: Shape-Shifting, Substance, and Teacher Education Applications". Peabody Journal of Education 72 (1): 35–66.  
  18. ^ Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Interaction Between Learning and Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  19. ^ Louis, G (2009). "Using Glasser's Choice Theory to Understand Vygotsky". International Journal of Reality Therapy 29 (2): 20–23. 
  20. ^ Jaramillo, J (1996). "Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory and Contributions to the Development of Constructivist Curricula". Education 117 (1): 133–140. 
  21. ^ Gindis, B (1995). "The Social/Cultural Implication of Disability: Vygotsky's Paradigm for Special Education". Educational Psychologist 30 (2): 77–81.  
  22. ^ Smith, L (1985). "Making Educational Sense of Piaget's Psychology". Oxford Review of Education 11 (2): 181–191.  
  23. ^ "Jean Piaget: Champion of children's ideas". Scholastic Early Childhood Today 15 (5): 43. 2001. 
  24. ^ Piaget, J (1997). "Development and Learning". Readings on the Development of Children: 7–20. 
  25. ^ "Jean Piaget: Champion of Children's Ideas". Scholastic Early Childhood Today 15 (5): 43. 2001. 
  26. ^ Kato; Kamii, Ozaki, Nagahiro (2002). "Young Children's Representations of Groups of Objects: The Relationship Between Abstraction and Representation". Journal for Research and Mathematics Education 33 (1): 30–45.  
  27. ^ Simon; Tzur, Heinz, Kinzel (2004). "Explicating a mechanism for conceptual learning' elaborating the construct of reflective abstraction". Journal for Research and Mathematics Education 35 (5): 305–329.  
  28. ^ Kato; Kamii, Ozaki, Nagahiro (2002). "Young children's representations of groups of objects: the relationship between abstraction and representation". Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 33 (1): 30–45.  
  29. ^ Kamii; Ewing (1996). "Basing teaching on piaget's constructivism". Childhood Education 72 (5): 260.  
  30. ^ Campbell, C.S. (2008). "Double Column Edition: A teacher uses Piaget's theory". Childhood Education 84 (3): 186–187. 
  31. ^ McCarrick; Xiaoming (2007). "Buried treasure: the impact of computer use on young children's social, cognitive, language development and motivation". AACE Journal 15 (1): 73–95. 
  32. ^ Plowman; Stephen (2003). "A 'beginning addition'? Research on ICT and preschool children". Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19 (2): 149–164.  
  33. ^ Towns (2010). "Computer education and computer use by preschool educators". 
  34. ^ Annie Davy (November 2000). Playwork: Play and Care for Children 5-15. Thomson Learning.  
  35. ^ "Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40". HighScope. 2005. 
  36. ^ Transcript of audio news briefing on the HighScope Perry Preschool Study age 40 findings
  37. ^ "Long-Term Benefits of Early Childhood Education". National Education Association. 2013. 
  38. ^ Groark, Christina J., et al (2008). "Special section on Russian orphanages". Infant Mental Health Journal (Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health.) 29 (4). 
  39. ^ Farquhar, Sarah-Eve (2008). "The Benefits & Risks of Childcare (ECE) for Young Children: A Review of the Best Available NZ and International Research". New Zealand: ChildForum. 
  40. ^ here Slate article: Waldfogel, Joel. "Teach Your Children Well: The economic case for preschool based on working paper: James J. Heckman, Dimitriy V. Masterov. "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children." NBER Working Paper No. 13016, Issued in April 2007." Slate Online, Posted Friday, May 25, 2007, accessed May 30, 2007
  41. ^ "World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education, Moscow (Russia), 27-29 September 2010". 
  42. ^ "UNESCO: Preschool Curricula". UNESCO. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  43. ^
  44. ^ Footnote Clark, R. (2010) Childhood in society for early childhood studies. Exeter: Learning Matters, 2010.
  45. ^ Footnote Pound. L. (2005) How children learn-From Montessori to Vygotsky (1st edition) London: Practical Pre-school books, a division of MA education Ltd.
  46. ^ Footnote Anning, A and Cullen, J. and Fleer,M. (2004) Early childhood education. London: SAGE.
  47. ^ McDowall Clark, R (2013). Childhood in Society . London: Learning Matters.

Neaum,S. (2013). Child development for early year’s students and practitioners. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications.

External links

  • "Early Childhood Care and Education". UNESCO. 
  • "World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP)". 
  • "National Institute for Early Education Research". 
  • "Early Childhood Education". National Education Association. 
  • "Heckman Equation for Investing in Early Human Development". 

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