Early Childhood Education Essay

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Early childhood education is a field within education encompassing the knowledge base related to children from birth through age eight (third grade). Early childhood is a unique time in the development of a child, during which much learning takes place. Approaches to teaching young children cover a wide spectrum ranging from direct instruction to emergent curricula. This entry provides a brief historical background of early childhood education, discusses its roots in child psychology, summarizes outside impacts on the field, and describes its main curricular models.

Historical Background

The development of young children is addressed in historical evidence from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome (by the work of Plato and Aristotle and Quintillian) to the Middle Ages in Europe (by the work of Martin Luther, John Amos Comenius, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel).

In Colonial America it was typically the role of the parents to educate the youngest children in the family, although there is evidence of some New England families using the services of private dame schools to help their children learn basic reading skills. By the early 1800s, infant schools were established in large cities across the country (New York, Philadelphia, and Boston) as a primary means of addressing the needs of disadvantaged youth. Modeled after the schools run by Pestalozzi in Europe, these schools typically used a play-based method of teaching. Even at this time there was controversy as to the roles of rote memorization and discipline in the education of young children.

Education And Psychological Development

The phrase developmentally appropriate practice is commonly linked to early childhood education. Educators working with young children understand that there is a predictable sequence of growth and development and apply this knowledge of how young children grow as they develop and learn to prepare learning environments that meet the “age appropriate” educational needs of the children in their setting. As all children grow at varying rates, educators must consider the “individual appropriateness” of learning experiences. The work of Jean Piaget serves as the foundation for what today is considered developmentally appropriate practice. Piaget’s work established that children’s cognitive development evolves in a series of stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operations), with each stage bringing a unique opportunity for young children to construct their own knowledge by interacting with the environment and with those around them. By using these developmental profiles, early childhood educators can encourage unique child-centered learning experiences that highlight the development of the whole child (physical, social, emotional, and cognitive).

The work of Lev Vygotsky also contributed greatly to the study of young children. He believed that the sociocultural aspects of learning had to be considered and he highlighted the role of language in reaching higher cognitive processes. His theory supports assistance by others in helping the young child to a more complex level of development if the child is near his or her own limit of ability or zone of proximal development (ZPD). The learning theory known as constructivism has its roots in the “active learning” models of both Piaget and Vygotsky.

Various Impacts On The Field

There is a great focus internationally on the development of young children, and many professional organizations address young children’s needs. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has brought professional leadership to the development of accreditation criteria, establishing position statements that define and support developmentally appropriate practice. Over almost eighty years, NAEYC has been a leader in promoting excellence in early childhood education, working with other organizations to enhance professional development for those working with young children. The Zero to Three organization provides up-to-date, research-based resources, with a focus on brain research, for early childhood educators. Citing work from child development professionals at the Erikson Institute, they provide “parent friendly” resources that summarize important aspects of the 2000 National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report titled From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.

Government has also had an impact. In the United States more and more families have both parents in the workforce, making the demand for high quality early childhood care and education even greater. In 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” program, the federal government supported the establishment of the Head Start project in an attempt to counteract the effects of childhood poverty by providing high quality early childhood experiences, health education, nutritional information, social services, and parent education experiences.

Head Start and Early Head Start have served as models for other early childhood programs, and federal support has continued due to the overwhelmingly positive support from communities that have benefited from this focus. It is important to note the fact that federal dollars are used to support this initiative, and therefore there is an element of accountability that must be addressed. Many longitudinal studies have been conducted to confirm the success of these programs, resulting in a greater national focus on collecting data. Thus, even those programs geared for young children are required to assess children in order to continuously provide the evidence necessary to maintain funding.

Research And Curricular Models

The curriculum in early childhood education is determined by the philosophy of learning that is being emphasized. Therefore, many early childhood programs rely on a child-centered approach to developing the curriculum; however, it is the philosophy that establishes how this looks in practice. In addition, there are several important curricular models that have impacted early childhood education throughout history.

Maria Montessori (1870–1952), the Italian physician who worked to educate children of the working class, discovered through her observations at Casa dei Bambini that children who work in carefully prepared environments can develop a sense of independence if the self-correcting materials that they work with and the directress (teacher) who guides them emphasize practical life experiences. Her success in working with this population caught the attention of many, and the materials that she developed quickly became part of the Montessori Method, which emphasizes that children can naturally teach themselves. She made several visits to the United States beginning around 1913 to share her method of teaching, and the American Montessori Society (AMS) that was founded in 1960 still works to accredit schools and prepare teachers in this model of early childhood education.

In 1914, Caroline Pratt founded the City and Country School in New York City at a time when the progressive education movement was being emphasized in the United States. She was a firm believer that play is the “work” of children and that through the use of open-ended materials children could explore the world around them. As a result she designed wooden unit blocks to be used with two-to seven-year-olds, and the blocks are still popular today in many early childhood classrooms across the country. In 1917 she was joined by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and together they created a community where children were passionate about learning. Their work, often called the “developmental interaction” model, was later established as the Bank Street approach to educating young children.

The High Scope approach to early childhood education emerged from the work of David Weikart at the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The work of Jean Piaget was influential in the development of this cognitively oriented curriculum. Teachers participate freely in activities with children, guided by “key experiences” that provide a framework for planning activities but allowing flexibility to accommodate the needs of individual learners. The “plan-do-review” sequence is used throughout the day, and gives teachers time to observe and record the progress of a child’s development. Today, this method of delivering early childhood educational experiences is quite popular in that there is an extensive amount of research supporting the long-term effectiveness of this approach.

The Waldorf approach to educating young children emerged from a model of the school that was designed for the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette company by Rudolf Steiner in 1919. Steiner’s vision of educating the “whole child” includes the mind, the heart, and the will of the child. All Waldorf teachers focus on the aesthetics of the educational experience, and much of the subject matter is taught through drama, art, or music. In visiting a Waldorf school today, an observer would likely notice the emphasis on nature and the surrounding world.

The newest curricular approach to early childhood education is found in the programs exploring the Reggio Emilia model. This approach began in the Italian community of Reggio Emilia through the efforts of Loris Malaguzzi and a group of women who came together to advocate for a law requiring free quality early care and education for children up to age six. Reggio educators (pedagogistas) are keenly aware of the need for documentation (photos, drawings, recordings, etc.) of a child’s development. They consider the curriculum to be ‘emergent,’ in that only general goals are established and the curriculum emerges around the interests of the children as they explore projects ranging from a few days to a few months. All Reggio schools have a unique space called the atelier that serves as the studio or workshop for the projects. There is an atelierista who is trained in the arts who provides guidance on projects.


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  2. Morgan, H. (2006). Early childhood education: History, theory, and practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development (J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips, Eds.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  4. Paciorek, K. M. (Ed.). (2007). Annual editions: Early childhood education 06/07 (27th ed.). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.
  5. Paciorek, K. M., & Munro, J. H. (Eds.). (1999). Sources: Notable selections in early childhood education. Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.
  6. Peltzman, B. R. (1998). Pioneers of early childhood education: A bio-bibliographical guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  7. Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.
  8. Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.
  9. American Montessori Society: http://www.amshq.org
  10. National Association for the Education of Young Children
  11. (NAEYC): http://www.naeyc.org
  12. National Head Start Association: http://www.nhsa.org
  13. Zero to Three: http://www.zerotothree.org

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