Early Childhood Education History: Theorists & Theories

The history of early childhood education dates back to the 1500s, and it has certainly come a very long way over the years. However, children were being educated long before that. Even the Greek Philosopher Plato had some pretty groundbreaking ideas about how children should be educated.

Early childhood education has a very long and rich history with invaluable contributions from some of the greatest theorists in child development and education. In fact, several are now household words. All of the contributions from these famous early childhood education theorists had value and still do today. In fact, they helped shaped the educational system as we know it.

Early Childhood Theorists

There are so many early childhood theorists, it’s difficult to narrow the scope to just a handful. By the same token, attempting to review each and every one would be a colossal undertaking and, quite frankly, too much to digest in one sitting.

We’ll hit some of the highlights here to see how these men and women shaped education.

1782-1852 - Friedrich Froebel

It is Froebel who is credited with founding kindergarten which was based on his belief that young children need their own space for learning separate from adults – save for the teacher and aides. According to Froebel, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” Simply put, he believed play was absolutely vital in the learning process, especially for young children.

1870–1952 - Maria Montessori

Montessori believed that early childhood learning required a two-prong approach: Educate the child’s senses first, then educate the child’s intellect. Her approach was to view the children as sources of knowledge with the teacher or educator acting as a social engineer. Her hands-on approach to instruction with the learning environment being deemed as vital as the knowledge itself has transformed academic success for many children who did not respond well to traditional classroom methods.

1896-1934 - Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky believed that social interaction is an important vehicle for child development on linguistic, social, and cognitive levels. He introduced the concept of a teacher as more of a learning facilitator where the child learns by working with someone more capable than the child (typically a teacher or parent). The teacher helps the child with tasks that are just beyond or just within the capability of the child. He also believed that grouping children of mixed ages in a learning environment supports their skill and knowledge acquisition.

1896-1980 - Jean Piaget

Piaget’s theory of learning incorporated his Stages of Development:

  • Birth to about 2 years old – Sensorimotor
  • About the time the child begins talking to around 7 years old – Preoperational
  • About the time the child enters 1st grade until early adolescence – Concrete
  • Adolescence – Formal Operations

He believed that children learn by interacting with their environment actively and directly. He believed that a child’s learning also goes through several stages: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. This is how they process new information and make it useable to them.

1902-1994 - Erik Erikson

Erikson’s psychosocial theory (among others) has been a foundational concept in early childhood education for years. He emphasized that parents and educators are each integral in supporting and encouraging the success a child has in life at every psychosocial stage of development. By providing the support that is appropriate for the stage, it results in a positive learning experience. He also believed that older children’s social emotional development goes hand in hand with the development and subsequent success of early childhood curriculum.

There are many other great minds that helped shape our educational system and lend a deeper understanding of early learning in children. It is well worth exploring this further when developing a personal teaching style.

Father of Early Childhood Education

The true roots of early childhood education are not entirely clear. There are several names that are noted when discussing the father, or founder, of early childhood education. The truth is many great minds have laid stones for that path. However, there are a few that rise to the top.

Martin Luther is often given credit for having one of the earliest ideas of educating children. In the 1500s most people were illiterate. Luther believed in universal education, emphasizing that it strengthens the person, the family, and the community. His belief that children should be taught to read on their own was so that they would have independent access to the holy scriptures in the Bible.

Jean Rousseau is another who is credited with being a founder of early childhood education – and he did provide some substantial contributions. Many of Rousseau’s educational principles are still used in today’s classrooms. His viewpoint was that education should be child-centered and provide unlimited experiences that are sensory-driven and practical. His belief that measuring, singing, drawing, and speaking should be incorporated into education is the reason that they are present in schools today.

Friedrich Froebel is another who is given a great deal of credit for his contributions to early childhood education and child care. He is believed to be the founder of kindergarten but his beliefs in how young children should be educated also impact today’s classroom. Because of those theories, young children are taught through play in addition to more conventional methods, providing positive experiences for learning.

Theories of Early Childhood Education

There are many different theories of early childhood education. These theories have led to styles of education that are still seen in the classroom today. Several have become highly specialized teaching methods and even have their own accrediting bodies to prevent scams and keep schools from teaching the method improperly or not operating fully within the method.

These are some of the more popular methods that have been embraced by educators and are widely known by not only teachers and those involved in education, but also by parents and other laypersons. At the very least, many of the terms or names are recognizable.

Self-Directed Learning – Montessori | Maria Montessori

In the Montessori classroom, the focus is on the child interacting with the materials and the teacher is more of a facilitator as opposed to most traditional classrooms where the focus is on the child interacting with the teacher. Children learn by the experience of observing and doing various activities and tasks, including life skills like gardening, zipping, and cutting. Instead of being taught, they are led by the teacher to materials and activities that are suited for the child. In the classroom, children are free to move about, select activities, and pursue things that interest them at their own pace.

Classroom as the “Third Teacher” – Reggio Emilia | Loris Malaguzzi

This highly creative learning environment focuses on the child’s interests and encourages intellectual development through creative outlets like painting, dramatic play, drawing, sculpting, working in clay, and conversing. The classroom is carefully designed with an emphasis on the look and feel which enhances the child’s learning experience and is often called the “third teacher.” The objective is to create a classroom that is stimulating, joyful, beautiful, and inviting. Teachers use photographs, videos, and notes to document the children’s activities, remarks, and discussions. Learning is made visible this way and it gives parents greater insight into what their children are learning. Children learn that their work is valuable and important while teachers form stronger bonds with their students and get to know them better.

Plan-Do-Review Process – High/Scope | Dave Weikart and Connie Kamii

The High/Scope program operates on a play-based premise with learning geared to the child’s current developmental stage. It is intended to promote positive experiences in learning and constructive processes that aim to broaden and grow emerging social and intellectual skills. High/Scope classrooms are made up of several learning centers that include math, building, music, science, dramatic play, writing, reading, art, and motor development. The educational style is the “plan-do-review” model. Each day the children discuss with the teacher how they will plan their day. They then follow their plan and, at the end of the day, review what they did with their teacher.

Hands-On Exploration – Waldorf | Rudolf Steiner

The Waldorf program is designed to educate with a whole-child approach (“head, heart, and hands”). Children are allowed to be children in this program because of its overarching philosophy that all phases of child development take time and there is time for them. It also asserts that the formal education of a child should not begin until after their 7th birthday. The learning in the program is hands-on and achieved by exploring many different avenues including singing, cooking, dress-up, storytelling, puppet shows, art projects, and play. Each group of children has the same teacher from preschool, up through eighth grade. The learning focus is on self-discovery and sensory exploration with an aim to instill a sense of responsibility and compassion in the children.

Learning by Doing – Bank Street | John Dewey

This developmental approach is based on Dewey’s theory of “learning by doing.” The focus is the child’s growth physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Social skills are important, and it is definitely an area of interest in this program. In these preschools, the child actively learns by using experience to gain knowledge. The teacher operates in a facilitator capacity and the child sets the learning pace. The lessons taught are all hands-on activities like dramatic play, clay, puzzles, and building blocks.

How has ECE Changed Over the Years?

There was a time when early childhood education was more relaxed and informal. The children played and learned in an environment with little academic pressure and virtually no competition. Over the years, as education has become more formalized, these things have been introduced into the classroom.

Children are entering school as young as three or four years old. Often, they are required to sit quietly and learn via various exercises that are often typically only considered to be appropriate for older children.

As academic success has become more of a priority the push has been for better grades, earlier milestones, and more challenging metrics. However, many of the “old” programs that just let kids be kids, encouraging play as a teacher, and allowing for more creative, hands-on learning are a welcome sight.

Today is the best time to enter into education as a career. Whether you are seeking your bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or your Master of Arts in Teaching, your time is now.

Are you interested in learning more about Early Childhood Education degree programs at Monroe College? Talk with us and request more information or apply today!