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Alexandra Huss

Theories That Helped Shape Early Childhood Education Programs

Throughout history, the adult view of children has been continually changing and

evolving. New studies and observations are constantly conducted, which shed light on areas of

development and learning that may have been previously unexplored, and provide a new

perspective to what education should be. Children have been thought of as miniature adults,

competent children, people possessing economic value, and blank slates, among other things

(Bredekamp, 2014). In response to these varying perceptions have come numerous theories on

ways to best teach children. When looking back at the history of early childhood education and

the practices and theories that have shaped the world of education as we know it today, there are

several important people who instantly come to mind: Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky,

and John Dewey. These people not only revolutionized the way children were taught, but they

created concepts and strategies that are still used today. Additionally, their theories helped shape

early childhood education programs such as Waldorf, Montessori, Head Start, and Reggio

Emilia. Although these programs vary greatly in several regards, they all incorporate some

aspect of one or several of the aforementioned theorists ideas into their approach to education.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss-born scientist, is known for the development of the Constructivist

Learning Theory, a relatively complex philosophy that explains how children develop, the types

of knowledge they acquire, and the stages in which their cognitive development occurs. Simply

put, however, Piagets theory explains how children dont think like adults (Bredekamp,

2014). In the first part of his theory, Piaget describes how children learn through firsthand

experiences in stimulating environments. Based on what they have experienced in their lives,

children have specific ideas about how things work, and they create schemes, or mental

structures, that they use to guide their thinking and behavior (Bredekamp, 2014). Keeping these

schemes in mind, children then use two processes to help make sense of new information:

assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process by which children incorporate the

world into their existing modes of perceiving, thinking, and acting, whereas accommodation is

when children modify their ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting to better match their

emerging understanding of their world (Mahoney, 2013).

The second aspect of Piagets theory explains the three different types of knowledge that

children develop as a result of their interactions and experiences. Physical knowledge is

understanding how objects move and function in space, logico-mathematical knowledge is the

relationships that are constructed in our minds between objects or concepts, and social-

conventional knowledge is the culturally agreed upon names and symbols, such as the letters of

the alphabet, that need to be transmitted to the learner directly (Bredekamp, 2014). It is important

to distinguish between these types of knowledge because, since they are all acquired in different

ways, teachers must incorporate diverse teaching strategies that will enable children to best

understand the concepts that they are trying to learn.

Finally, Piaget also believed that biology plays a significant role in a childs life and

identified four key stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor stage (birth to two years),

the preoperational stage (two to seven years), the concrete operational stage (seven to eleven

years), and the formal operational stage (eleven to adulthood) (Bredekamp, 2014). All children,

regardless of geographical location or environmental factors, will go through each of the four

stages in the exact order that Piaget outlined.


Similarly to Piaget, Erik Erikson also believed that there are stages of development,

although his are determined by cultural and social experiences rather than biology. He was one

of the first people to propose a model of social-emotional development that included eight

successive psychosocial stages and spanned from infancy to late adulthood (Sokol, 2009). The

first four stages (trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. doubt, initiative vs. guilt, and industry vs.

inferiority) occur from birth to age 12 and each one serves as a critical period for children during

which they experience increased vulnerability and heightened potential (Sokol, 2009). The

remaining four stages occur from adolescence into adulthood. As individuals pass through each

phase, they are confronted with a major challenge or crisis that must be faced. Successfully

negotiating the crisis means that the individual was able to achieve a balance between two

possible extremes, while unsuccessful negotiation could potentially lead to problems later in life

(Bredekamp, 2014). In order for children to successfully pass through each phase, they rely

heavily on family members, primary care givers, and teachers for support and guidance.

Additionally, Erikson believed that a child begins to form a sense of identity at a very young age,

and successful negotiation of every phase in childhood has a very significant impact on

development that occurs later in life (Sokol, 2009).

Another theorist who believed that social and cultural experiences greatly influence the

individual was Lev Vygotsky and he expressed his ideas in his Sociocultural Theory. In this

theory, Vygotsky emphasizes that the culture in which a child grows up determines what he/she

learns and demonstrates how the concepts of the zone of proximal development, scaffolding,

language, play, and self-regulation are involved in cognitive development (Bredekamp, 2014).

He believed that childrens learning is constantly in a state of development (de la Riva and Ryan,

2015); children have the ability to perform a number of tasks on their own, but they are able to

accomplish far more if they have assistance or guidance from an adult, or collaborate with other

children. The difference between the actual developmental level and the potential development

they could achieve is what he referred to as the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, and the

guidance that others provide is known as scaffolding (Bredekamp, 2014). By maintaining a more

supportive role in the classroom, teachers allow children to think on their own and share ideas

with their classmates in order to solve a specific problem. Teachers merely provide assistance

when needed and challenge childrens thinking; they do not dictate or control what their students

are supposed to be learning.

Vygotsky also believed that learning is highly dependent upon childrens interactions

with other people; speech is the most important tool and make-believe play is the leading activity

for a childs learning and development (Bredekamp, 2014). By talking an idea, thought, or

concept through with someone else, children are able to deepen their understanding and

eventually to turn their outward conversations into internal, personal knowledge. Make-believe

play provides children with the opportunity to see a situation from someone elses perspective

and encourages them to use more sophisticated language than they probably would on their own,

while simultaneously enabling them to master the necessary prerequisites of academic skills (de

la Riva et al., 2015).

The final aspect of Vygotskys theory is the development of self-regulation. During

preschool years, children should develop the ability to control and overcome negative responses

to environmental situations (de la Riva et al., 2015). They have to begin to adapt their behavior,

emotions, and thinking according to the demands of the situation while also learning to control

their impulses (Bredekamp, 2014). Later studies have supported Vygotskys belief in the

importance of self-regulation, finding that preschool childrens ability to self-regulate is a


stronger predictor of their academic success than both intelligence or family background

(Bredekamp, 2014).

John Dewey, a professor of philosophy, took a very different approach in his theory on

early childhood development. Rather than viewing education as an opportunity for children to

develop rudimentary skills and acquire fundamental knowledge, he felt that the goal should be to

teach children how to engage with the world on a practical level (Glassman and Whaley, 2000).

Because his approach was so different, his ideas on how the classroom should be organized were

very different as well. Primarily, the classroom should function as a community, and the

teachers role is to influence and assist children as if they were a community member themselves

(Bredekamp, 2014). Dewey also felt that children learn best if they are taught subjects that

interest them, and these topics should be introduced to them in a very hands-on manner. This

approach places the child at the center of the curriculum (Bredekamp, 2014) and encourages

teachers to let children develop dynamic aims for themselves to achieve (Glassman et al., 2000).

Dewey strongly believed that since activity in life did not have stoppings points, neither should

activity in education; once a specific aim is accomplished, it instantly becomes a starting point

for another activity (Glassman et al., 2000). Finally, Dewey strongly believed that parent

involvement was an important aspect of early childhood education. Parents and teachers should

learn from each other should meet regularly to discuss goals and topics of education for the

children (Bredekamp, 2014). Although this may seem like a standard educational practice today,

Dewey was the first person to suggest such an idea and was considered radical for his time.

As various theories about human development and education arise, so to do numerous

early childhood education programs which incorporate one or many aspects of different theories.

The first program to be examined is Waldorf, founded by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. After

World War I, Steiner was invited to Stuttgart, Germany to found a school for the employees of

the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory (Edwards, 2002). The goal was to create a school for boys

and girls of any background that provided a comprehensive education and was independent of

external control (Edwards, 2002).

The main idea of the Waldorf program is that children essentially educate themselves

while the teachers provide physical surroundings that create nourishing and diverse opportunities

for the children during their self-education process (Howard, 2007). Teachers are also

responsible for ensuring that specific experiences occur that serve as a model of imitation for the

children and enable them to receive a healthy childhood education. These experiences include

love and warmth, care for the environment, nourishment for the senses, free and imaginative

play, and protection for the forces of childhood, among others (Howard, 2007). Each day, the

teacher composes rhythms that allow the children to breathe freely in a living structure, and

carries out activities that are derived directly from life itself, not ones that are intellectualized by

the adult mind (Howard, 2007). Many of the activities are artistic in nature, giving children

opportunities to experience song and dance, poetry, watercolor painting, drawing, and puppetry,

among other things (Howard, 2007).

Additionally, play is an essential element of the Waldorf program because it allows the

children to grow physically, intellectually, and emotionally. During play, children are able to

ignore rules, regulations, and educational theories, and are given free rein to play in any way

they choose (Howard, 2007). The final defining characteristic of the Waldorf program is that the

inner qualities and attributes of the teachers are considered to be extremely important. What a

teacher is able to accomplish with a child during early childhood is the same as what he/she

accomplishes for that individual as an adult, twenty or thirty years down the road; one of the

things that matters most is that the children develop a sense of responsibility in their hearts and

in their minds that positively affects their world view and stance in life (Howard, 2007).

The Waldorf program seems to most reflect the ideas of Vygotsky and Dewey. The

similarities to Vygotsky are in the area of play, in which they both believe play is an essential

part of early childhood development. Play enables children to disregard the rules of every day

life, and gives them an opportunity to experience things from a different point of view, therefore

making it a vitally important tool to the program. The Waldorf program mirrors some of

Deweys ideas as well in that it strives to positively impact the inner values and beliefs of the

children. While Dewey felt that children should be taught to properly function in a democratic

society, Waldorf emphasizes the inner being of children, believing that lessons about gratitude

and happiness, when properly conveyed, have a positive impact on a child later in life, allowing

them to become members of a just and peaceful society.

A second early childhood education program that has experienced widespread success is

the Montessori method, developed by Italys first female physician, Maria Montessori. While

working with poor children in the slums of Rome, Montessori started to question the popular

opinion that these children were mentally deficient; rather, she believed that they were simply

suffering from a lack of stimulation in their environments (Bredekamp, 2014). To combat this

situation, she started a program that she called Casa dei Bambini for 4 to 7 year olds, and it

became a wildly successful method for educating children. Montessori believed in an inherent

intelligence that included rational, empirical, and spiritual aspects (Edwards, 2002), and and felt

that if children were placed in an organized environment, they would develop naturally

(Bredekamp, 2014). In order to create and maintain this environment, Montessori incorporated

child-sized furniture, open shelving systems, self-correcting learning materials, and educational

materials designed to be used only in prescribed ways into her classroom (Bredekamp, 2014).

Additionally, children are grouped into multi-aged classrooms that they stay with for three years

in order to promote adult-child continuity (Edwards, 2002).

One aspect of the Montessori method that starkly contrasts many other early childhood

education programs is the dismissal of the importance of play. Montessori, rather, felt that social

interaction was not important for childrens learning and viewed play was a waste of childrens

time (Bredekamp, 2014). Children, therefore, are instructed to remain on their individual mats

and not be disturbed by anyone else. Teachers and children are able to interact with each other

throughout the day, but teachers should never interfere with a childs natural exploration. They

are there mostly to prepare the environment, observe children, and demonstrate materials

(Bredekamp, 2014). Additionally, while children are able to choose their own activities for a

substantial portion of the day, the choices that are available have been predetermined by the


While many of the ideas in the Montessori method were first introduced by Montessori

herself, there are constructivist ideas incorporated into her approach which mimic Piagets

thoughts. As Piaget described, children must have firsthand experiences in stimulating

environments in order to actively build their knowledge (Bredekamp, 2014). The learning

materials that Montessori created (puzzles with knobs attached to each piece and cloth boards

with buttons) require children to use their senses to develop their fine motor skills and use hands-

on experiences to contribute to their learning, rather than having them learn through direct

instruction. Additionally, she extended the sensory learning experience to academic areas as

well. Sandpaper alphabets, for example, enable children to see and feel the letters as a first step

toward writing and ultimately reading (Bredekamp, 2014).


Similar to the origins of the Montessori method, Head Start is a program that was

originally started to help combat poverty in the United States. It was designed as a

comprehensive program that serves the whole child and provides not only education, but also

health, mental health, social services, and parent involvement (Devaney, Ellwood, and Love,

1997). Additionally, Head Start aims to help children with disabilities and requires that they

comprise at least 10% of its total population served (Bredekamp, 2014).

The program follows the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework,

in which developmental needs of the whole child are addressed (Bredekamp, 2014). Goals of the

curriculum include language development, social and emotional development, physical

development and health, logic and reasoning, approaches to learning, creative art expression, and

knowledge and skills in literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies; children achieve these

individual developmental goals by engaging in projects with and investigations of their

surrounding environment (Bredekamp, 2014). Additionally, teaching standards for Head Start

have been increased over the last few years, currently requiring 50% of teachers to possess a

Bachelors degree with early childhood specialization and at least 50% of teaching assistants to

have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential (Bredekamp, 2014). The purpose

of these increased standards are to ensure that Head Start continues to be a high quality education

program for children that ultimately instills a greater degree of social competence in preschool

children from low income families (Devaney et al.,1997). A final core component of the Head

Start program is parent involvement. Parents are involved in the classroom, serve as teachers and

staff members, and are responsible for occupying major decision-making roles (Bredekamp,


The practices of the Head Start program are most reflective of the beliefs of John Dewey.

Children engage in projects that encourage them to directly interact with the environment,

directly reinforcing Deweys idea that children learn better when they are able to experience

things hands-on. Another aspect of the program that mirrors Deweys beliefs is the emphasis on

parent involvement. In Deweys schools, parents and teachers would meet with each other

regularly in order to exchange ideas and learn from each other. The amount of parent

involvement both within the Head Start classroom as well as in program and policy decisions is

very parallel to Deweys practices.

The fourth and final early childhood education program is Reggio Emilia, an art program

that was first started in Northern Italy. Children in this program are viewed as being strong and

powerful citizens who are rich in potential, and children with special needs are given precedence

in school enrollment (Bredekamp, 2014). In Reggio Emilia schools, there is no preset

curriculum. Rather, teachers decide possible learning experiences that they will offer the

children, but the direction of the curriculum is decided by the children and their interests

(Bredekamp, 2014). Additionally, children complete both short and long term projects that

encourage them to represent their ideas in several different mediums, thus enabling them to

deepen their conceptual understanding (Bredekamp, 2014). Teachers do not impart knowledge

on children, but rather learn with them by asking challenging questions and exploring childrens

thoughts and hypotheses together, and parents are very much involved with learning activities in

the classroom (Bredekamp, 2014).

There are two very distinct characteristics of Reggio Emilia schools. First, each preschool

has an atelier, or studio, that is specially equipped to contain a wide range of materials and

resources available for childrens use during projects (Bredekamp, 2014). Secondly,

documentation is used to communicate competences of a child to his/her parents and to visually

record the learning that is taking place (Bredekamp, 2014). This documentation, however, is not

done in the traditional sense of note taking and assessment grades. Rather, teachers display

childrens discussions, photographs of them at work, and artistic representations of their thoughts

in order to visually demonstrate how their learning has progressed throughout the year.

Out of all the programs mentioned so far, it seems that Reggio Emilia is the most

comprehensive in that incorporates ideas from almost every theorist previously discussed. Long

and short term projects, discussions of directions that a curriculum or lesson can take, parent

involvement, and documentation of progress all reflect ideas that were introduced by Dewey.

Collaborative project work and co-construction of knowledge between teachers and students

echo Vygotskys Sociocultural Theory, and teachers who intentionally challenge students in

order to further drive their learning creates what Piaget referred to as disequilibrium

(Bredekamp, 2014). Finally, because the Reggio Emilia approach is deeply rooted in the

sociocultural context of its region, it cannot be successfully imitated in another culture

(Bredekamp, 2014), thus incorporating Eriksons belief that it is impossible for the individual to

be understood apart from his/her social context (Sokol, 2009).

Although all four of these programs differ somewhat in their beliefs and approaches to

education, they do also have some things in common. Firstly, they were all originally created for

poor or underprivileged children who did not have access to adequate education: Waldorf to help

create a just and peaceful society after the devastation of WWI, Montessori to teach children who

were labeled with disabilities, Head Start to educate and support children from low-income

families, and Reggio Emilia for the poor children in Italy to help reconstruct society after World

War II (Edwards, 2002). Secondly, all of the approaches believe that children are active authors

of their own development who are strongly influenced by the forces within themselves that pave

the way for growth and learning (Edwards, 2002). A third similarity between these programs is

seen in the role of the teacher. Although the teachers function in the classroom is not the same

in every program, their primary goals are; teachers are there to act as nurturers, partners, and

guides for the children (Edwards, 2002). Finally, each approach ensures, sometimes even

requires, that children with disabilities are included into the program.

As we have seen, theories and beliefs about child development and educational methods

vary significantly throughout history and geographical location. Many ideas presented by Piaget,

Erikson, Vygotsky, and Dewey were revolutionary for their time period and greatly impacted the

field of education. They were so influential that they were later incorporated into programs such

as Waldorf, Montessori, Head Start, and Reggio Emilia. Although each of these programs differ

in their specific instructional methods and beliefs, they all aim to create superior educational

experiences for children and much of their success can be attributed to the educational theories

that helped shape them.



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