Browse by...
WisdomOfPlay The Wisdom of Play

Our free 28-page booklet on the importance of play in early childhood.

History of Early Childhood Education

Chapter One from The Wisdom of Play

by David Elkind
History of Early Childhood

Early childhood education, the care and instruction of young children outside of the home, over the last half century has become a downward extension of schooling. It is now the first rung on the educational ladder. In many respects, however, this most recent addition to the pedagogical hierarchy is quite different from its elementary and secondary predecessors.

The early childhood curriculum is the most holistic and least differentiated at any level of education. It is also the most solidly grounded in philosophy, in clearly articulated methodology, and in theory and research. Those who contributed to the discipline of early childhood education came from occupations and professions outside the academic domain. What they had in common was an understanding of children. And that is what makes early childhood education unique; it starts with the child and not with the subject matter.

The philosophical foundations of early childhood education were provided by John Amos Comenius, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Its curriculum and methodology were created by the likes of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner. Most recently, it was scientifically grounded by the research and theories of Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson. While there are differences in the approaches of these progenitors of early childhood education, they are overshadowed by one common principle: that early childhood curriculum and practice must be adapted to the maturing needs, abilities, and interests of the child.

This was the principle embodied in the Kindergarten Program, developed by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) and the first early childhood program to be widely adopted in both Europe and abroad. The kindergarten movement was propelled by the industrial revolution and the introduction of women into the factory labor force. Later, Maria Montessori’s (1870-1952) early childhood program was also widely adopted both in Europe and abroad. But it was not until after WWII that early childhood education came to be seen as an important first step on the educational ladder.

In America, the Head Start Program, launched in the 1960s for low-income children, had an unintended consequence. Although it was very effective, the title gave parents the impression that education was a race, and that the earlier you start, the earlier and better you finish.  Middle-income parents wanted their preschoolers to have a head start as well. This gave added emphasis to the importance of early childhood education as the answer to improving the educational system.

As a consequence, kindergarten, once a half-day affair required by only 40 percent of US states, has become largely a full-day affair required nationwide. Academics, including math and reading curricula, testing and grades, are now the norm in many schools. Programs for younger children have expanded as well. Today, some 80 percent of children under the age of six spend part or full time in non-parental child care settings. Having your child cared for outside of the home, once looked down upon as an abrogation of a mother’s maternal instinct, is now a socially accepted practice. Indeed, those parents who choose not to put their children in out-of-home settings are the ones perceived as insufficiently concerned with their child’s welfare.

With the rapid expansion and acceptance of early childhood programs, the basic principle of early childhood education, supported by an overwhelming amount of contemporary research and classroom experience, is dismissed as irrelevant. Instead, we have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make early childhood education “the new first grade.” A play-based curriculum is best suited to meet the emerging needs, abilities, and interests of young children. We have come too far from where early education began: with the child. 

About the Author
David Elkind , PhD, is currently Professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. His research and theorizing have been in the areas of perceptual, social, and cognitive development where he has worked to build on the theories of Jean Piaget. Perhaps Elkind is best known for his books, The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Miseducation, and most recently, The Power of Play. Dr. Elkind also writes a weekly blog on child development issues at

Jessica McQuillen commented on  March 22, 2015

I really appreciated Dr. Elkind's reflection on how unique the Early Childhood Curriculum is to other curricula. The idea that it is based on the "child" and not the "subject matter", really resonated with me because as I watch children, how they play and interact with one another, I learn so much about what they are thinking, what motivates them and how I might encourage their growth, based on their individual interests. I would hate to lose sight of the idea that the child is capable of leading his or her own learning with more stringent top-down approaches to learning, where the teacher is the expert. I still seem to see this kind of teaching, even in the face of all that we know about emergent learning and Developmentally appropriate practice. I agree with comments made that we have a responsibility to lead by example. I try to do that in my teaching and I appreciate watching other Early Childhood Educators in action who exude a deep respect for children as individuals. As I watch their interactions I learn how I want to be and what I can change to make myself better!

Olivia Huffman commented on  March 19, 2015

This is a great source of information. It breaks down some of the resources available and gives insight on their success. It is interesting that Head Start was created during the "war on poverty" but what if we had not established it, where would we be? Early childhood education allows us to close the achievement gap but also to build up the children for success.

Stella Atuatasi commented on  February 11, 2015

I agree with everything that Dr. Elkind wrote. I think the future does start with the children. It is very important to understand the children by observation and interaction and not make assumptions based on appearance and family background/income. It is also important that we model and lead by example. I love working with children and feel we as leaders, counselors, and teachers can make positive impacts on their lives.

Linda Duerr commented on  April 05, 2011

It did my heart good to read Dr. Elkind's reminder to all of us as to where we should stand in reference to appropriate settings and environments for very young children. We should be right beside the child. I would like to see this statement about appropriate curriculum expanded and discussed further to cover the much needed topic of grass roots curriculum approaches. We seem to have lost confidence in ourselves as the individuals described here. We seem to feel that we all need a research based packaged curriculum that does not necessarily even associate with the required assessment systems we must follow in order to access programs and funding.

Share your thoughts

This field is required
Invalid Email Address
This field is required