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The History of Early Childhood Education

by David Elkind, PhD
History of Early Childhood

Early childhood education—the care and instruction of young children outside of the home—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.

Grounded in Philosophy

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.

Education 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.

Early childhood curriculum must constantly adapt to the maturing needs of the child.

The History of Early Childhood Education in the United States

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.

Young children now spend the majority of their waking hours in a child-care setting.

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.

A play-based curriculum best meets the needs of young children.​

This article appears as Chapter 1 in The Wisdom of Play.

About the Author
David Elkind, PhD

is currently Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University. He is a consultant to many organizations and lectures both at home and abroad. Elkind has over 500 publications, including articles and several well-known books: The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Miseducation, The Power of Play and most recently, Giants in the Nursery

Jeanette White commented on  April 28, 2016

I agree with the other educators. Every one can make sure that our children learn to value themselves and reach their fullest potential in a fun and safe environment because they are our future.

Sheila E. commented on  March 17, 2016

This article shows how people from every walk of life contribute their expertise to the most valuable, precious part of our world, our children. Strive to help them reach their fullest potential in a fun and safe environment.

Acquirneta McNair commented on  October 19, 2015

I agree that the Early Childhood curriculum is the most holistic and the least differentiated at any level of educated. I come from an occupation outside the academic domain. In my profession, I was a Social Worker and Pastoral Care Counselor who has an understanding of children. Early childhood starts with the children. Their direct need as it pertains to early childhood education governs the order of the curriculum. The philosophical foundation of early childhood in theory was sciencially researched by Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson primary. In conclusion of the research the methodology must support the need, abilities, and interest of the child. After WWII Early Head Start became pertinent and the consequence of a half of day program grew into a full day program across the nation. This promotes the enrichment investment educators are committing to as it pertains to the nurturing efforts toward proficient performance.

Versia Harris commented on  September 03, 2015

It did me a world of good to read again the works of early educators. My favorite is Maria Montessori, (1870-1952) a "brilliant woman" with a great contribution to poor and sick children.

Nichole Peterson commented on  September 02, 2015

I love that the author brings out the history of child care which gives me a starting point for it all. To know that his research continued based upon knowing the facts of these great founders is quite interesting. True knowledge for me has always been putting myself in the other person's place. Looking at something from another perspective: to be a "child" again.

Raquel Concepcion commented on  August 30, 2015

I really appreciated Dr. Elkind's reflection and I agree with everything that he wrote. It is very important to understand the children by observation and interaction because the early childhood curriculum and practice must be adapted to the maturing needs, abilities, and interests of the child. 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.

Pamela Hopper commented on  August 27, 2015

This was a great source information about EDC. I think that the Head Start was a great idea. I think that it should not have such a scale set as to where some are on the border line to be able to have this source of child care. I love working with children, you really have to have patience and a great love for this type of job.

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.

Deborah K Welcher commented on  March 17, 2015

I think "Head Start" was a positive title. However, because it was targeted toward low income children, middle income parents were offended that this special program was out of their reach. When Head Start was opened in the early 60's most schools started at 1st Grade. In Georgia, the firs Pre-K classes opened in 1993(Lottery Funded) and kindergarten was placed in public school in the late 60's, but only for students who scored very low on the pre-assessments. There were not enough spaces for all children to attend, so the students who scored lowest received the limited spaces out of academic need.

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.

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