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Swinburne Library

Chapter Title:

Edwards, Susan
Theoretical and philosophical informants to early
childhood education and care
Early childhood education and care : a
sociocultural approach
Castle Hill, N.S.W.
Pademelon Press

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ch. 1, pp. 5-11

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Chapter 1
Tdevelopment he andeducation the nature and ofyoung of a childhood. range children of philosophical The has historically theories beliefs and drawn regarding philosophies on theories learning that of
inform early childhood education tend to influence the way teachers view
young children, including the way young children learn and grow. These
views in turn influence teachers’ beliefs and values about how they can
best meet young children’s needs within an educational context. When
thinking about early childhood education and the various theoretical and
philosophical orientations available to educators, it is important to
remember that such informants are shaped by the particular social and
political contexts in which they are developed. Consequently, any of the
informants we might consider in our work as early childhood educators
are reflective of particular historical periods, which in turn draw on particular views regarding the nature of childhood and how young children learn
and develop. This idea is evident when we look back to medieval times,
where there was no concept of childhood as a separate time of life, or to
early fifteenth century beliefs, which positioned young children as ‘blank
slates’ upon whom life experiences needed to be written (Morrison, 2004).
Over time, early childhood education has been informed by a number of
philosophies and theories, many of which have been foundational to the
work that is now conducted with young children. Educators are familiar
with the pioneering names of Froebel, Montessori and Piaget. In more recent
times, contemporary theorists and approaches to early childhood education
have begun to build on the work of the pioneers, confirming some of our
earlier beliefs and challenging others. The work of Vygotsky, Rogoff, and
Gardner and the research and project work in Reggio Emilia, Italy, have
added depth and understanding to the way teachers view and work with
young children and their families. The theoretical perspectives that inform
educators’ work have a profound influence on how they decide to work
with young children and the type of educational experiences educators
Early Childhood Education and Care: A Sociocultural Approach
provide for them. This means that it is important to remember that the
view educators hold of young children and their development is likely to
influence the way they approach teaching and learning in early childhood
contexts (Dahlberg et al., 1999, p 43):
There are many children and many childhoods, each constructed by
our understandings of childhood and what children are and should
be… we have choices to make about who we think the child
is and
these choices have enormous significance since our construction of
the child and early childhood are productive-by which we mean that
they determine the institutions we provide for children and the
pedagogical work that adults undertake in these institutions.
The foundational and contemporary theories of development and learning
that inform early childhood education and care define children and influence
our pedagogical practices in particular ways. Foundational theories have
served to emphasise aspects of early childhood education that have long
been valued, such as open-ended activities, the role of play in learning
and the provision of natural materials. Contemporary theories emphasise
the role that children’s social and cultural experiences play in informing
their development, and help teachers provide learning experiences that
are sensitive to children’s needs according to the community context.
When considering the role theories play in our understandings of early
childhood education, it is important to remember that theories themselves
are not self evident truths. Theories are
explanations for the phenomena
we see in our world that attempt to explain how and why a phenomenon
might work. How children learn, develop and grow is a phenomenon that
has fascinated many people over time, thus there are many theories, or
possible explanations, for how this process occurs. Revisiting early childhood
education theories and philosophies is a useful means of understanding
our work with young children. However, it is important to also remember
that such theories only exist as explanations (not as definite truths) for
development and learning in pedagogical practice.
Theoretical and Philosophical Informants to Early Childhood Education and Care
Reflection point
What do you think are the implications of holding
an ‘image of the child’?
Do you find yourself drawing on your own childhood to inform your beliefs about what and how
young children should learn; or are you more likely to draw on your
understanding of particular theories of development?
Thinking about the practice-theory relationship
How do your responses to these questions relate to the decisions
you make about children’s learning?
D was uring about taken the early early childhood to examine research education. the sessions existing Many withknowledge the educators Casey expressed educators, educatorsvalue time held
for the idea that young children should learn through play, and believed
that learning is an active, engaged and exploratory process for young
children. The educators reflected on these beliefs and attempted to identify
which theoretical and philosophical perspectives were informing their
thinking about children’s learning. Although a range of theorists and
philosophers informed their ideas about early childhood education (for
example, Locke, Rousseau, Dewey and Steiner), these educators .identified
three foundational theorists as central to their thinking about teaching
and learning:
Early Childhood Education and Care: A Sociocultural Approach
1 Froebel;
2 Montessori; and
3 Piaget.
Interestingly, each of these theorists positioned participation in play-based
activities as central to children’s learning. The Casey educators used
many of these ideas about play and its role in children’s learning and
development as the basis for their practice.
Friedrich Froebel’s contribution to early childhood education was
embedded in his concept of the child’s development occurring in a natural
and unfolding process. Froebel believed that the growing child could be
compared to a blooming flower, which grows from a seed to the mature
plant, with the teacher taking on the role of a gardener. This gave rise to
his famous description of early education as being the ‘kindergarten’ or
the ‘children’s garden’. Froebel’s view of the child meant that the educator’s
role involved supporting and nurturing children’s growing developmental
abilities. Froebel considered play to be the purest form of activity for young
children and it was here that the notion of children learning through play
first took root as an important ideal in early childhood education
(Morrison, 2004). Within Froebel’s philosophy, play opportunities were
provided for young children through the provision of gifts and occupations
that involved children utilising and manipulating a series of materials.
This enabled the children to learn about the physical properties and
relationships between the objects that made up their world (Edwards and
Hammer, 2006).
Maria Montessori’s ideas about early learning were based on a series of
principles she saw as important in educating children. These principles
are commonly reflected in many of the practices that traditionally inform
early childhood education. For example, Montessori believed in respecting
the child as a learner and in the idea of the ‘absorbent mind’. Because
Montessori believed children would absorb knowledge from their world,
she also valued the idea of an educational environment that was prepared
by the teacher. Setting up such an environment would enable children to
self-regulate their own learning. Montessori also promoted the notion of
Theoretical and Philosophical Informants to Early Childhood Education and Care
sensitive periods in children’s development when they would be better able
to learn specific skills than at other times. Amongst the most important of
Montessori’s ideas to be articulated to early childhood education were
those of ‘child-centred’ learning and the provision of prepared environments for children to work within (Morrison, 2006).
Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology had a profound influence on twentieth
century early childhood educational practice. Although most well known
for his theory about ages and stages of cognitive development, Piaget never
set out to define a theory of cognitive development in young children.
Rather, Piaget was interested in where knowledge actually came from in
children and adults and it was this interest that gave rise to the name of his
theory-the genetic (meaning
origins) epistemology (meaning knowledge).
Piaget’s early thinking was influenced by that of Immanuel Kant, a German
philosopher, who proposed that knowledge came from the interactions
that occurred between people’s experiences of the world and knowledge
structures that existed in their minds. Piaget agreed with Kant’s views
concerning knowledge development, but believed that the knowledge
structures evolved from reflexes in the newborn into complex mental structures or schemes as the infant experienced more and more of the world.
It was this belief that led Piaget to outline the stages of cognitive development, including the sensorimotor, preoperational, operational and formal
operational periods that are so well known in early childhood education.
Piaget’s ideas about knowledge development were taken up by educationalists who believed that learning experiences for young children would
be most useful when they were designed to meet the child’s current level
or stage of development (Edwards and Hammer, 2006). This idea, combined
with a continued emphasis on providing children with opportunities to
interact with materials, contributed to the notion of ‘developmentally appropriate practice’, otherwise known as DAP (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997).
Piaget’s beliefs about knowledge development are reflected in many of the
traditional practices that are seen in early childhood classrooms, including
the provision of materials and opportunities (for example sand and water
play, dramatic play) that allow children to acquire knowledge of their
world (Seefeldt, 1990, p 21):
Early Childhood Education and Care: A Sociocultural Approach
Children must be able to touch, handle, move, taste, pound, see, hear
and do something in order to have an experience. Activity centres
arranged throughout the room are one way to provide for first hand
experiences. Raw materials are featured-sand, wood, water, paints
and paper. These foster children’s thinking because no end has been
predetermined by an adult. Children are the ones who have to figure
out what to do with the raw material, how to do it, and when they
have reached the end and accomplished their own goal.
A teacher speaks
Piaget was the theory that I remember most from
university and I believe that the ages and stages
gave me a basis of where a child should be when
I needed guidance as a beginning teacher. Even though children are very
different and move through the stages at different rates I found it comforting
to be familiar with the stages. Things like being interactive with experiences,
touching, handling, moving, tasting, seeing and hearing as involvement are
important. However, I also know that some children need to have an extended
period of watching and observing before they are ready for the interactive
level. Providing children with open-ended activities gives children a chance
to be involved at their own level of development.
Piaget’s ideas about knowledge construction and development in the
young child have manifested themselves in the provision of many of the
materials and practices we commonly associate with early childhood
education. Whilst these materials and practices represent an important
component of early childhood education, some researchers have questioned
how relevant the practices are to children from a range of cultural and
socioeconomic backgrounds (Lubeck, 1998). Other researchers suggested
that using developmental theory as the only informant to practice can
result in children being left to learn through play without the learning
necessarily being made explicit (Hedges, 2000, p 17):
Theoretical and Philosophical Informants to Early Childhood Education and Care
Programs in early childhood education settings have often been based
on a developmental play curriculum following Piagetian theories of
children’s cognition. While Piagetian practice emphasised a stimulating
child-centred environment few would disagree with, the underlying
developmental theory did not make explicit links to processes of
teaching and learning that teachers and children could engage in.
& Cashdan (1998) found that in such programs children
were contented and busy but three things were rare: sustained
conversation orplay with an adult, high complexity ofplay activities and
lively, purposeful involvement leading to creative, exciting discovery.
These research findings do not intend to displace the importance of
understanding how children develop or the role of play and hands-on
experiences in learning but, rather, they alert us to the importance of
understanding the many different ways in which learning and development
can and does occur in childhood. More contemporary theories and
philosophies in early childhood education have begun to examine the role and
effect of social and cultural contexts on children’s learning and development.
Reflection point
Which foundational theorists and philosophies do
you think are most important to your work with
young children?
What is it about these theorists and philosophies
that appeals to your beliefs about children and their learning?
Thinking about the practice-theory relationship
When you look around your classroom, can you see certain practices
that reflect aspects of the foundational theorists?
How often do you stop to reflect on how and why you are drawing
on foundational theorists
in your work?



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