Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education is a term that describes the care taken and the teaching of young children from their birth to the age of eight, or until they start school. The term refers to activities carried out by people outside the family and is often focused on learning through play. The facilities that provide early childhood education services include kindergartens, nurseries, pre-school classes, child-care centers and other institutions.

Depending on the age that a child goes to school in each separate country, early childhood education covers a different period. In New Zealand and the United Kingdom, for example, early childhood is considered the period from birth to around the age of five, when children in the country usually start school. In other countries such as Austria, Canada, Germany and France the compulsory school age is six years, while in Denmark it is seven years. The term itself also varies depending on the country. In Great Britain for instance the term is ‘early years education.'

The first studies on early childhood education appeared in the first half of the seventeenth century. Johann Amos Comenius is among the founders of the system as we know it today. In his book The Great Didactic (1657) he introduced what is now considered one of the first descriptions of an educational system tailored for young children. In Comenius' view learning through the senses was the best way to teach during early childhood. He believed that before reading about the object of study a child should first touch, see, taste or hear it.

According to Comenius, there should not be any gender or social class discrimination in education. He paid specific attention to individual differences among children; he believed that a child's development depended on his or her natural inclinations and that one and the same method would not work with each child. Comenius' system of education included four levels spanning from infancy to adulthood. Each level outlined the educational experience needed by a person at each stage of development. This idea was new and became the foundation of other scholars' works on the concept of early childhood education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in education according to the ways of nature. He felt that education should be focused more on sensory and rational experiences than on literary and linguistic ones. One of Rousseau's most famous quotes proclaims that "Our first teachers are our feet, our hands and our eyes. To substitute books for all these…is but to teach us to use the reasons of others". In his view education for young children requires more freedom and individuality, an idea that was fundamental for the time.

Rousseau's system of education differed drastically from the common practices. According to him each child was born with his or her own destiny, so education had to be based on his or her nature and needs. He also believed that a child should be physically and emotionally ready for a specific idea before they could learn it. This view came in contrast with Comenius', as he suggests the concept of readiness.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was the first to introduce the idea of psychologizing education. It brought after itself significant changes in the aims and methods of early years education. According to Pestalozzi the most natural environment for a child is a home where discipline is combined with love. He applied his system in three schools for war orphans, where he helped the children develop ideas through sense impressions. As part of the method he replaced learning by heart and reciting with other activities such as oral teaching, experience with familiar objects, geography, arithmetic and music. Practical skills like farming, housekeeping, spinning and weaving were also taught at Pestalozzi's schools.

Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel, touted as Pestalozzi's most influential student, is considered the father of kindergarten. Thanks to his efforts early childhood education evolved into an organized part of school - a complete entity. Learning from Rousseau and Comenius' works Froebel invented not a school but a garden where young children were free to discover the world. He made special materials and a new educational environment for young children. His child centered way of work aimed to encourage creativity in children through play.

Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel gave a solid foundation for modern early childhood education. Their ideas and methods are found in today's educational system, as many modern scholars and teachers have reshaped them in order to match their time and beliefs.

Early Childhood Education: Selected full-text books and articles

Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education By Nicola Yelland Open University Press, 2005
Teaching and Learning in the Early Years By David Whitebread RoutledgeFalmer, 2003 (2nd edition)
Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education By Gunilla Dahlberg; Peter Moss RoutledgeFalmer, 2005
Reexamining Quality in Early Childhood Education: Exploring the Relationship between the Organizational Climate and the Classroom By Dennis, Sarah E.; O'Connor, Erin Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol. 27, No. 1, January-March 2013
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education By Bruce Fullerwith; Margaret Bridges; Seeta Pai Stanford University Press, 2007
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