Early Childhood Education History: Theorists & Theories (2023)

The history of early childhood education dates back to the 1500s, and it has certainly come a very long way over the years. However, children were being educated long before that. Even the Greek Philosopher Plato had some pretty groundbreaking ideas about how children should be educated.

Early childhood education has a very long and rich history with invaluable contributions from some of the greatest theorists in child development and education. In fact, several are now household words. All of the contributions from these famous early childhood education theorists had value and still do today. In fact, they helped shaped the educational system as we know it.

(Video) Early childhood History

Early Childhood Theorists

There are so many early childhood theorists, it’s difficult to narrow the scope to just a handful. By the same token, attempting to review each and every one would be a colossal undertaking and, quite frankly, too much to digest in one sitting.

We’ll hit some of the highlights here to see how these men and women shaped education.

1782-1852 - Friedrich Froebel

It is Froebel who is credited with founding kindergarten which was based on his belief that young children need their own space for learning separate from adults – save for the teacher and aides. According to Froebel, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” Simply put, he believed play was absolutely vital in the learning process, especially for young children.

1870–1952 - Maria Montessori

Montessori believed that early childhood learning required a two-prong approach: Educate the child’s senses first, then educate the child’s intellect. Her approach was to view the children as sources of knowledge with the teacher or educator acting as a social engineer. Her hands-on approach to instruction with the learning environment being deemed as vital as the knowledge itself has transformed academic success for many children who did not respond well to traditional classroom methods.

1896-1934 - Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky believed that social interaction is an important vehicle for child development on linguistic, social, and cognitive levels. He introduced the concept of a teacher as more of a learning facilitator where the child learns by working with someone more capable than the child (typically a teacher or parent). The teacher helps the child with tasks that are just beyond or just within the capability of the child. He also believed that grouping children of mixed ages in a learning environment supports their skill and knowledge acquisition.

1896-1980 - Jean Piaget

Piaget’s theory of learning incorporated his Stages of Development:

  • Birth to about 2 years old – Sensorimotor
  • About the time the child begins talking to around 7 years old – Preoperational
  • About the time the child enters 1st grade until early adolescence – Concrete
  • Adolescence – Formal Operations

He believed that children learn by interacting with their environment actively and directly. He believed that a child’s learning also goes through several stages: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. This is how they process new information and make it useable to them.

1902-1994 - Erik Erikson

Erikson’s psychosocial theory (among others) has been a foundational concept in early childhood education for years. He emphasized that parents and educators are each integral in supporting and encouraging the success a child has in life at every psychosocial stage of development. By providing the support that is appropriate for the stage, it results in a positive learning experience. He also believed that older children’s social emotional development goes hand in hand with the development and subsequent success of early childhood curriculum.

There are many other great minds that helped shape our educational system and lend a deeper understanding of early learning in children. It is well worth exploring this further when developing a personal teaching style.

(Video) Prominent Theorists and Their Contributions to Education

Father of Early Childhood Education

The true roots of early childhood education are not entirely clear. There are several names that are noted when discussing the father, or founder, of early childhood education. The truth is many great minds have laid stones for that path. However, there are a few that rise to the top.

Martin Luther is often given credit for having one of the earliest ideas of educating children. In the 1500s most people were illiterate. Luther believed in universal education, emphasizing that it strengthens the person, the family, and the community. His belief that children should be taught to read on their own was so that they would have independent access to the holy scriptures in the Bible.

Jean Rousseau is another who is credited with being a founder of early childhood education – and he did provide some substantial contributions. Many of Rousseau’s educational principles are still used in today’s classrooms. His viewpoint was that education should be child-centered and provide unlimited experiences that are sensory-driven and practical. His belief that measuring, singing, drawing, and speaking should be incorporated into education is the reason that they are present in schools today.

Friedrich Froebel is another who is given a great deal of credit for his contributions to early childhood education and child care. He is believed to be the founder of kindergarten but his beliefs in how young children should be educated also impact today’s classroom. Because of those theories, young children are taught through play in addition to more conventional methods, providing positive experiences for learning.

Theories of Early Childhood Education

There are many different theories of early childhood education. These theories have led to styles of education that are still seen in the classroom today. Several have become highly specialized teaching methods and even have their own accrediting bodies to prevent scams and keep schools from teaching the method improperly or not operating fully within the method.

These are some of the more popular methods that have been embraced by educators and are widely known by not only teachers and those involved in education, but also by parents and other laypersons. At the very least, many of the terms or names are recognizable.

Self-Directed Learning – Montessori | Maria Montessori

In the Montessori classroom, the focus is on the child interacting with the materials and the teacher is more of a facilitator as opposed to most traditional classrooms where the focus is on the child interacting with the teacher. Children learn by the experience of observing and doing various activities and tasks, including life skills like gardening, zipping, and cutting. Instead of being taught, they are led by the teacher to materials and activities that are suited for the child. In the classroom, children are free to move about, select activities, and pursue things that interest them at their own pace.

Classroom as the “Third Teacher” – Reggio Emilia | Loris Malaguzzi

This highly creative learning environment focuses on the child’s interests and encourages intellectual development through creative outlets like painting, dramatic play, drawing, sculpting, working in clay, and conversing. The classroom is carefully designed with an emphasis on the look and feel which enhances the child’s learning experience and is often called the “third teacher.” The objective is to create a classroom that is stimulating, joyful, beautiful, and inviting. Teachers use photographs, videos, and notes to document the children’s activities, remarks, and discussions. Learning is made visible this way and it gives parents greater insight into what their children are learning. Children learn that their work is valuable and important while teachers form stronger bonds with their students and get to know them better.

Plan-Do-Review Process – High/Scope | Dave Weikart and Connie Kamii

The High/Scope program operates on a play-based premise with learning geared to the child’s current developmental stage. It is intended to promote positive experiences in learning and constructive processes that aim to broaden and grow emerging social and intellectual skills. High/Scope classrooms are made up of several learning centers that include math, building, music, science, dramatic play, writing, reading, art, and motor development. The educational style is the “plan-do-review” model. Each day the children discuss with the teacher how they will plan their day. They then follow their plan and, at the end of the day, review what they did with their teacher.

(Video) Child Development Theorists - Learning Zone Express

Hands-On Exploration – Waldorf | Rudolf Steiner

The Waldorf program is designed to educate with a whole-child approach (“head, heart, and hands”). Children are allowed to be children in this program because of its overarching philosophy that all phases of child development take time and there is time for them. It also asserts that the formal education of a child should not begin until after their 7th birthday. The learning in the program is hands-on and achieved by exploring many different avenues including singing, cooking, dress-up, storytelling, puppet shows, art projects, and play. Each group of children has the same teacher from preschool, up through eighth grade. The learning focus is on self-discovery and sensory exploration with an aim to instill a sense of responsibility and compassion in the children.

Learning by Doing – Bank Street | John Dewey

This developmental approach is based on Dewey’s theory of “learning by doing.” The focus is the child’s growth physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Social skills are important, and it is definitely an area of interest in this program. In these preschools, the child actively learns by using experience to gain knowledge. The teacher operates in a facilitator capacity and the child sets the learning pace. The lessons taught are all hands-on activities like dramatic play, clay, puzzles, and building blocks.

How has ECE Changed Over the Years?

There was a time when early childhood education was more relaxed and informal. The children played and learned in an environment with little academic pressure and virtually no competition. Over the years, as education has become more formalized, these things have been introduced into the classroom.

Children are entering school as young as three or four years old. Often, they are required to sit quietly and learn via various exercises that are often typically only considered to be appropriate for older children.

As academic success has become more of a priority the push has been for better grades, earlier milestones, and more challenging metrics. However, many of the “old” programs that just let kids be kids, encouraging play as a teacher, and allowing for more creative, hands-on learning are a welcome sight.

Today is the best time to enter into education as a career. Whether you are seeking your bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or your Master of Arts in Teaching, your time is now.

Are you interested in learning more about Early Childhood Education degree programs at Monroe College? Talk with us and request more information or apply today!


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(Video) Theories in Child Development


(Video) Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development


What are the theory and theorists in early childhood education? ›

Theorists presented include Sigmund Freud, Maria Montessori, Arnold Gesell, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, Rudolf Dreikurs, Erik Erikson, Abraham Maslow, John Bowlby, B. F. Skinner, Benjamin Spock, Lawrence Kohlberg, T. Berry Brazelton, Diana Baumrind, and Howard Gardner.

What are the 5 theories that had the most impact on early childhood education? ›

The five theories that have had the most impact in early childhood education are summarized in Table 1. They are (1) maturationist, (2) constructivist, (3) behaviorist, (4) psychoanalytic, and (5) ecological.

What are two theorists educators use in early childhood education today to guide practice? ›

Child Theorists and Their Theories in Practice
  • Erick Erickson. ...
  • Jean Piaget. ...
  • Lev Vygotsky. ...
  • John Dewey. ...
  • B F Skinner. ...
  • Uri Bronfenbrenner. ...
  • Arnold Gesell. ...
  • Maria Montessori.
Mar 7, 2023

Why is it important for early childhood professionals to study theories? ›

Theories are designed to help us make educated guesses about children's development. Each theory focuses on a different aspect of human development. Theories often build on previous theoretical concepts and may seek to expand ideals or explore new facets.

What are the five theories of teaching and learning for early learners? ›

There are five primary educational learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, constructivism, humanism, and connectivism. Additional learning theories include transformative, social, and experiential.

Which theory is the best for early childhood education? ›

Erikson's psychosocial theory (among others) has been a foundational concept in early childhood education for years. He emphasized that parents and educators are each integral in supporting and encouraging the success a child has in life at every psychosocial stage of development.

What are the five key principles of child development theories? ›

5 Main Areas of Child Development
  • cognitive development,
  • social and emotional development,
  • speech and language development,
  • fine motor skill development, and.
  • gross motor skill development.
Dec 3, 2020

What are the three best foundation of education theories? ›

There are 3 main schemas of learning theories; Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism.

What is John Dewey's theory? ›

Individuals learn and grow as a result of their experiences and interactions with the world, according to Dewey. Individuals gain new concepts, ideas, practices, and understandings as a result of these encounters and experiences, which are then polished through the learner's life experiences and social relationships.

Who are three early childhood theorists? ›

Early childhood educators may be familiar with a number of theorists from their studies or reading, such as Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, Steiner, Bowlby, Bronfenbrenner, Rogoff, or Foucault.

Who are the 6 education theorists all teachers should know? ›

The list includes Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner, Jerome Bruner, Benjamin Bloom, and Howard Garnder.

Who are the key theorists child development? ›

Erik Erikson developed the most common theories of emotional development. Jean Piaget developed the most common theories of cognitive development. And, Lawrence Kohlberg developed the dominant theories of moral development.

Which theory is the most important in child development? ›

Jean Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Among the most significant ideas within child development is the work of Jean Piaget. The swiss psychologist dominated this field of study with his Cognitive Developmental Theory. This theory focuses on the cognitive development or thought processes of the child.

Why is it important for educators to use theories in their teaching? ›

An understanding of learning theories helps teachers connect to all different kinds of students. Teachers can focus on different learning styles to reach different students, creating teaching that focuses directly on student needs and aptitudes.

Who is the father of early childhood education? ›

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) - Considered the "father of early childhood education", Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Germany in 1837. Meant for children under the age of 7, his school was rooted in the belief that play led to learning.

How do you apply learning theories in the classroom? ›

Best Practices
  1. Map your content into instructional units (e.g., Weeks, Modules, Topics).
  2. Include measurable student learning objectives at the beginning of each instructional unit.
  3. Create consistent pages so that students become accustomed to where information is located. ...
  4. Work with an instructional designer.

What are the 5 key areas of early learning practices? ›

DAP focuses on five key areas of early learning practices:
  • Creating a caring community of learners. ...
  • Teaching to enhance development and learning. ...
  • Planning curriculum to achieve important goals. ...
  • Assessing children's development and learning. ...
  • Establishing reciprocal relationships with families.

What are the four 4 theories of learning explain? ›

4 Theories of learning are Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, Cognitive Theory, and Social Learning Theory. Learning is the individual growth of the person as a result of cooperative interaction with others.

What is the most accurate developmental theory? ›

One of the best-known cognitive theories is Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Theorist Jean Piaget suggested that children think differently than adults and proposed a stage theory of cognitive development.

Which teaching and learning theory is the best? ›

Most influential theories of learning
  • Behaviourism. ...
  • Cognitive psychology. ...
  • Constructivism. ...
  • Social learning theory. ...
  • Socio-constructivism. ...
  • Experiential learning. ...
  • Multiple intelligences. ...
  • Situated learning theory and community of practice.

What is the learning theory of early childhood? ›

Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that early years children learn most effectively when exploring the world around them and making use of all of their senses. This supported the popularity of discovery learning and sensory play.

What are the 3 main theories of development? ›

  • Introduction. The main objective of this document is to synthesize the main aspects of the four major theories of development: modernization, dependency, world- systems and globalization. ...
  • Theory of Modernization. ...
  • Theory of Dependency. ...
  • Theory of World Systems.

What are the six most important theories on development? ›

These six theories about development that we will discuss from an evolutionary perspective are the Gestalt, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive psychology, Piaget, and Vygotski.

What are the 5 stages of theory development? ›

Specifically, we propose a five-stage framework of theory development: (1) emergence, (2) development, (3) maturity, and (4) decline toward (5) death or reemergence ( Figure 1).

What are the six educational theories? ›

In this article, we describe six popular learning theories, e.g. cognitivism, connectivism, heutagogy, social learning, transformative learning theories and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD), and their implications for online instruction.

What are the three theories to ensure transformative classrooms? ›

Students are able to understand their meaning structure through self-reflection, self-directed learning, and critical theory.

How many curriculum theories are there? ›

There are two major categories of curriculum theories – design theories and engineering theories.

What is Jerome Bruners theory? ›

He proposed a 3-tiered system of internal representations: enactive (action-based), iconic (image-based), and symbolic (language-based). Bruner also postulated that internal representations could be combined to produce different types of thought.

What was Freire philosophy of education? ›

For Freire, education must be centred upon developing critically conscious, 'humanized', learners who act to liberate themselves, and the world, from injustice. leading to social transformation. either educating to support and maintain the status quo or helping to critique and change reality.

What is the theory of progressivism? ›

Progressivism. Progressivists believe that individuality, progress, and change are fundamental to one's education. Believing that people learn best from what they consider most relevant to their lives, progressivists center their curricula on the needs, experiences, interests, and abilities of students.

Who are the 6 theorists of child development? ›

Today we will review the basic theories of Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Gesell, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, and Jean Piaget.

What is Maria Montessori theory? ›

The Maria Montessori Theory is an educational approach that emphasises individualised instruction and self-paced learning. It is based on the belief that children are naturally curious and capable of learning independently.

Who is Gardner child theorist? ›

Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences that suggests there is more than one intelligence – He considers children and adults to be individuals who all have skills and areas that we enjoy and excel at and that these fit into our major intelligence.

What do teachers role in Dewey's theory? ›

As part of his educational theory and philosophy, Dewey argued that teachers have a responsibility to create an environment that fosters inquiry and exploration and encourages student autonomy, creativity, and critical thinking.

What is Piaget's theory of education? ›

Piaget identified four stages in cognitive development: sensori-motor, pre-operational, concrete, and formal. Children in the sensori-motor stage, also called infancy, are likely to learn by using their five senses, object permanence, and actions that are goal-directed.

What are the main features of Dewey's theory of education? ›

Dewey's philosophy of education highlights the importance of imagination to drive thinking and learning forward, and for teachers to provide opportunities for students to suspend judgement, engage in the playful consideration of possibilities, and explore doubtful possibilities.

Who was the first child development theorists? ›

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) Piaget, the first to study children in a scientific way, focused on how children learned.

Who is the father of child development? ›

Answer and Explanation: Jean Piaget is considered the father of child psychology. He was interested in the thought processes of children from birth through adolescence. He developed a cognitive theory consisting of different stages of thought through which children normally progress.

Why is Piaget's theory important? ›

Jean Piaget's work is important because it provides us with insights into cognitive processes during childhood. It helps teachers identify what needs to be taught and when. The following sections will explore some of the key ideas behind Piagetian theories.

What are Piaget's influential theory of child development? ›

His theory of learning described children's development as a series of four stages – sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. He theorised that children learn through direct and active interaction with the environment.

Do learning theories matter in classroom teaching? ›

Learning theories are important because they allow teachers to understand how their students learn. Through using different learning methods, teachers can develop more comprehensive learning strategies and help students find success in education.

What are the two important learning theories? ›

Some of the main theories of learning include: Behavioral learning theory. Cognitive learning theory.

Why do we need to study theories? ›

Theories are vital: They guide and give meaning to what we see. When a researcher investigates and collects information through observation, the investigator needs a clear idea of what information is important to collect. Thus, valid theories are validated by research and are a sound basis for practical action.

Who are the 5 pioneers of early childhood education? ›

In this post, I introduce five key people who have had a huge influence on early childhood education: Froebel, Montessori, Steiner, Malaguzzi and Vygotsky. I talk about who these people are and the contributions they have made to kindergarten teaching around the world.

Why is the history of early childhood education important? ›

In terms of human development, the importance of early childhood education can't be overstated. A child's early years are the foundation for his or her future development, providing a strong base for lifelong learning and learning abilities, including cognitive and social development.

What is theory theory early childhood? ›

Theory-theory states that children naturally attempt to construct theories to explain their observations. As all humans do, children seek to find explanations that help them understand their surroundings. They learn through their own experiences as well as through their observations of others' actions and behaviors.

Who are the theorists in early childhood play? ›

Three theorists of children's play

There are three theorists who are especially important to our understanding of play – Jean Piaget, Mildred Parten, and Lev Vygotsky. They describe play in different ways, but each one is useful for understanding the play behaviour you see in your classroom.

Who are the early theorists of child development? ›

Erik Erikson developed the most common theories of emotional development. Jean Piaget developed the most common theories of cognitive development. And, Lawrence Kohlberg developed the dominant theories of moral development.

What are the 4 main theories of development? ›

Four main theories of development: modernization, dependency, world-systems, and globalization.

What is an example of theory theory child development? ›

A few examples of these social theories of child development include attachment theory, social learning theory, and sociocultural theory. Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed what is known as social learning theory. According to this theory of child development, children learn new behaviors from observing other people.


1. Froebel’s Kindergarten: The Origins of Early Childhood Education
2. 8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson
3. Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development in Social Relationships
4. Overview of theories of development | Individuals and Society | MCAT | Khan Academy
5. What is Pedagogy? | 4 Essential Learning Theories | Satchel
(Team Satchel)
6. GOHEARLY ~ Early Childhood Development Theories ~ EARLY CHILDHOOD MTEL 02 Test ~ GOHACADEMY.COM
(Chris Abraham)


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