Given the importance society now places on early childhood education, it’s incredible to think that just over 200 years ago, the concept was virtually non-existent. Children were considered incapable of any real learning until they were closer to preteen age, and were largely left to their own devices during their early development. It took decades of innovative work from psychologists and educators to change people’s mindsets and convince society of the importance of early learning.
This article covers just a few of the great thinkers who have played crucial roles in the development of early childhood education, but there have been many others, including such notable names as Sigmund Freud, Maria Montessori and John Dewey, who have made valuable contributions to our understanding of how children grow and learn.
If you are considering enrolling in an early childhood education program, or have already started your courses, read on to learn about the some of the most important theorists in early childhood education history.
Friedrich Froebel: Early Childhood Education Pioneer
When ECE training students begin learning the history of ECE through the early childhood education foundations module on their course, Friedrich Froebel is among the first names they will study. The German educator founded the first school for children under seven in 1837. He dubbed it “the children’s garden’, or kindergarten, a name which is still widely used today.
Froebel believed that children’s play activities could be guided by a teacher to help them explore and interact with their surroundings. Rejecting traditional notions that small children lacked the cognitive skills to be educated, Froebel argued that “because learning begins when consciousness erupts, education must also.”
Jean Piaget: ECE Training and Cognitive Development
The foundations laid by Froebel were expanded on by many theorists in the following decades, including Swiss-born educator Jean Paget. In the early 19th century, Piaget began researching the reasons behind incorrect answers children were giving to standardized IQ tests. He concluded that the traditional idea that children were “empty vessels to be filled with knowledge” was incorrect, and instead believed them to be “active builders of knowledge-little scientists who construct their own theories of the world.”
Piaget developed a cognitive childhood development theory, which is still taught in early childhood education courses today. It is divided into four crucial stages:
- Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years), in which a child learns primarily through their senses.
- Preoperational Stage (2-6), when a child learns to use words and symbols like numbers.
- Concrete Operations (6-11), when they understand how to perform mental tasks, like math.
- Formal Operations (11-adult), when children learn complex and abstract reasoning.
Throughout these stages, Piaget, like Froebel, argued that a teacher should serve as a guide rather than an instructor, encouraging students to make mistakes and ask questions to aid learning and growth.
Lev Vygotsky: A Sociocultural Perspective on ECE Training
Vygotsky believed that a child’s development happens first on a social (interpsychological) level, and then on an individual (intrapsychological) level. He emphasized the importance of a child’s sociocultural environment in influencing their education, arguing that the people and culture around a child impacted their learning process.
Vygotsky died at just 38 and the suppression of his ideas in Stalinist Russia meant that he didn’t become widely known in ECE until relatively recently. However, his ideas have played an important part in shaping our understanding of how our society and culture impacts ECE.
Would you like to learn about other theorists who have shaped ECE?
Check out our childhood education program for more information or to speak with an advisor.