Early Innovation for Early Learners

A Brief History of Early Childhood Education

An ideal space for Early Childhood Education is fundamentally different from spaces designed for older kids.

It feels obvious that this would be the case.

But oftentimes the littlest learners spend the majority of their time in spaces designed for fully-grown adults, let alone big kids. Typically, this is due to economic or pragmatic realities—a space becomes available in a church basement or in an under-used wing of an old elementary school.

Even in situations not caused by limited resources, the spaces in which the littlest children learn often provide very little in the way of accommodation or acknowledgment of their needs. While many are actively working to change that, the theories behind how this came to be are nonetheless insightful.

The idea that children ages five and younger are not only capable but literally in the midst of actively learning is a relatively new one. While we have had social structures that supported early childhood development since we evolved as a species, history suggests that for most of the last six millennia at least one of two models prevailed:

  • Blank Slate Model: Children are assumed to be a blank slate (“tabula rasa”) and spent their first few years in a fog, incapable of intentional behavior or meaningful interactions.
  • Mini-Adult Model: Children are seen as larval versions of adults, to be sequestered away in mini grown-up costumes, seen but not heard, forged (by means of the requisite rigor, beating and shaping) into obedient, productive adult workers.

Anyone who has read a historical novel or biography from before the first industrial revolution knows that, while methods and strategies may have varied from home to home and culture to culture, there was very little in the way of organized academic theory regarding best practices for early childhood education.

Life was hard, people had to grow up fast, so they could assist in providing for the family and there was no time to waste. Besides, the brutal realities of hard labor, minimal medicine and the forces of nature meant that parents had bigger things to worry about, like simply keeping their children alive!

Friedrich Froebel: The Father of Kindergarten

As the western world began to shift from an agrarian to an industrial lifestyle, the challenges (and expectations) began to change as well and, in 1837 a young man named Friedrich Froebel invented something new—Kindergarten.

Froebel grew up in Germany in the town of Stadtilm within the Thuringian Forest. He was a solitary child, forced by circumstance as well as inclination to essentially raise himself. He spent so much of his time exploring the woods on his own, he developed a deep reverence for the spiritual and educational value of nature and its workings.

He worked for a time as a surveyor and then, after expressing interest in becoming a teacher, went to study with Johann Pestalozzi, an innovative Swiss educator with the novel idea that children, especially underprivileged children, would benefit from an educational strategy that recognized the primary values of naturalism and love.

Pestalozzi’s curriculum of “hand, head and heart” provided Froebel with the foundation for his own pedagogical construct, which he began to develop in earnest after taking a job as the tutor for a wealthy Frankfurt family.

As he worked with his charges, he undertook an examination of the ways in which they learned and, by applying the close observational and analytical skills homed in his youth, developed a curriculum intended to address their educational requirements in a way that coincided (and progressed) with the child’s developmental capacity.

His curriculum consisted of a series of ten simple “gifts.” They were engaging enough that the children eagerly played with them and, during play (and with gentle guidance from the teacher) gradually discovered insights into principles of the world, starting with simple concepts like color, texture, relative weight, and moving quickly on to more complex ideas of symmetry, proportion, geometric and mathematical principles and more.

In addition to the “gifts”, Froebel created a corresponding teaching strategy to allow others to use these tools in their efforts to teach young children. He opened what may have been the first laboratory school, where he taught children while also teaching teachers.

In a matter of only a few decades, the concept spread across Europe—and the world—with dozens of schools in multiple countries, all in an age before telephones, televisions and automobiles. The first kindergarten in the United States opened in St. Louis in 1873.

Froebel’s ideas, and those of his mentors and successors, were seen as progressive. At the same time that they were advocating for a nurturing, child-centered approach that acknowledged the value and inherent worth of each student to create and forge their own education, there were others who advocated for a more rigorous, industrial model which prepared children from families of limited means for lives spent as workers in the emerging industrial economy. Meanwhile, children from more privileged backgrounds pursued private educations with personal tutors and university degrees.

Needless to say, for a long time the latter forces won. But all along there were voices calling for change and, as time went on, a diverse group of well-thought out, research-based, internally cohesive pedagogical approaches emerged that are seen as innovative, even today, including: including Montessori, Reggio Inspired, High/Scope and the Bank Street Approach.