Early Childhood Education

Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)


Arguably one of the most influential thinkers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freud was an Austrian doctor and psychoanalyst who created a dynamic theory to explain biological and cultural influences on mental development and behavior. His work with patients suffering mental illness led him to consider the human roots of both normal and abnormal development, including the contributions of families, culture, gender, and sexual abuse to personality. According to Freudian theory, inborn biological drives (Freud’s concept of the id, including hunger, social contact, sexuality) encounter society’s limits to those drives.

Many of Freud’s ideas have contemporary currency. For example, he believed that humans develop a superego, or conscience, to provide an internal representation of society’s rules; Freud’s is a seminal psychological view of moral development. The interplay of id and societal forces shapes our ego, or who we are as a person; Freud’s interpretation of this process is an early version of self-concept. His dynamic view of personality argues that much of development is subconscious or unconscious. Childhood is the crucible where these dynamic forces emerge. A psychosocial theory from Freud’s view points to early attachment and play as important for self-concept, and Freud’s psychosexual theory provides connections between early development and both gender and sexual identity. While the main thrust of his work was directed to psychiatry and clinical psychology, the importance of childhood within Freud’s school of thought created many opportunities for connections with early education.

In 1909 Freud gave a series of lectures at Clark University at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, leader of the Child Study Movement. These lectures provided international legitimacy for Freud’s ideas and introduced them to early leaders in child development and early education. His thinking can be seen directly in developmentally oriented early childhood programs that were emerging at that time, such as the Bank Street child-centered school (see also Developmental- Interaction Approach) and other programs that acknowledged the whole child, play-based pedagogy, and creativity as bases for early education. With connections established to child study, Freud’s thinking has had continuous, if controversial, visibility within the developmental community that provides one knowledge base for early education.

Perhaps more important than Freud’s direct influence on early childhood programs is the influence of his many followers. Scholars such as Erik Erikson, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Lili Peller, and Donald Winnicott have provided psychodynamic perspectives on children’s development that have expanded conceptions of play as an avenue for expression and growth. Freud inspired others to think of play as an indicator of how each child constructs a unique life history, resolves problems, expresses feeling or affect, and helps us understand who we are as persons.

It is easy to forget how elements of Freud’s thinking have become pervasive in contemporary culture (e.g., Freudian slips, ego trips, unconscious acts). His thinking also continues to guide academic studies in a variety of areas, such as attachment theory (see John Bowlby), feminist studies of object relations, postmodern studies on gender, life-span development, law, history, biography, motivation, and other fields of inquiry. Many consider Freud’s ideas to be metaphysical and untestable, while others see in his work a way of understanding the complexities of children’s early growth and learning. See also Psychosocial Theory; Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Mental Health; Pedagogy, Activity-Based/Experiential; Pedagogy, Play-Based; Self-Esteem and Self-Concept.

Further Readings: Freud, S. (1949). An outline of psychoanalysis. New York: Norton; Freud, S. (1952). On dreams. New York: Norton; Freud, S. (1959). Beyond the pleasure principle. In J. Strachey, ed., The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Institute of Psychoanalysis; Frost, Joe L., Sue C. Wortham, and Stuart Reifel (2005). Play and Child Development. 2nd ed. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall; Gay, Peter (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Stuart Reifel