Early Childhood Education

Pedagogy, Child-Centered


A child-centered pedagogy places learners in the foreground of the educative process. It is their purposes, interests, and needs that guide curriculum formation. The belief that the most appropriate education for young children should be child-centered has its roots in the progressive education movement that emerged in the late eighteenth century. Influenced by the naturalistic ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel that opposed traditional school approaches and reflecting wider social currents that embraced the ideal of progress through science and reason, progressive educators believed that “a natural educational methodology could free man by advancing him along the path to a better world” (Gutek, 1972, p. 386). At the turn of the 20th century, American progressive educators began a quest to change the school curriculum from a focus on the intellect trained through recitation and teacher direction, to one that emphasized beginning with the child and encouraging development of problem solving and social skills through direct experience with the environment. By educating for understanding and cooperation, progressive educators claimed that the next generation would have the intellectual tools to create and maintain a democratic, free, and open society. The progressive zeal for education as the means for improving society impacted all arenas of education, including the world of the young child in kindergarten.

It was the rigid interpretation of the Froebelian curriculum implemented in kindergartens across the United States that came under the attack of the progressives in early education. Seeking to replace intuitive and philosophical ways of knowing about young children, the progressives advocated for a scientific knowledge base and practices built on psychological principles (Silin, 1987). During this period of ferment, the child study movement emerged as a unique field of inquiry. Employing questionnaires and scientific observation of children’s behavior, G. Stanley Hall argued for the direct study of the child in naturalistic settings as the basis for educational decision making. Around the same time, John Dewey proposed a science of education based on a pragmatic philosophy of experience. Children’s interests and purposes were to be used to develop educational experiences that engaged students in problem solving and learning the skills for participating in a democracy. While both of these theoretical approaches suggested that kindergarten curriculum begins with the child, others like Edward Lee Thorndike argued for kindergarten teachers to “stimulate the formation of acceptable habits in children and to inhibit inappropriate ones” (Weber, 1969, p. 54).

Over the first three decades of the 20th century, progressive kindergarten educators experimented with the challenge of replacing the inflexible sequence of the Froebelian gifts (manipulative activities) and occupations (handwork projects) as the organizers of the curriculum with other experiences and materials that were based on these new educational theories. Although diversity abounded both in the theoretical rationales and the practices labeled progressive, Weber (1969) argues that by 1925, most reconstructed kindergarten programs were characterized by similar features: (a) using children’s play as the natural medium for learning, (b) basing curriculum on knowledge of young children’s development and interests, (c) a concern for proper health, (d) a work-play period, and (e) similar materials such as blocks, dolls, etc.

Although the progressive movement lost its dominant hold on the kindergarten curriculum during the ensuing decades, its child-centered approaches have continued through the field’s increasing use of child development knowledge as the primary source for decisions regarding methods and programs (Silin, 1987). The theories and research drawn from developmental psychology have generated different approaches to the practice of child-centered education (e.g., the Bank Street Approach, Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), High/Scope Curriculum, the Project Approach) but all of these versions are united by similar themes.

The first of these themes is autonomy. Children are viewed as individuals with their own desires, interests, and needs who require freedom from adult authority to explore ideas independently (Burman, 1994). Tied to developing children’s autonomy, therefore, is the opportunity for student choice in the curriculum. Children are assumed to know when they are ready to learn and to be able to make appropriate choices about their learning. Through exercising their freedom to choose, children develop independence, self-control, and responsibility. Third is the validation of children’s natural need to play as pedagogy. Play is intrinsically tied to children’s interests; therefore, child-centered educators argue that play fosters persistence and competence because children find learning meaningful (Burman, 1994). Fourth, rather than compartmentalizing knowledge, in a child- centered pedagogy, knowledge is integrated. Children learn through experience in the physical and social worlds with teachers assisting them to connect ideas encountered during play to broader disciplines and frameworks of ideas. Thus, the final theme is the construct of the teacher as a facilitator and supporter of children’s learning. Rather than instructing children, teachers structure the environment, selecting activities and offering suggestions or questions that will allow children to continue to explore and build on their learning (Burman, 1994). In contrast to the oppressive practices of transmission educational approaches, advocates for a child-centered education argue that the emphasis on personal choice and freedom from adult authority in a developmentally appropriate curriculum responds to individual differences and ensures educational success for all.

Despite the widespread endorsement of child-centered pedagogy in the field, political and intellectual forces have begun to disrupt what is meant by this term. Using critical theories to deconstruct the values and methods of developmental psychology, and developmentally appropriate practice, some scholars question whether teachers can enact individually and culturally appropriate practices when most of the studies underpinning accepted views of children’s development have been conducted with homogenous populations (white, middle-class) (New 1994). For these scholars, child-centered pedagogy cannot be grounded by child development knowledge alone, but must be informed by a range of knowledges that enable teachers to respond to diversity and the ways in which childhood is changing (Ryan and Grieshaber 2004). Paradoxically, at the same time as this debate is taking place, there is also increasing standardization of the early childhood curriculum as evidenced by the imposition of academic standards for preschool (Roskos and Neuman. 2005), the increasing expectation that teachers use empirically validated curriculum models, and the implementation of a national curriculum in some countries (e.g., Great Britain). Therefore, similar to the ferment that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century, the aims and methods of child-centered pedagogy are once again being contested. How child-centered pedagogies are re-envisioned for the twenty-first century remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that because of globalization, to be child-centered will require teachers to respond to ever-increasingly diverse student populations, changing family structures, and an expansion in the kinds of knowledge and experiences children bring with them to early childhood programs.

Further Readings: Burman, Erica (1994). Deconstructing developmental psychology. London: Routledge. Gutek, Gerald L. (1972). A history of the western educational experience. New York: Random House. Neuman, Susan, B., and Kathleen Roskos (2005). The state of prekindergarten standards. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 20(2), 125145; New, Rebecca (1994). Culture, child development, and developmentally appropriate practices: Teachers as collaborative researchers. In Bruce Mallory and Rebecca New, eds., Diversity and developmentally appropriate practices: Challenges for early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 65-83; Ryan, Sharon, and Susan J. Grieshaber. (2004). It’s more than child development: Critical theories, research, and teaching young children. Young Children 59, 44-52; Silin, Jonathan (1987). The early childhood educator’s knowledge base: A reconsideration. In Lillian Katz, ed. Current topics in early childhood education. Vol. 7. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 17-31; Weber, Evelyn (1969). The kindergarten. New York: Teachers College Press. Williams, Leslie R. (1992). Determining the curriculum. In Carol Seefeldt, ed., The early childhood curriculum: A review of current research. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 1-15.

Sharon Ryan