Early Childhood Education



The subject of “curriculum” has produced controversy in all fields of education, but perhaps nowhere more than in early childhood education. The following discussion provides an overview of definitions and sources of curriculum; dimensions on which curriculum may differ; curriculum mandates and implementation; curriculum comparison research; and continuing issues. This discussion creates a context in which to consider more specific curriculum models or approaches.


Definitions of Curriculum

The very definition of curriculum has been controversial. Curriculum is often described as a course of study with a defined scope and sequence; at the other extreme, curriculum has been viewed as everything that happens in the classroom—a perspective more commonly held in early childhood than in elementary and secondary education. A simple definition is that curriculum includes what children should know and how they should be taught. In its early childhood program standards, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) describes curriculum as including goals for the knowledge and skills to be acquired by children and the plans for learning experiences through which such knowledge and skills will be achieved.

Because of these definitional issues, there is also disagreement about which models or approaches should be defined as “curricula.” For example, some have referred to NAEYC’s construct of developmentally appropriate practice as a curriculum. However, NAEYC is careful to note that DAP is not a curriculum; rather, it consists of a set of guidelines for teaching practices, which could be implemented with many different curriculum models or approaches. Likewise, some have cited Reggio Emilia as an example of a curriculum model. The Italian educators, however, emphasize that their approach to early childhood education is not a model—a term that suggests a structured approach to implementation. In fact, they resist defining the approach in this way because it tends to reify what they view as a dynamic, philosophical framework for working with young children and families. Until recently, few would have defined what happens in an infant/toddler program as “curriculum,” but today such curricula, often drawing on research supporting the centrality of early relationships, have become widely available and adopted.

Curriculum is also related to, but conceptually distinct from, pedagogy, which is generally thought of as the repertoire of methods used by teachers, influenced by their overall philosophy and knowledge base. In other words, curriculum is more the “what” of teaching while pedagogy represents the integration of curriculum content with the “how” and the “why.”


Sources of Curriculum

Historically, early childhood curriculum has been derived from child development theory and research; for example, the High/Scope curriculum was developed from Jean Piaget‘s theory of cognitive development. However, like pedagogy, curriculum is always a product of multiple influences, not the least of which are social and political forces and dominant values of a particular society, culture, and historical period. This is why curriculum is such a contested area, because consciously or unconsciously those who develop, adopt or espouse a particular curriculum see its power to influence what children learn and how they learn it. Critical and postmodern perspectives on curriculum, including early childhood curriculum, have drawn attention to gender-related, cultural, and political biases within the dominant curriculum models. Because early childhood education is commonly viewed as preparation for later schooling, changes in curriculum in the higher grades often influence what is taught in the early years, giving rise to an increasing emphasis on academics, or, what has been called “push-down curriculum.” This phenomenon has been seen both in the United States and in other countries where curriculum reform and changes in education policy have occurred in primary and secondary education.


Dimensions on Which Curricula May Differ

Whatever the sources of early childhood curriculum, curriculum models (which tend to offer an organized implementation plan) or approaches (which tend to offer an organized framework with considerable flexibility in its implementation) may differ on many dimensions. Some of these are (1) the relative explicitness or structure inherent in the curriculum; (2) comprehensiveness (whether the curriculum is designed to address many areas of development and learning or only one); (3) the relative balance of teacher- and child-initiated activity; (4) the relative focus on subject matter, versus a focus on developmental domains; (5) the relative focus on integration across subject matter or content areas versus subject-specific organization; and (6) the degree to which the curriculum is evidence-based and has been evaluated for effectiveness.


Curriculum Mandates and Implementation

Many countries have adopted a national or state curriculum. These include curricula for children of primary-grade age and older and, increasingly, for early childhood programs, although the curriculum may be implemented in a variety of ways. Indonesia, for example, has a national curriculum for what are called “kindergartens” (mostly private programs for 4-6-year-old children), with specific guidance on weekly topics of study, skills, and concepts to emphasize, and activities. England has introduced a national framework for an early year’s curriculum, with specified outcomes and learning goals. New Zealand’s early childhood system relies on a curriculum framework called Te Whariki, which includes core principles that may be implemented in a variety of culturally relevant ways (see Volume 4).

The United States differs from many other countries in that there are no federal or state mandates to adopt one specific curriculum. In the United States, however, programs that receive federal or state funds usually are required to adopt some kind of curriculum, with some states providing specific criteria, or with a list of preapproved curricula from which programs may select. Additionally, programs seeking accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children must show that they have a written statement of philosophy and use one or more written curricula or curriculum frameworks consistent with their philosophy that address central aspects of child development.


Curriculum Comparison Research

There have been a number of efforts to compare different curriculum models to determine the superiority of one versus another. To date, the results have been inconclusive. Some researchers have claimed that studies support the superiority of child-centered or constructivist models in comparison to didactic, adult-directed curricula. However, the National Research Council’s 2001 report, Eager to Learn: Educating our preschoolers, did not find the overall evidence compelling. Without endorsing one kind of curriculum over another, what this report and others have emphasized is the value of programs’ using some kind of well-defined and intentionally implemented curriculum.

Efforts to validate specific curriculum models or approaches are continuing, consistent with the United States trend toward evidence-based practices and “scientific research” as a basis for educational practice. However, recent research seems to be moving away from efforts to prove the absolute superiority of one curriculum, toward efforts to examine more complex questions, such as which curricula may be effective with which children under which conditions. Several federally funded programs of research in the United States are examining such questions. The research is also beginning to look at some new approaches to “integrated” curricula, for example combining an existing literacy curriculum with a curriculum to promote social and emotional competence.


Continuing Issues

Several issues in early childhood curriculum will continue to engage researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in the coming years. The relative merits of a flexible “emergent” curriculum, in comparison to a more explicit, preplanned curriculum, have been and will continue to be debated; the forthcoming results from early childhood curriculum research are unlikely to put this debate to rest. As in a number of other areas in early childhood education, the discussion seems to be shifting away from an either-or stance (with a completely open approach to curriculum on the one extreme, and a tightly scripted curriculum at the other) toward recognition of a continuum of valid curriculum approaches. Increasingly in the United States at least, some make a case that “scaffolding” teachers’ practice with a relatively preplanned curriculum may be a useful alternative with a workforce characterized by low education and high turnover. Within a developmental perspective, this scaffolding is said to give beginning teachers the opportunity to be successful while increasingly personalizing or modifying the curriculum as they gain experience and pedagogical competence.

The increasing diversity of young children related to demographic shifts, immigration, and the inclusion of children with disabilities in early childhood programs, will also pose continuing challenges and questions. Much curriculum research has been conducted with relatively homogeneous samples, leaving open the question of whether curricula need further differentiation to support the learning of children whose home language is not English, or children with physical or cognitive disabilities. In the United States, the recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) further underscores the right of every child to have access to what is called the “general curriculum.” Strategies to ensure this access will continue to be developed and debated.

Increasingly, the early childhood field recognizes that professional development is essential if teachers are to implement curriculum effectively. However, little consensus exists about the most effective content and format for that professional development, and curriculum developers vary in the resources or supports provided. Additionally, different curricula make quite different demands on staff expertise; for example, a “scripted” curriculum may be relatively easier for staff to learn to implement than one that makes higher demands for on-the-spot decision making (e.g., Tools of the Mind, High/Scope, the Reggio Emilia approach, and the Project Approach). However, some argue that the value of these more complex approaches to curriculum makes an investment in extended professional development worthwhile. Questions such as these require continued discussion and systematic investigation.


Recommendations of Professional Organizations and Other Bodies about Early Childhood Curriculum

Within these areas of controversy and continuing research, professional bodies have taken positions and created guidelines for early childhood curriculum. For example, in 2003 the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education developed a position statement and recommendations about early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation. Specific to curriculum, the document recommends that early childhood programs “Implement curriculum that is thoughtfully planned, challenging, engaging, developmentally appropriate, culturally and linguistically responsive, comprehensive, and likely to promote positive outcomes for all young children” (NAEYC and NAECS/SDE, 2003). Specific indicators of effective curriculum are that children are active and engaged; goals are clear and shared by all; curriculum is evidence-based; valued content is learned through investigation and focused, intentional teaching; curriculum builds on prior learning and experiences; curriculum is comprehensive; professional standards validate the curriculum’s subject-matter content; and the curriculum is likely to benefit children.

Additionally, the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood (DEC) has created a companion piece to the NAEYC and NAECS/SDE position statement, making more explicit recommendations about curriculum that includes and supports young children with disabilities. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has created a policy brief that provides similar guidance to policy-makers and others who are making decisions about adopting or developing curriculum. Together, these recommendations reflect some growing consensus—although not unanimity—about curriculum priorities, at least within the United States early childhood community. The results of continuing curriculum research, as well as the experiences of other countries and changes in education policies, will continue to inform curriculum development and implementation. See also Disabilities, Young Children with.

Further Readings: Bowman, B., M. Donovan, and M. Burns, eds. (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; Bredekamp, S., and C. Copple (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Frede, E., and D. J. Ackerman (2006). NIEER Working Paper—Curriculum decision-making: Dimensions to consider. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Available online at http://nieer.org/docs/index.php?DocID=142; Goffin, S. G., and C. Wilson (2001). Curriculum models and early childhood education: Appraising the relationship, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall; Hyson, M., C. Copple, and J. Jones (2006). Early childhood development and education. In K. A. Renninger and I. S. Sigel, eds. Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4: Child psychology and practice. 6th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 3-47; Katz, L. G. (1999). Curriculum disputes in early childhood education. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education; Kessler, S., and B. B. Swadener, eds. (1992). Reconceptualizing the early childhood curriculum: Beginning the dialogue. New York: Teachers College Press; National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (2005). NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards and Accreditation Criteria. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available online at http://www.naeyc.org/accreditation/standards/; National Association for the Education of Young Children and National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (2003). Early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation—Building an effective, accountable system in programs for children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available online at www.naeyc.org/resources/positiomstatements/pscape.pdf; Schweinhart, L. J., D. P. Weikart, and M. B. Larner (1986). Consequences of the three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 1, 15-45; Saracho, O. N., and B. Spodek, eds. (2001). Contemporary perspectives on early childhood curriculum. Greenwich, CT: Information Age; Seefeldt, C., ed. (1999). The early childhood curriculum: Current findings in theory and practice. 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Marilou Hyson