Ecology of Human Development - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Ecology of Human Development


The ecology of human development, as defined by its chief architect, Urie Bronfenbrenner, is a scientific perspective that addresses “the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings within which the developing person lives.” This process of accommodation is to be understood “as it is affected by relations between those settings, and [as it is affected] by the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded.” In terms of early childhood education this definition contains the developing child engaged with others in several settings, interaction between those settings, and ongoing analysis of the ways that those settings “immediate” to the child are in turn shaped by settings and environmental systems more distant from the child.



In the preface to his now classic book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Bronfenbrenner credits Kurt Levin, George Herbert Mead, Sigmund Freud, William and Dorothy Thomas, Edward Tolman, Lev Vygotsky, Kurt Goldstein, Otto Rank, Jean Piaget, and Ronald Fisher as scholars who influenced his development of the ecological perspective. Of these thinkers, the work of Kurt Levin was especially influential, with its conception of the psychological “life space” as made up of a set of regions or territories and Levin’s emphasis on the intersection between the structure of the person and of the situation encountered by that person. Basic Levinian concepts upon which the ecology of human development approach was built included the idea of differentiated regions affecting the psychological development of the child, the concept and motivational power of activities for development, the importance of the connections between people in the settings containing the child, the power of ecological transitions, and the idea of action research. The influence of Jean Piaget, with his interest in the child’s construction of reality and perceptual constancy across situations and settings, can be seen in the ecologically oriented definition of development as “the person’s evolving conception of the ecological environment, and his relation to it, as well as the person’s growing capacity to discover, sustain, or alter its properties.” Vygotsky’s influence is found especially at the macro-level, based on his theory of the “sociohistorical evolution of the mind,” the idea that the developing child’s characteristics as a person depend on the options available in a particular culture at a particular time. The strong emphasis within the ecology of human development on understanding development in context received impetus from the psychological ecologists of the Kansas school, including Roger Barker, Herbert Wright, and Phillip Schoggen, who adapted observational strategies designed for studying other species to document the natural behavioral settings of children and the children’s behaviors within them.


Key Elements

Context. The ecological perspective involves understanding the meaning that the developing child gives to experience. This meaning is found in the content of what the child perceives, or feels, or thinks about. That content is provided by the setting or settings within which the child engages in activities. These settings are the contexts in which development occurs, and development cannot be understood in the absence of an understanding of those contexts. The ecological approach to studying human development was born out of a reaction to the fact that during much of the twentieth century the study of early development had been conducted “out of context,” that is, in the laboratory rather than in the environments within which children grow and develop. The careful specification of the contexts in which development takes place provides one of the primary building blocks for understanding the meaning of that development, together with the particular characteristics of the child her/himself. This interaction can be summarized with the formula D=f(PE), where development (D) is a function of the interaction of the person (P) with the environment (E).


Environmental Systems. In his “reappreciation” of the ecological point of view, Robert Glossop identifies the emphasis on immediate settings and the larger contexts in which those settings and the developing child are embedded as “the cornerstone of the ecological frame of reference.” Within the ecological framework these settings and contexts are organized within four environmental systems, conceived as nested one within the next. Microsystems are patterns of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations that are experienced by the child directly in a particular setting, like the home or the child-care center classroom, containing other people with distinctive characteristics (temperaments, personalities, belief systems). Mesosystems consist of the interrelations between two or more such micro-settings; for instance, parent-caregiver relations between home and the child-care center. Exosystems are made up of settings that affect or are affected by the developing child, but do not involve the child as an active participant. The example often used is the world of work, the nature of which shapes the time and energy that the employed parent has available for the child but usually does not include the child as an active participant. The Macrosystem refers to beliefs and values found at the level of culture, society, or subculture that manifest themselves consistently as resources, opportunity structures, hazards, lifestyles, and patterns of social exchange in the form and content of the environmental systems (exo-, meso-, micro-) contained within it—a “blue-print,” so to speak. For instance, a societal belief in the value of family privacy and individual responsibility for child rearing might be reflected in relatively little concern for the parental role (opportunity to parent) within the [still the same ... even the example] parent’s workplace (exo-), not much discussion of child-rearing issues (social exchange) between parent and child-care center caregiver (meso-), and little help-seeking beyond the immediate family (resource) by parents even in times of acute stress or crisis.


Ecological Niches. These are regions within the larger environment (society, state) that are particularly favorable or unfavorable to the child’s development, because they combine greater or fewer environmental resources with particular personal characteristics. These regions can be defined to some extent by the “social addresses” of education, income, occupation, race, and gender; and the developmental risks associated with low resource regions depend in part on the personal characteristics of the child. For instance, the developmental impacts of living in poverty conditions are likely to be greater for a shy or a physically handicapped child than they are for a child that is outgoing, engaging, and physically well coordinated.


The Active, Initiating Child. The forces propelling development, from an “ecology of human development” perspective, emanate as much from the nature of the developing organism as they do from how and with what resources the environment engages with that child. The child is seen not as a passive recipient of environmental stimulation but as innately motivated to engage actively with the surrounding world. Over time competence consists of the growing capacity to figure out how the world is organized, participate in that organization, and even restructure the world to a certain extent.


Reciprocity. Within the ecological perspective development is a function of the variety and complexity of activities engaged in with others, referred to as joint activities. When what the child does in the activity influences the behavior of the significant other, and that behavior then stimulates a response by the child, to which the other responds in turn, then the relationship is said to be reciprocal. Bronfenbrenner saw this kind of reciprocity, “with its concomitant mutual feedback,” as generating a momentum that motivated the participants not only to continue the interaction but also to “engage in progressively more complex patterns of interaction, as in a ping-pong game in which the exchanges tend to become more rapid and intricate as the game proceeds.” Development is seen as stimulated by the variety and complexity of the activities engaged in by the child with significant others in his or her psychological field. A distribution of power is necessarily a part of reciprocal activities, and development is seen as enhanced by the gradual shift in the balance of that power in favor of the developing child.


Ecological Transitions. A transition is a move by the developing person to a new and different context. Examples in the life of the child include moving from one place of residence to another, from home to preschool, from preschool to school, away to summer camp and home again, and into the hospital and then home once more. A significant transition of this sort involves the child in new activities, often requiring the establishing of new relationships, and may include experimenting with new roles. For these reasons such transitions are seen as placing high developmental demands on the child, offering both opportunity and risk.


More Recent Extensions of the Ecological Perspective

Later in his career, Bronfenbrenner extended his ecological theory, adding the prefix “bio” to “ecological” in recognition of his long-held view that biological resources are important to understanding human development. Important expansions included further elaboration of the “person” in the person-environment interaction, spelling out ways of understanding and measuring cognitive competence within real-life settings and as mastery of culturally defined, familiar activities. He also added “time” to his interest in context-based person-focused developmental processes, underscoring the importance of recognizing that these processes and their effects will differ at different points in the life course and in different historical periods.

In reassessing his definitions of the four environmental levels, Bronfenbrenner made additions at the micro- and macro-levels, adding greater specificity about the characteristics of the significant others in the immediate contexts containing the child and more emphasis on belief systems, resources, hazards, and opportunity structures at the level of culture and society. Although he made no changes to the definition of the mesosystem (linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings containing the developing child), others working in the tradition of human ecology have expanded the features of these linking’s, proposing, for example, that greater emphasis be given to key other persons in that system as well (Cochran et al., 1990). Relations between people in several settings containing the child give meaning and power to this system, a dynamic that is not conveyed through simply considering linkages between settings in general terms. The literature on social networks and social support documents the nature of those meanings.


Applications to Early Childhood Education

The ecological orientation to development has had and continues to have considerable influence within the field of early childhood education, both within the United States and abroad. Within the immediate (micro) settings containing the child the emphasis on the power of reciprocal relations (adult-child, child-child) as the “engines” of development reinforces much previous and contemporary theory and practice related to early childhood education teaching and learning at the classroom level. One application of the priority given to the importance of dyadic relations has been an explicit inclusion of the parent-child dyad in the design of early intervention programs, thereby shifting the programmatic focus beyond the individual child to include the parent or other significant adult. This conception, supported with empirical evidence, has underscored the general importance of parent involvement in early education programs, and anticipated the shift to “two-generation” programming that has increasingly become the norm in the twenty-first century (see Early Head Start). Recognition of the developmental demands associated with transitions from one immediate setting to another (i.e., home to child care) has shone new light on the need to plan those transitions carefully for children, in order to insure that they are managed in a way that is developmentally enhancing rather than overly challenging.

At the meso-level the importance accorded parent-teacher relationships by the ecological perspective lends support to the ongoing programmatic interest in how to establish and sustain those connections in ways that reduce dissonance and intensify support on behalf of the developing child. With the growing recognition that over half of all American infants and toddlers in child care are being looked after by kinfolk, friends, and neighbors, there is also increased interest in ways that public supports can be used to enhance and strengthen these natural helping systems.

At the level of exo-systems (affecting the child, but indirectly), the ecological orientation provides a renewed focus on the parents’ world of work, backed by financial analyses showing that the private sector contributes only 1-2 percent of the total revenues invested in early care and education each year. The absence of any federal paid parental leave from work policy in the United States makes it much more difficult for American parents to form a close, enduring relationship with their newborns than is the case in the rest of the industrialized world, and illustrates how public policies related to the workplace can impact young children in the absence of direct contact with them. Another example of exo-level impact involves the extent to which city governments invest resources in local parks and playgrounds that insure their safety and enhance their developmental potential.

At the macro-level the most unique and enduring contribution made by the ecological perspective has been in helping policymakers, practitioners, and academics track the ways that public policies developed and implemented at the national or state level shape the major institutions of society (workplaces, schools, child-care settings) to affect the development of children through interactions with significant adults and peers. By illuminating these pathways, an ecology of human development framework has brought an understanding of the “family and child impacts” of macro-level policies (both public and private sector) to the fore, insuring that such potential and demonstrated impacts become and continue to be a part of the public policy discourse. See also Parents and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Barker, R., and H. Wright (1954). Midwest and its children: The psychological ecology of an American town. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1978). Lewinian space and ecological substance. Journal of Social Issues 33(4), 199-212; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta, ed., Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp. 187-249; Bronfenbrenner, U., ed. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Cochran, M. (2006). Finding our way: American early care and education in the 21st century. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press; Cochran, M., M. Larner, D. Riley, L. Gunnarsson, and C. Henderson, Jr. (1990). Extending families: The social networks of parents and their children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Glossop, R. (1988). Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development: A reappreciation, In A. Pence, ed., Ecological research with children and families: From concept to methodology. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 1-15; Levin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moncrieff Cochran