History of U.S. Early Childhood Care and Education - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

History of U.S. Early Childhood Care and Education


Multiple histories can be written of early childhood education—for example, histories based on those individuals whose leadership helped advance the availability and quality of early childhood programs; histories based on significant, defining events; histories of the field’s disparate delivery systems (kindergartens, child care, preschools); and histories that chronicle the evolution of public policies on behalf of young children and their early education. None of these approaches, however, individually or collectively, could be adequately captured by an encyclopedia entry. This entry responds to this quandary by providing an overview of the history of early childhood care and education; it targets two elements of the field that have fashioned its history and are shaping its future: (1) the ebb and flow of public interest in young children’s early education and (2) continuity of professional values.


Historical Overview

The U.S. history of early childhood education spans from the nation’s beginning. Its emergence as a distinct professional interest in the late 1800s is tied to the beginning of the child study movement and the first systematic studies of children; efforts to develop the world’s first system of “common schools”; and onset of a scientific approach to education.

Early childhood education as an area of professional interest began to solidify in the early 1900s. Yet it remained a relatively small and obscure area of interest marked by intermittent spurts of federal attention in response to national events such as the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II, White House Conferences on Children each decade between 1909 and 1980, and efforts to reduce welfare dependency by families in need of child care because of requirements to enter the workforce. These periods of attention reflect our nation’s crisis orientation to policymaking. Early childhood education issues tend to be viewed as important during national emergencies, times of economic stress, and in response to perceptions of family dysfunction.

Further, the pervasive national culture has held—and still holds—that families should care for their own children. Child rearing, including child care and early education, were, and are, viewed as a private responsibility. When President Richard Nixon vetoed comprehensive child development legislation in 1972, he asserted that “for the federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing and against the family-centered approach” (Washington, 1984, p. 256).

This orientation has meant that public interest in issues related to early education has ebbed and flowed, sporadically called forth by issues of sufficient concern to overcome the nation’s reticence to “interfere” with families’ child-rearing responsibilities and obligations. It has also severely limited the creation of public policies that recognize early childhood education as a public good.


Defining characteristics of the early childhood profession. Two overarching characteristics help define the early childhood field: the gender of its members and the delivery system for services. First, from its inception, the history of early childhood care and education has been shaped by the fact that it has been viewed as a profession for women. Women have been perceived as naturally inclined to be early childhood teachers because the knowledge required for this role seems so similar to—if not duplicative of—the mother’s role. To the extent that women’s roles in U.S. society have been marginalized and the belief prevails that the ability to mother is innate, recognition and respect for the expertise required to work effectively with young children has been absent. It follows that limited support has existed to require formal credentials or to expect compensation comparable to other professionals doing similar work. This circumstance has made it difficult to build a professional image for early childhood education that resonates with the general public as worthy of its support and respect.

Second, and also from its inception, the field’s history has been shaped by distinct, even though somewhat overlapping, histories of its disparate systems for delivering early childhood programs: kindergartens, child care (formerly called day nurseries), and preschools (formerly called nursery schools). More than just differences in program type and purpose are involved; these programs have been delivered by different sponsors and, until recently, have served different children. As a result, the early childhood field is an amalgam of different cultures, purposes, professional expectations, governance structures, and funding mechanisms whose specifics are often shaped by issues of race and class.

The presence of distinctive genealogical lines and developmental histories for its component parts has challenged the field of early childhood care and education to function in an unified way on behalf of children and the early childhood profession. The fragmented character of the field also has influenced its ability to manage the ebb and flow of public interest in early childhood education.


Mobilizing sustained public support. During the 1960s, a confluence of factors once again energized public interest in early childhood education. Early childhood programs expanded exponentially, propelled by newfound recognition of the important contribution of the environment to the first years of development, the explosion of women into the labor force, the “discovery” of poverty in the United States, and movements for social justice. This expansion, driven largely by the birth of Head Start and growing demand for child care, built on the early childhood field’s history of creating programs for children with distinctive auspices or sponsors and different sources of funding. Perpetuating previous patterns of growth, the field’s various components grew in parallel fashion, including childcare, preschool programs, and Head Start.

By the 1970s, the principle of public responsibility for children’s positive development and school readiness gained greater credence, though still far from universal acceptance. A series of national reports, including a prominent 1977 Carnegie Council on Children publication, helped promote increased awareness of the consequences associated with the historical disposition to insulate family matters from public policy. Child development specialists and other advocates used the opportunity to argue for a universal and developmental philosophy of care for children.

In practice, though, access most often has been accorded to families based on their income level, with children’s and families’ personal characteristics also being key to defining eligibility for publicly funded programs. These programs largely have been viewed as interventions for transforming the lives of poor children or of their families.

The ongoing creation of separate early childhood programs and funding streams—in this instance based on race and class—congealed the fragmented base that undergirds the delivery of early care and education programs in the United States. The framing of publicly funded early education as compensatory intervention for “at risk” children and/or as support for the employment of low income parents thwarted advocates’ efforts to promote optimal human development as an overriding purpose and function of early childhood education. It also directed attention away from development of the systems needed to nurture and sustain the field’s capacity on behalf of young children.

In the 1980s, momentum around early childhood issues stalled despite the landmark creation of several Congressional organizational structures to observe, report and act on the status of children (the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families; the Senate Children’s Caucus; and the Senate Family Caucus). Diminished by federal priorities that shifted public investments away from early childhood care and education, it would be almost twenty years after Nixon’s 1972 presidential veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act before Congress enacted new federal legislation focused solely on child care: the 1990 Comprehensive Child Care and Development Block Grant.

As the 1990s progressed, congressional focus on welfare reform legislation redirected attention to the needs of working women, especially low-income women who lacked the resources to pay for good child care. This deliberation helped place a spotlight on the field’s issues of program availability, quality, and supply (especially for infants and toddlers). At about the same time, public awareness of research on early brain development, accompanied by new studies on the positive impact of high-quality early childhood programs (especially for children from impoverished environments) sparked renewed public interest in children’s earliest years of development. A rush of new public and private investments in early childhood programs and initiatives ensued.

Perhaps most prominent of these is the current movement to make prekindergarten programs universally available for all children, thus harking back to the field’s targeted efforts in the late 1800s and early 1900s to expand the availability of kindergarten. Similarly, the emphasis is on state-level activity on behalf of early care and education, and many states have increased their investments in services for young children. This activity has occurred, in part, in response to growing appreciation for the importance of the first five years of children’s lives and its relationship to school readiness.

By the year 2000, forty-three states had invested state dollars in prekindergarten programs. Additionally, thirty-one states had invested state funds for child development and family support programs for infants and toddlers. Importantly, these new programs are increasingly blurring historical distinctions between child care and preschool. This latest surge of interest in early childhood issues is being dampened, however, by an economic downturn and changing political landscape.


Continuity of Professional Values

Throughout the fluctuations of public attention to early care and education, the early childhood field has evolved its own cultural framework. From its earliest beginnings, the early care and education field has operated from a core set of values that have become embedded in its professional culture and helped shape its historical trajectory. These values currently are being scrutinized publicly to an extent never before experienced. This scrutiny reflects both changing circumstances and expectations for public accountability tied to escalating public investment in early childhood programs.

The core values in the early care and education profession can be captured under two headings: holistic approach to child development and collaborative relationships with families. The continuity of these values has led both to stability over time of professional perspectives and to resistance to external calls for change, creating on the one hand a sense of cohesion among members of the field and, on the other hand, perceptions of intransigence by nonmembers.


Holistic approach to child development. The early childhood field has valued an integrated focus on children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development—what is called a “whole child” approach. Articulating this holistic focus as a respect for children, the founding pedagogies of the Froebelian kindergarten and progressive education have had an enduring impact on the field.

The ideas of Friedrich Froebel, recognized as the father of kindergarten, came to the United States from Germany in the mid-1880s. At this time in the history of early childhood education, nursery schools did not yet exist. These programs did not emerge until the 1920s and even then they were laboratories for child study. In the mid- to late 1800s and early 1900s, the field was focused on expanding the availability of kindergartens based on the idealistic pedagogy of Friedrich Froebel, building on the successful launch in 1893 of the first public school kindergarten in St. Louis. Froebel’s approach to early education dominated until the early 1900s when interest in a more scientific and less-philosophical approach to education spawned a greater focus on children as individuals. This “new approach” to early education was informed by scientific study of the child rather than on the child’s embodiment of universal features of humanity that were to be carefully nurtured. The field’s intense internal debate on Froebel’s approach to early education and what became the progressive approach to early education—heralded today under the banner of developmentally appropriate practice—is captured in a defining report authorized by the International Kindergarten Union in 1913. Despite their differences, however, both approaches to early education viewed the child holistically and as the center of the educational enterprise—a value that has endured to the present.

This holistic approach to children’s early education has been challenged on numerous occasions and often placed early childhood leaders on the defensive. In the 1960s, new research on the environment’s impact on early development, in conjunction with growing awareness of poverty and interest in ameliorating it, led to experimental interventions. A diverse array of newly constructed early childhood program models proposed to alter the direction of children’s early development and support their school readiness. Many of these approaches focused on curriculum content the model’s designer—often an individual from outside the early childhood field—thought children should learn or on specific instructional practices.

These new program models frequently ignored the field’s focus on the whole child, often touting their own approaches by contrasting them with the “traditional” (i.e., old-fashioned) child-centered and developmental approach long associated with early childhood education. It was argued that traditional early childhood programs were too focused on play, and not sufficiently focused on learning outcomes, to eliminate the educational gaps presented by poor children. Early childhood educators bemoaned the way their knowledge base and experience were being ignored by relatively new entrants into the field.

Support for the field’s child-centered and developmental approach to early education emerged, however, in the early 1980s from research on the longterm positive impact of child-centered approaches to early education. These research findings deflected—for the time being—criticisms of early childhood educators’ views on best practice. The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) successful 1987 publication on developmentally appropriate practice further helped the early childhood field reclaim the validity of its child-centered approach and reinforced its historical reliance on developmental theory as the primary informant for educational decision-making.

By the 1990s, the success of NAEYC’s publication ignited new challenges to the early childhood field’s holistic approach to early education. A group of researchers known as reconceptualists challenged the field’s over reliance on theories of child development and successfully opened the field’s reception to the impact of factors such as race, class, and gender on children’s development. Simultaneously, the nation became increasingly aware of and concerned about racial achievement gaps. In response, the centrality of literacy development—versus the “whole child”—was established in prominent federal legislation called the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

In contrast to the 1960s, when limited evidence existed to confirm the validity of the field’s focus on the whole child, strong evidence now exists to support essential linkages between children’s emotional, social, and intellectual capabilities. Yet given current political circumstances and a focus on child outcomes, sustainability in its current form of the field’s long-standing commitment to a child-centered developmental approach may be at risk.


Families as collaborators in promoting children’s development. Just as early educators value the whole child, they also highly value the child’s integral relationship with his or her family. Early childhood educators always have viewed families as central to the successful development of young children and as essential partners to the success of early childhood education. Early expressions of this partnership were seen in efforts to share newly emerging scientific knowledge of children’s development with mothers so they could use this knowledge in their child rearing, thereby optimizing children’s developmental potential.

To advance what was a novel idea in 1923, Lawrence Frank, of the New York- based Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, launched an extensive parent education campaign. Similarly, nursery school programs, the majority of which served as lab sites for campus-based developmental psychologists, partnered with mothers in using the new research on child development to foster children’s positive growth. Recognizing the importance of the home environment to children’s development, and parents’ unique knowledge and understanding of their own child, nursery and kindergarten teachers also routinely visited children in their homes to learn more about them and identify ways they could incorporate children’s interests into the classroom setting.

Given differences in their formal knowledge of child development, the nature of the teacher-parent relationship often became one in which the early childhood teacher was the source and giver of knowledge, and the parent the recipient. The imbalance in this relationship intensified during the 1960s and beyond when parent education was elevated as an intervention strategy to help low-income preschoolers—most often poor black children—develop social and cognitive skills needed for school readiness.

Simultaneously, however, in conjunction with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, low-income parents were recognized as important allies in promoting the importance of early childhood education. Further, in acknowledgment of new insights on child development informed by the fields of sociology and anthropology, plus a retreat from assumptions of parental ignorance, parents’ central roles in their children’s development began to be recast. This updated view of parental importance was captured in 1965 with the launch of Project Head Start, the country’s first federally funded early childhood program. Head Start’s emphasis on families’ centrality to child development and reliance on family members as decision makers, as well as implementers, in important program issues, reaffirmed the early childhood field’s commitment to families and raised its commitment to a new level.

It must be noted, though, that parents’ value as collaborators is facing extensive pressure as an ideal not easily accomplished in practice, considering the expense, time, skill, and commitment required. And, the increasing number of parents in the workforce, along with public policy changes requiring poor parents to work to receive public support, has lessened the availability of parent time and energy for parent involvement in their children’s education.



No longer a small and obscure field, early childhood education programs now face increased scrutiny. Rising public expectations for consistent, high-level performance place new demands on early childhood education as a field, present new challenges, and offer new opportunities to integrate high-quality early childhood care and education into the national landscape. The growth of public interest and expanded investments in early childhood education is accompanied by increased expectations for program accountability. Based on research on early brain development and evaluation studies of early childhood education, increased pressure exists for children to come to kindergarten prepared to be successful with academic demands.

Major gains have been accomplished with significant new investments by federal and state governments as well as by increased private sector support. Nevertheless, despite more than a century of effort to elevate the importance of early childhood care and education, the United States still lacks a comprehensive system of services to ensure that all young children receive the high quality of programs they need and deserve. Seizing future opportunities will require advocates to find ways to engage and sustain public interest and commitment to early care and education.

Further Readings: Copple, Carol, ed. (2001). NAEYC at 75: Reflections on the past, challenges for the future. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; DeVita, Carol J., and Rachel Mosher-Williams, eds. (2001). Who speaks for America’s children? Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press; Finkelstein, B. (1988). The revolt against selfishness: Women and the dilemmas of professionalism in early childhood education. In B. Spodek, O. N. Saracho, and D. Peters, eds., Professionalism and the early childhood practitioner. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 10-29; Goffin, S. G. (2001). Whither early childhood care and education in the next century. In Lyn Corno, ed., Education across a century: The centennial volume. Part I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 140-163; Grubb, W. N., and M. Lazerson (1988). Broken promises: How Americans fail their children. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Keniston, K., and the Carnegie Council on Children (1977). All our children: The American family under pressure. New York: The Carnegie Council on Children; The Kindergarten. Report of the Committee of Nineteen on the Theory and Practice of the Kindergarten. Authorized by the International Kindergarten Union. (1913). Boston, New York, Chicago: Houghton Mifflin and Co.; Washington, V. (1984). Social and personal ecology surrounding public policy for young children: An American dilemma. In D. Gullo and D. Craven, eds., Ecological perspectives on the development of the young child. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas Publishers, pp. 254-76.

Stacie G. Goffin and Valora Washington