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1.5: Historical Roots

  • Page ID
    • Gayle Julian & Sophie Truman
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    Many of our current ideas in educational philosophy are built on ideas and theories of the past. The roots of early childhood education go as far back Plato (428-348 BC) who was a Greek philosopher that believed that the teacher’s role was to direct children through play towards “their final aim in life”. Dr. David Elkind believes that the field of early childhood education is “the most holistic and least differentiated of any level of education” due to the solid grounding in philosophy, theory, and research. What theorists most noted in the field have in common is that what makes early childhood education unique is that it starts with the child, and not with the subject matter (Elkind, 2010).

    The Origins of Early Childhood Education

    The philosophical foundations of early education includes the early work of many individuals including Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in addition to many other European and American philosophers that will be discussed in chapter 3. Alongside these philosophical applications, the field is grounded in research through education figures such as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), German American psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) and German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) as well as European theorists and educators all of whom have contributed to Western approaches in early learning.

    It wasn’t until after World War II that early childhood education came to be seen as an important foundation to every child’s educational pathway, the roots of which are based in humanism. This thought process has the concern for the well-being of all humans which eventually contributed to what we know now as developmentally appropriate practice, a concept discussed in chapter 4 of this text.

    The infographic in figure 1.3 illustrates the progression of thought from some notable theorists that have contributed to the field of early childhood education from Ancient Greece to the first Kindergarten funded in the United States. As you look at the timeline, think about how the philosophies of each time period have influenced current thinking.

    428 BC Plato: the early years shape a child's future
    1546 Martin Luther: boys and girls should be taught to read
    1778 Jean Jacques Rousseau: the child is inherently good
    1670 Johann Amos Comenius believed education helped to shape society
    1704 John Locke: the child is born a blank slate
    1827 Johann Pestalozzi: all children have the right to an education
    1858 Robert Owen: the environment should be one of mutual consideration
    1873 Publicly funded Kindergarten arrives in the United States

    The Origins of Child Care in the United States

    In the United States today, most women with young children are employed outside of the home. The necessity (or choice) to work outside of the home has created a need for care for young children during working hours. The term “day care” was used historically to refer to the working hours teachers were in classrooms. Today, professionals prefer the term childcare as it is more inclusive and reflects the important work of nurturing the child.

    Childcare can be traced to starting in New York in 1893 when the National Federation of Day Nurseries, the first nationwide organization devoted to childcare, began. The care at that time was hardly labeled “quality” and so a set of progressive women began the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 to set policy for quality childcare (Michaels, 2019).

    The Depression had an impact on childcare as unemployment rose. During Roosevelt’s New Deal, a program of Emergency Nursery Schools (ENS) grew but were open for only part of the day. By the end of the 1930’s high staff turnover rates forced the closure of many of the ENS. With the approach of World War II, the unemployment crisis dropped, and many women went to work for the government to support war efforts. However, it was not until 1943 that support for childcare financially entered into government conversations and Congress allocated $6 million dollars to reopen ENS (Michaels, 2019). In 1944, only 3,000 childcare centers were operating, yet the capacity for 130,000 children was needed. This lack of care during the day began the spread of the “latchkey child” and often children were found sleeping in locked cars in company parking lots while mothers worked (Michaels, 2019).

    In 1954, The childcare tax deduction allowed low to moderate income families to deduct expenses for childcare from their income taxes and a program entitled New York Women (led by Elinor Guggenheimer) helped to establish a licensing system for childcare in that city that eventually grew across the U.S.

    In the 60’s, federal support for childcare was tied to policies designed to encourage poor and low-income women to enter the workforce until a group of labor leaders, civil rights leaders and early childhood advocates worked with Congress to legislate universal childcare policy. These efforts failed under President Nixon and as a result, direct federal support for childcare was limited to low-income families.

    Image 1.8 A Historical Moment is licensed under CC by 1.0

    In the 80’s President Reagan shifted funding and the passage of the Child Care and Development Block Grant allocated funds to support individual states. The issue with this was that even though there were increased funds for childcare, problems with supply and quality for lower income families became difficult, and middle-income families faced childcare centers with high turnover rates of childcare employees due to low pay and poor benefits.

    In the late 1990s, funding through welfare reform initiatives such as the Family Medical Leave Act provided some childcare relief dollars for families, but existing federal childcare policies have gone largely unchanged since the 50s and do not meet the needs of the working families of today.

    There are hundreds of private advocacy groups in the United States that are interested in early childhood education and the policies that support quality and equity for all families today, but most research agrees that the system of childcare is a fragmented system. In the next section of this chapter, we will explore how the government has supported early learning.

    This page titled 1.5: Historical Roots is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gayle Julian & Sophie Truman.