Early childhood education (ECE), also referred to as childhood learning or early education, is the teaching of children below the standard schooling age – which is five years old in most countries – in a formal setting outside the family or home. Today, this stage of education has strong roots in the research findings and subsequent theories of Jean Paiget, David Elkind, Joe Frost, Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel and other like-minded developmental psychologists, who highlight the importance of children learning through play. In formal ECE the children’s natural tendencies, such as curiosity and ‘make-believe’ are incorporated into stimulating education lessons in the form of play-based activities including drama, various forms of arts and crafts and social games.
The Developmental Interaction Approach to ECE, built upon the theories of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Erik Erikson, corresponds to the theory of young children learning most effectively through play and discovery. In this approach the purpose of ECE is to facilitate the development of five developmental domains: physical, emotional, social, language, and cognitive skills. Two of these developmental domains, emotional and social, are closely linked in terms of their causes, subsequent effects and their importance for society when children become adults.
The emotional domain relates to how well the child makes and maintains emotional connections and their level of self-confidence. The social domain relates to interactions with other people, which are strongly influenced by the child’s emotional state. Affection plays a vital role in the development of both the emotional and social domains. Defined as a tender feeling or attachment to someone or something, affection is critical for positive relationships both within an educational setting and for everyday life. Research has found that affection is a strong contributor to the building of secure relationships between children and adults. Children expressing affection to peers in mimicry of the affection they received from adults enhances positive peer interaction and can improve the self-esteem of other children. However, direct affection from an adult improves the child’s own self-esteem and promotes the development of both the emotional and social developmental domains.
These developmental psychology theories are also strongly enhanced by findings from research on human brain development. Children’s social and emotional responses are controlled by the pre-frontal cortex area. The complexity of this area does not develop automatically, but the neural pathways are created and reinforced by actual social and emotional experiences, which can be either positive or negative. Research supports the idea that many of the problems in today’s adult society – including mental health problems, eating/weight disorders, heart disease, criminality and academic achievement – are rooted in early childhood. Thus, the importance of ECE and the positive progressive development of the five developmental domains is beyond doubt.