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An Analysis of Early Years Philosophies

| February 8, 2017


The importance of early years’ education has long been recognised within both academic and professional circles. By establishing strong theories and policies during the early years of education, this then has a knock-on effect on the other aspects of education and makes the overall educational system more effective, in terms of producing capable adults.

This paper will look firstly at the contribution of leading theorists when it comes to the provision of key documents in order to guide those in the practical application of these theories in the context of early years’ education (Catron and Allen 2007). The paper will then go on to look at current policies and practices in early years’ education and how these either support or disprove the theoretical perspectives laid out. The final section then goes on to establish a personal philosophy of how the author here has pulled together existing theories and practices to develop their own approach to early years education.

Key Theories of Early Education

Unsurprisingly, those involved in the theories and philosophy which have emerged, over the years, in relation to early years’ education have gained considerable attention. In order to consider the theories each will be looked at in turn to look at their own contribution and in order to consider any advantages and disadvantages associated with these theories and concepts. This will be broken down within each theory to look at the key issues of:

  • Children’s learning
  • Relationships
  • Learning Environment
  • Meeting Children’s Needs


Children’s Learning

The educational approach developed by Montessori promotes the notion of freedom and independence in early years’ education, provided of course there are limits put in place with respect to the existing level of education and understanding of the children involved. Although multiple different approaches have been developed and are broadly considered to be based on the educational theories of Montessori, there are certain elements of this educational theory that would be essential, regardless of how it is applied in practice (Montessori, 1994).

This includes the use of mixed age classrooms for children between the ages of three and six, with the students themselves having a choice of activities. Once they have been given a range of choices, the work time should be uninterrupted, as far as possible and a discovery model of behaviour being used to encourage the children to explore themselves, rather than being directly instructed on certain patterns of behaviour. In order to facilitate this approach, there needs to be freedom of movement within the classroom.

Meeting Children’s Needs

Montessori is largely considered to be an educational theory. In reality it is more of a theory of human development and nature, with two key basic principles. Firstly, when children and adults engage in any form of development, they take on board a self construction approach, as they interact with items and the environment around them. This recognises that the learning experience is directly linked to interaction with external factors and it is the stimuli is crucial to this educational theory and places a much heavier emphasis on facilitating, rather than direct teaching (Cadwell and Rinaldi 2003).

Learning Environment

With this in mind, those looking to apply this educational theory, in practice, will need to consider the environment almost as much of the content of the lesson itself. This is achieved by creating a harmonious and clean environment that is uncluttered and encourages free movement and activity, but also ensures that the availability of material is linked to the area of development being targeted. By restricting the material available, this has the effect of guiding the learning experience, but not to such an extent that the individual feels constrained. This educational theory also breaks down the age groups of those involved, with the recognition that children under the age of six are undergoing an incredibly dramatic development period and therefore developing self-construction during this period will potentially be the most important element of long-term development. Certain key expectations are included within this educational theory to guide expectations, without constraining either teacher or student. For example, the acquisition of language is something that is recognised as taking place, continuously, and therefore social behaviours will only truly become a fundamental element of the learning experience from approximately 2 years onwards, according to this educational theory.

Waldorf Education (Steiner)

Another formative educational philosophy is that referred to as Waldorf education or Steiner, which was established in Austria the early 20th century. As a result of this, several independent Waldorf schools were established, primarily in Germany, although also in neighbouring countries. This theory of education looks at the stages of development as being a crucial underpinning factor as to how education should take place. This theory broadly splits child development into three distinct stages, each of which lasts around seven years. The early years’ education which takes on-board the first seven years focuses primarily on providing hands-on activities and creative play opportunities, so that the primary focus is on child development through physical and practical activities, during this phase.

Children’s learning

For the purposes of this analysis, it is the first stage that is most important. However, so that it can be seen how these early years of education fit into the broader picture, it is worth noting that the second stage focuses more on social development and the third on academic understanding. Although the Waldorf theory can largely be seen as an educational theory that can be attached to independent schools across Central Europe, many of the theories and philosophies have permeated more traditional educational establishments.


The education ideas put forward by Steiner largely follow the concept of common sense and go beyond simply what is taught to children. These theories also look at the environment and broader issues such as health and well-being. Taking this developmental approach is, in many ways, similar to that looked at above, with the Montessori theory; however, it is much more focused on ensuring practical experiences, where the children are not necessarily focusing on maintaining freedom as the primary and key theme (Roopnarine and Johnson. 2005). The emphasis during the early years period is on providing children with practical activities that will allow them to live life experiences either by following the examples of others, or by their own experimentation. Throughout this theory there is also a heavy emphasis placed on nature, where external influences may be seen to be relevant.

High Scope

More recently, developed in Michigan, USA, is the High Scope early childhood educational approach which looks at a variety of different educational establishment, including kindergarten, pre-school and even home-based childcare, in order to look at the ways in which early childhood development should be best established, so as to lay down the foundations for future learning. The development of this educational theory was primarily founded on the concept developed by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which takes a scaffolding-style approach, suggesting that adults should form a learning “scaffolding” around children, to take into account their current level of development and encourage them to build on it (French and Murphy 2005).


Several central concepts have been developed alongside this educational theory and although participation from the student is important, as it is with the other two theories, there is, however, a structure associated with this educational theory which distinguishes it from the previous theories (High/Scope Educational Research Foundation 2001).

Learning Environment

For example, environment is seen as important, within this educational theory and the classroom is expected to comply with a high scope model would have several well-defined interest areas, e.g., there would be a toy area and an art area, clearly delineated and made available for the children. This supports the basic learning approach that is advocated by the other two theories in that students will gain from interaction with adults and their own construction of the world around them. However, this is done in a much more structured way, where the daily routine requires early years’ children to be following a predictable sequence of events throughout the day and there not being complete freedom, as advocated by Montessori.

To a certain extent, this theory can be seen to be a muted version of the earlier theories. Furthermore, although a heavy emphasis is placed on a constructivist and interaction approach, a much more rigid structure is put in place to ensure that there is consistency and comfort offered to the students and that they understand exactly what is likely to happen, on any given day.

Forest Schools

Finally, there is the specialist theory associated with Forest Schools Education which involves outdoor education and suggests that the children are able to develop confidence and knowledge through having a large amount of outdoor activities and engaging at times within a forest environment. These types of schools are seen as a means of building independence within any age category and the theory of Forest Schools has become a pedagogy, in its own right. This recognition of the importance of the environment is itself something that can be utilised, either in its own right or alongside the previous theories of development of early years children, as advocated by the other theories, mentioned above.

Government Legislation and Guidance

Within the UK, the Department for Education provides guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). The aim of this guidance is to produce basic compulsory standards that all entities involved in the early years’ education provide.

The statutory framework for the EYFS stage was established in 2012 and is the full document guiding those involved in the provision of years’ education is seen as merely a minimum standard that they are required to meet and any underlying aims and objectives that should be in mind when establishing their own methods and philosophies. This was given its statutory status by virtue of the Childcare Act 2006.

There are underlying aims associated with the guide, including the desire to provide consistency and equality of opportunity for all young children, which will ultimately then provide a secure foundation upon which every child can develop in an appropriate manner and according to their abilities and desires and become well adjusted young adults, in the future. Basic safeguarding welfare requirements are also fundamental to this guidance and, although the focus here is on educational theories, it should be noted that early years’ education theories should, at all times, consider welfare issues and how these may interact within the educational environment (Helm, and Katz 2001).

Overarching principles recognise that each child is unique and will be in a constant state of learning and development, and will therefore need to be adaptable and taking the lead from the child in question. Furthermore, the establishment of positive relationships, both with their peers and adult groups is crucial and educational environments should be enabling and positive, regardless of precisely how they are set up or managed. Depending on the nature of the early years provider there may be more specific requirements when it comes to learning and development. For example a childcare provider for wrap-round services, e.g. outside of school hours, would have a lesser requirement to support learning and development, as it would be presumed that the learning and development has been covered within the educational environment. In order to ensure sufficient flexibility, while also ensuring equality and consistency with policies produced in the area of learning and development down into three key subjects: communication and language; physical development; and personal, social, emotional development. All providers of early years’ education need to provide basic supporting literacy, mathematics, general understanding of the world and expressive arts and design. To a certain extent, the rigidity of the current requirements would prevent total freedom within the educational environment and this would disallow a pure theory, such as that of Montessori, to be used although many of the elements of this educational theory can still be present, despite the constraints of the statutory guidance.

When establishing methods of learning and development the guidance requires the use of a mixture of directed  and free play within any education establishment and this prevents the approach from begun being entirely focussed one way or the other.

The binding agreement to deliver the statutory framework requires that there are three characteristics which must be applied to all the activities that are undertaken by those involved in early years’ education. Firstly, there is the need to encourage playing and exploring which is supportive and congruent with the earlier theories of Steiner and Montessori and which encourage every child to explore and develop during their early years. Secondly, there is the need for active learning which encourages children to concentrate and to continue to strive to achieve the results that they are after (Anning et al 2004).

Thirdly, there is the need to encourage the creativity and critical thinking of the children, in order to develop their own thoughts and ideas, as well as making links between ideas which they can then use in the future. Although the statutory guidance has a relatively large level of structure attached to it, on the whole, it follows the educational theories on early years’ education advocated by Steiner and Montessori.

Certain requirements are also placed on early years’ education providers; for example, a pupil must have an allocated key person with whom they interact and who has responsibility for ensuring that they are developing and learning in an appropriate manner; this is also seen as a welfare and safeguarding issue, where this is a non- negotiable requirement.

Certain standards are expected of children at any stage of early years’ education, such as the requirement that, by a specific age, sentences should be constructed and the children will be regularly reviewed and tested, in order to ascertain whether they are meeting the requirements, exceeding the requirements, or falling short. Although it is not expected that every child will develop at the same place, regular monitoring in many areas which are deemed to be weak is critical and a fundamental part of the current framework, so that the child in question can then be supported to develop in these weak areas.

The main assessment is undertaken in the final term of the academic year in which the child becomes five years old is provided to the child’s carers / parent and other professional that are relevant during the early years. This assessment has several purposes other than to simply ascertain the current stage of learning for the child in question and provides information for the teacher who will be dealing with the child, as soon as they enter into compulsory education. This indicates that the early years’ agenda does in fact have the underlying aim of placing children in the best possible position to enter Year One (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 2004).

Another important aspect of the statutory guidance which is relevant to this discussion is the heavy emphasis placed on partnership arrangements, with the requirement for early years’ education providers to engage with the local authority, where appropriate, particularly for welfare and safeguarding issues.

The essence of the policies here, therefore, is to fulfil certain requirements for having the statutory, basic standards in place, while also offering freedom to the early years’ educational establishment, in order to allow them to adjust, depending on the nature of their establishment and the types of facilities available to them.

This would seemingly be a combination of theories, as discussed above, and goes largely along with the early focus on freedom and independence, but with slight constraints put in place. Based on this it can therefore be argued that the closest educational theories discussed above to the current situation are that of High Scope, where the adult operates as a form of scaffolding around the independent and free learning of the children. There does however need to be clarity, on a day-to-day basis, but the children themselves are given the freedom to develop at their own pace.

A Personal Philosophy

By looking at the educational theories explored in the first part of this report and also looking at the way in which the government has established guidelines, both compulsory and optional for educational establishments, the author here has been able to develop their own personal philosophy for early years’ education. This personal philosophy also draws, to a certain extent, on reflective learning from the author’s own experience within the early years teaching environment.

As a result, and in the opinion of the author, it was found that the educational theories that support the notion of entirely free play are not as effective as the current educational agenda. However, whilst there are merits in the notion of entirely free experiences for very young children, as advocated by Montessori, it is suggested here that there needs to be a degree of structure, as this is more reflective of the educational experience which the children are likely to receive in the future. Moreover, there is an underlying aim within early years’ education to present children with the best possible foundation before branching into compulsory education and this would seem to be the main focus.

The author also believes that the most appropriate philosophy is a combination of Waldorf and High Scope, stating that there needs to be at least some degree of structure and expectation, in order to ensure that there is sufficient consistency. Each child leaving early years’ education needs to be in position to undertake compulsory education; therefore, without having at least some boundaries and expectations laid out for all involved in education, this would result in some children not being able to achieve basic standards. This could ultimately impact, not only on their educational knowledge, but also on their self-esteem, if they were to enter compulsory education considerably behind others, in terms of attainment (Hohmann, 2002).

Applying the statutory rules which are in place within the UK also supports this philosophy and recognises the fact that the ability of children to learn and develop will be different, particularly within the early years, and there needs to be at least some  freedom for the children to explore and make up their own minds. This does, however, need to be structured and facilitated by the educational professionals, so that any individual weaknesses can be identified and supported in such a way that would not be possible, if total freedom were given to the students.

Educational theories provide a strong background to the way in which education should be delivered, both from a physical environment perspective, through to how the adults responsible for delivering education interact with the children in their care. Despite the need for structure, it is noted here that a strong emphasis should also be placed on freedom of choice for the children when building social and self-esteem factors, which are arguably going to be the foundations for future learning, far beyond technical skills such as the ability to read and write (Penn, 2005). By looking at the broader developmental issues, such as those set out in the statutory guidance, those involved in delivering educational standards can adapt to deal with any issues that arise, rather than being constrained to delivering a specific curriculum.

Based on this, my own personal philosophy of education is a hybrid between High Scope and Waldorf, with a bias towards increasing structure, so that basic standards are achieved, regardless of the underlying skills and personalities of the children involved.


Anning, A., Cullen, J. and Fleer, M. (eds.) (2004). Early childhood education: society and culture. Delhi, New York and London: Sage Publications

Cadwell, L. B., and C. Rinaldi. (2003) Bringing Learning to Life: A Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Catron, C. E., and J. Allen. (2007) Early Childhood Curriculum: A Creative Play Model, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Department of Education (2012) Available at:

French, G. and Murphy, P. (2005). Once in a lifetime: Early childhood care and education for children from birth to three. Dublin: Barnardos.

Helm, H and Katz, L (2001) Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years, New York: Teachers College Press.

High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. (2001). The physical learning environment: Participants guide. Michigan: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation

Hohmann, M., et al. Educating  (2002) Young Children: Active Learning Practices for Preschool and Child Care Programs. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

Montessori, M (1994). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford, England: ABC-Clio. pp. 7–16

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. (2004). Towards a Framework for Early Learning. Dublin:  National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

Penn, H. (2005). Understanding early childhood. Glasgow: Open University Press.

Roopnarine, J., and J. Johnson. (2005) Approaches to Early Childhood Education, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

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