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A Comparison of Early Childhood Development Theorists

by Rachel Pancare, studioD

Many theorists have influenced our understanding of early childhood and the way humans learn and develop. Some theorists sought to awaken society to the discrepancies in traditional education. They strayed from the historical approach, which viewed children as empty vessels that are to be filled and shaped, and instead, advocated a more progressive approach, which demanded that society look at children as individuals, with their own strengths and drive to learn. Five of these theorists are Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson.

Friedrich Froebel

Friedrich Froebel, who lived from 1782 to 1852, was best known for his kindergarten system. He believed that humans are inherently creative beings and that play helps facilitate creative expression. As written on the website, Froebel Web, Froebel believed that "The kindergarten was to be an environment in which children could reach their full creative potential under the protective and interactive guidance of an adult." Froebel based his system around play materials, which he called "gifts" and activities, which he called "occupations." He believed that when play is engaged in a meaningful and developmentally appropriate way, play can be a powerful source of education. The teacher's role is to assist in the child's discovery. Froebel claimed that effective learning occurs via a child's regular interaction with the world.

John Dewey

John Dewey lived from 1859 to 1952. Dewey was a founder of the philosophical movement called pragmatism and a key theorist of the progressive movement in education. Like Froebel, Dewey believed that a child's daily experience is critical to his learning and that curriculum should relate to children's lives. According to PBS, "Unlike earlier models of teaching, which relied on authoritarianism and rote learning, progressive education asserted that students must be invested in what they were learning." Dewey suggested that a child's mind grows via social participation, which is the primary purpose of school. He felt that children do not need activities to learn because they have their own internal tendencies toward action. Lastly, Dewey argued that education should not be solely about preparing for the future. Education focus on the importance of living in the present.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori lived from 1870 to 1952. In a manner similar to Froebel, she believed in the importance of the senses in cultivating the independence of the child. She agreed with Dewey that children have a natural aim to learn. In her book, "The Secret of Childhood," she wrote, "When a new being comes into existence, it contains within itself mysterious guiding principles, which will be the source of its work, character, and adaptation to its surroundings." In some ways, her ideas strayed from those of other theorists. Froebel's kindergarten engaged children in group learning and provided materials for imaginative use versus practical use. Dewey believed that fostering the imagination and social relationships should precede the expansion of the intellect. Montessori argued that only by developing the intellect can the imagination and social relationships emerge. She emphasized freedom within a structured environment.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was born in 1896. His theory of cognitive development focuses on stages of growth and on a child's ability to acquire knowledge gradually. Piaget focused on intellectual development. He, too, believed that children develop because of their personal interactions. He believed children use "schemas" to acquire information. WebMD, in the article "Piaget Stages of Development," calls these stages "a blueprint" for normal intellectual development. The stages include sensorimotor (birth through 18 to 24 months), preoperational (18 to 24 months through age 7), concrete operational (7 to 12), and formal operational (adolescence through adulthood). The sensorimotor stage is a time of experimentation and physical interactions with one's environment. During the preoperational stage, children develop language skills, memory and imagination. During the concrete operational stage, logical reasoning and an awareness of external events are the key markers of this phase. In the formal operational stage, children engage with abstract concepts such as justice.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson, who lived from 1902 through 1994, argued that the individual develops on three levels at the same time: biological, social and psychological. Learning-Theories.com explains, "Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood." Erikson named five stages of human development through age 18 but suggested additional stages of growth that continue into adulthood. The childhood stages of development focus on identity formation and include the following: trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, industry (competence) versus inferiority and identity versus confusion. He believed that all people pass through these stages as they grow into adults, as they learn about the world and as they form their personalities.

About the Author

Rachel Pancare taught elementary school for seven years before moving into the K-12 publishing industry. Pancare holds a Master of Science in childhood education from Bank Street College and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Skidmore College.

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