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Early Childhood Education
BernhardKalicki and AnkeKoenig
The relevance of early childhood education and care (ECEC) is widely
acknowledged in many countries, the number of ECEC settings is expanding
correspondingly. This trend reflects the tremendous learning potential during
early childhood. Right from birth and during early childhood a variety of learning
processes are initiated that foster agency, self-regulation and development. Even the
newborn is an active learner, a competent interaction partner and a problem-solver.
In line with a deeper understanding of the mechanisms, principles and conditions
of learning, early childhood education relies on pedagogical concepts, approaches
and didactic methods that promote early learning and development. ECEC settings
for young children stimulate exploration and action in everyday situations, embed-
ded in social relations and interactions with peers and with a skilled and reliable
pedagogical professional. The expansion and professionalization of the ECEC sector
requires establishing a research infrastructure as well as implementing different
research approaches at the micro-, meso- and macro-level of the system of early
Keywords: Early childhood, Learning, Education, Interaction, Agency, Research
Early childhood education looks back on a long international history. Early
childhood institutions date back to the late 18th century . Right from the begin-
ning, such institutions had two intentions: caring and education. Friedrich Fröbel’s
(1782–1852) “Kindergarten” was dedicated to the ideas of “self-education” and
“self-activity” and was rooted in the philosophy of Romanticism. In this way,
early childhood education was considered to be an organic process . On the
other hand, housing and emergency relief institutions were established to provide
families with a possibility for their children to be cared for and thus solely fulfilled
the functions of care and charity .
Furthermore, in the history of childhood until today we find a marked differ-
ence between early and mid-childhood. This difference considerably affects how
children grow up and also how any kind of early childhood education is designed.
Accordingly, Michael Tomasello writes : “In the eyes of many cultural institu-
tions and traditions, across many centuries and societies, children’s sixth or seventh
birthday heralds their entry into the ‘age of reason’”. This shift - still culturally
effective today by starting school and formal learning - not only decouples early
childhood education from other educational institutions but also works in favour of
a differentiated understanding of education and profession.
The motifs of education and care have been defined more precisely only in
the recent history of institutionalized early childhood education and care. By
Education in Childhood
integrating scientific insights, a more reflective understanding of early childhood
education has emerged. In particular, results from developmental psychology
research have led to this change. Children, as well as toddlers and babies, are
socially competent actors right from the beginning. Adults have to respond to chil-
dren’s needs in a sensitive and responsive way. In this context, since the 2000s there
is an overlap between empirical insights and the philosophical debate concerning
early childhood education. The quality of interactions between adults and children
is a key for the educational quality of early childhood education.
Effectiveness studies such as the Perry preschool or the Abecedarian Project,
among others, have shown – over a period of 40–50years – how sustainable high-
quality early childhood education can be for the whole lifespan. At the international
level, early childhood education has also become increasingly significant in the
context of the demand “education for all” . Since the 2000s, early childhood
education in Germany has been the topic of a broad debate arguing that education is
a human right and that early childhood provisions should be effective. On the other
hand, the growing up of small children has changed most of all because of the rapid
quantitative expansion of institutions of early childhood education. The implemen-
tation of high quality early childhood education is a challenge still today.
In the following, first a short description of the expansion of ECEC provisions
and the increasing demand for places will be given. In the light of psychological and
educational theories and evidence, currently debated issues and open questions in
the field of early childhood education will be discussed. Lastly, challenges for and
approaches to a modern kind of educational research within this action field will
2. The growing significance of early childhood education
Across Europe, ECEC provisions are organized differently. In some countries,
ECEC is part of the educational system (e.g. in Belgium, France, since 1968 in Italy
and England) and in other countries it is part of the social service (or welfare)
system. Furthermore, in several countries, early childhood education and care from
birth to compulsory school is integrated in one unified system . In recent decades
Europe has moved towards universal access to ECEC for all children .
In many countries, institutions of day caring have become a crucial element of
the educational system, first only applied to children from the age of 3 until school
enrolment (ISCED 0). Accordingly, in the year 2005 the OECD average participa-
tion rate in ISCED 0 was 75 per cent, by 2010 it was already 81 per cent, and by 2018
it was 88 per cent . Furthermore, the ECEC provisions for children younger than
three years are currently rapidly expanding.
For Germany, the change from a welfare state concept of the system of early
childhood education to a concept of the welfare state investing in social issues can
be demonstrated . At the heart of the new understanding of ECEC is the sup-
port for labour-force participation of mothers and for investments in children by
providing early education. The quantitative expansion of ECEC provision has been
achieved by massive investment packages, ensuring access and participation by
introducing legal rights to a place. Expenses for parents have been reduced drasti-
cally, up to implementing free ECEC for an increasing number of age groups in
With the changes in recent history, the obligatory start into the educational
system has changed as well. “The last year of pre-primary education has been made
compulsory in 16 European educational systems” . Politics has placed its focus on
children with a so-called low socioeconomic status .
Early Childhood Education
3. Learning during early childhood
Anthropology describes man as a “deficient being”  who is born too early
and prematurely and thus requires culture as a second, protective skin. The more
recent infant research, however, shows that already at birth the newborn is pro-
vided with a complete set of reflexes and dispositions for learning, and thus, in
contrast to anthropology, one speaks of the “competent baby” [11, 12]. Independent
of experience, reflexes allow for protective mechanisms (such as blinking, cling-
ing, grasping), reactions of turning towards stimuli (seeking, sucking), but also
for highly complex motoric programmes (stepping, swimming). As a matter of
fact, learning starts even before birth. For example, as early as the 32nd week of
pregnancy fetuses react to repeated (already known) stimuli by showing reduced
neuronal activities and react unabatedly to new stimuli. This habituation is a very
basic way of representing experience which is close to a stimulus. Furthermore,
there is evidence of early developed olfactory, gustatory and acoustic preferences
which are a result of antenatal learning.
3.1 Experience-driven maturation of the brain
The depiction of reality (mental representation) takes place in the cerebral
cortex. The development of the neurons is mostly completed by the end of the
sixth week of pregnancy, however the synaptic interconnections between these
neurons are not. The development of the brain structure in the various areas of the
brain happens according to different schedules: the development of the auditory
and the primary visual cortex happens during the first months of life, the speech
centres develop with a delay, the synapses in the frontal lobes of the cortex, which
are in charge of thought, develop throughout the entire childhood. In the course of
the maturing of the brain, an experience-dependent selection from the surplus of
synaptic connections between the neurons occurs: active connections tend to get
stronger, inactive connections degenerate. Only by degenerating unused or inac-
tive connections is the brain able to develop its differentiated and highly efficient
structure. These insights have far-reaching implications for the question whether a
person’s personality and behaviour is genetically determined or acquired through
experience (“nature–nurture debate”). As demonstrated by modern brain research,
the development of the neuronal “hardware” happens in an experience-dependent
way. Thus any one-sided biological determinism is as inappropriate as theories that
purely refer to learning and milieu . Educationally relevant is the finding that
from the moment of its birth the child is an active problem solver and a learning
agent. Perception, movement, thought and action form a unity already within the
newborn. And even the development of the first cognitive schemes is based on
3.2 Mechanisms of learning
Right from the beginning, the human mind is attracted by new information.
New and unknown stimuli evoke neuronal activity in the brain. This neuronal
reaction gradually decreases when the stimulus is presented repeatedly. Attention
as well as heartbeat and breathing rate decline reflecting a general loss of inter-
est. More or less slight variations can induce a return to a high level of reaction
(dishabituation). The mechanism of habituation functions as a very basic dif-
ferentiation between known and unknown information and as a very fundamental
Education in Childhood
representation of experience. Habituation and dishabituation can be observed in
the third trimester of pregnancy .
.. Classical and operant conditioning
In the case of the learning mechanism of “classical conditioning”, a neutral
stimulus which is repeated together with a reflex-inducing stimulus starts function-
ing as a reflex stimulus. Learning through conditioning works particularly easily
and secures survival. The coupling of stimuli to feeding (sucking reflex) is success-
ful from the first months of life, however, the conditioning of avoidance reactions
is only successful when the baby has acquired the necessary motoric abilities. Thus,
early childhood learning processes are embedded in domain-specific development
Whereas in the case of classical conditioning the baby selects stimuli from its
environment, in the case of “operant conditioning” the baby’s own actions are
crucial. Here, learning results from the effects of the baby’s own actions which
may support or suppress each respective action. For example, drinking (sucking,
licking) a sweet liquid has a supporting effect, taking in a sour or bitter liquid has a
suppressing effect. In the course of the baby getting older and step-by-step extend-
ing its repertoire of behaviour, the learning mechanism of operative conditioning
is extended to an increasingly broader range of reactions and ways of behaviour.
When the baby is interacting with its close reference persons (e.g. parents), the
mutual reactions of both interaction partners – e.g. the child looks into the eyes of
the adult reference person, this person reacts by making eye contact and smiling,
which again the child answers by smiling back – result in acquiring and consolidat-
ing new ways of behaviour and action skills. It also leads to dyadic communication
patterns which rapidly become more complex and dynamic. On this basis, dyadic
ties can develop. A disorganised sphere of experience, where the child’s behaviour
does not lead to expected and adaptive results, as well as a lack of interaction with
adult reference persons can lead to grave developmental disorders .
Imitation is another way of learning in early childhood. The newborn is already
capable of imitating gestures and movements of the head. Sticking out the tongue,
opening the mouth or a sad facial expression are imitated two days or a few weeks
after birth. Also, the significance of early social interaction and communication
is obvious. The different learning processes are always embedded in a social and
cultural context , which has been obscured by concepts of learning theory such
as “stimulus” or “situation”. Social learning theory specifies these learning processes
and, according to further developments in the theory, emphasizes how the acting
subject contributes to its own development .
An enormous catalyst for the development of thought is the child’s ability to
direct attention. Already at the age of six months, either in typical play situations
or diaper-changing situations, the child directs its attention either towards an
object or towards the adult reference person. Two or three months later the object is
included increasingly in the interaction. The child and the adult direct their atten-
tion towards the object together, they communicate about the object, and they use
it in playful interactions. In this context, the child increasingly makes use of the
interaction partner as a means of achieving its own goals, such as to get a desired
object it cannot get to on its own. Significant for the further development in this
context is the emergence of children’s joint attention skills. The child learns how to
adjust its attention to the adult’s direction of attention and how to direct the adult’s
Early Childhood Education
attention to things that are of interest to the child. In this interaction process, the
adult reference person plays the role of a teacher, who can facilitate the learning and
development processes to a great extent. Some authors consider this ability to share
attention to an object with another individual the foundation of intentionality and
self-reflectivity  - this already differentiates the human baby from other primate
Learning means the appropriation of something new, and the baby has a
marked need for new stimuli and experiences from the very beginning. In this
context the baby’s exploration behaviour is of a playful nature, and during early
childhood play it maintains its outstanding significance as a genuine frame for
learning processes. Objects (such as a rattle) are focussed on and grasped, they are
sensed (looked at, palmed, sucked) with the help of the senses developed at that
stage, they are manipulated (turned around, shaken, thrown). By repeating these
actions, the characteristics of objects and materials are understood. Being cultural
goods, objects have certain meanings and functions which the child acquires in a
playful manner. Here, play is characterised as being without purpose and the play-
ing child motivates itself (to a high degree) to engage in this playful action :
Playful actions appear spontaneously, in situations of inactivity and boredom, they
are started voluntarily and, as soon as the child has delved into play, it becomes
fully immersed in its environment. What makes child play meaningful is not the
result of the game but playful action as such.
The development of children’s play behaviour shows typical patterns, which
is why it is possible to determine a child’s stage of development from its observed
level of playing . Accordingly, “functional play” is the simplest way of deal-
ing with an object in a functionally correct way, such as when the child puts the
receiver of a telephone (or of a toy phone) to its ear. Functional play is acquired
by imitation. Next, at the level of “representative play”, actions are transferred to
new situations or persons. For example, the mother or the doll is given the mug
for drinking. During “sequential play”, topically connected actions are imitated,
finally during “symbolic play” any object (such as a toy block) may represent
a specific object (such as a car). At the age between nine and 30months these
levels of playing change: functional play is continuously replaced by higher-level
play. Child’s play is found in the respective everyday cultures of children (in
the past e.g. street games, today increasingly game apps on digital devices), but
also in cultivated, commercialised and institutionalised forms (parlour games,
educational games, various sports clubs). Children’s play develops within a social
context which is mostly determined by adult reference persons . For example,
mothers, when playing with their children, adjust their own supportive actions
(demonstrations of actions) to the child’s level of playing. This development-
appropriate support of playing happens without any advice and without previous
training. The spontaneous and usually competent adjustment of the parents’
behaviour to the child’s stage of development is also found in the context of
supporting the child’s language acquisition. During the first months of life the so
called “infant-directed talk” makes the recognition of speech easier for the child,
by using exaggerated intonation, a high pitch, a simple sentence structure and a
familiar wording. In the second year of life, language can be used to establish joint
attention to an object, which particularly fosters vocabulary learning . Only
after the age of 24months is the child instructed, by so-called “motherese”, about
the specifics of grammar. Apparently, these patterns of learning support appear
across all cultures.
Education in Childhood
.. Mental representations as constructions
Constructivist developmental theories further explicate these learning pro-
cesses. The child acquires and develops its knowledge and its understanding of the
world by being confronted with reality. Observations are classified, interpreted and
appropriated (assimilation) according to already established cognitive schemes.
New, surprising and scheme-incongruent experiences stimulate changes in exist-
ing schemes (accommodation). These processes as well as robust developmental
sequences are postulated by Jean Piaget, in his theory of stages of cognitive
In this context, crucial learning processes happen in the “zone of proximal
development” . This zone describes the next level of development and thus the
child’s next step of development. Development in the zone of the next develop-
mental step is stimulated by interaction with peers moving within similar zones of
development, secondly by development-appropriate stimulations or instructions
through an adult reference person, furthermore through a stimulating learning
environment, and finally through play.
3.3 Exploration and attachment as complementary systems of behaviour
Attachment research sketches attachment as a phylogenetically preprogrammed
behavioural pattern of the child, which at first covers certain affective states and
emotions (such as fear, pain) and the corresponding signals by the child (such as
crying) which trigger a purposeful behaviour of the adult reference person .
Attachment may not be understood as a feature of the child but is a dyadic system
which includes the socio-emotional needs of the baby and the reactions of the
reference person. By the end of the first year of life, dyadic experiences of interac-
tion result in a specific quality of the attachment relationship. A simple taxonomy
distinguishes between four attachment patterns: secure, uncertain-avoidant,
uncertain-ambivalent and disorganised attachment. During infancy and as a baby,
the child depends on the care of adult reference persons who are in charge of the
regulation of its emotional well-being. If the attachment system is activated, such as
in a situation of uncertainty or threat, the reference person responds appropriately
to the signals of the child with behaviours that contribute to comforting the child.
Adult reference persons (typically mothers and fathers) are different from each
other according to their degree of sensitivity. A sensitive reaction shows the fol-
lowing elements: 1. perceiving signals from the child, 2. interpreting these signals
in the correct way, 3. an effective reaction, as well as 4. immediate reaction. The
sensitivity of the reference person proves to be the most important determinant of
the quality of attachment.
The functioning of the dyadic attachment system is of outstanding significance
for learning processes during early childhood. In situations of uncertainty, irritation
or fear the child immediately interrupts any explorative behaviour. Only when the
aversive state has been overcome or dissolved, the child turns back to new objects
or activities. Thus, exploration and attachment are two complementary systems of
behaviour which are important for the child’s development .
3.4 Intrinsic motivation and learning
The self-determination theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan 
describes the conditions and processes contributing to maintaining and increasing
the motivation for learning. The two researchers started out by exploring the ques-
tion: How might the seemingly innate curiosity be used and facilitated to establish
Early Childhood Education
interest-guided, motivated action? They distinguish different degrees of intrinsic
motivation: An action is considered to be intrinsically motivated if it is completely
without purpose and performed for the pure joy of action (“integration”). Slightly
less self-determined would be an action serving for achieving one’s own purposes,
here the person identifies herself/himself with the action goals and accepts the nec-
essary effort (“identification”). Intrinsically motivated only to a small extent would
be an action suggested from the outside, such as to avoid trouble and conflicts with
third parties (“introjection”). According to the theory, the degree to which intrinsic
motivation increases or decreases while dealing with an object, solving a problem
or completing a task depends on the satisfaction of three fundamental needs: the
experience of competence or a gain in competence, the experience of autonomy or
a gain in autonomy; finally, the experience of social inclusion or belonging. In this
context, the change of motivation may run into two directions: When experiencing
competence, self-determination and belonging the activity becomes more interest-
ing. When experiencing incompetence, heteronomy and social isolation the interest
in the matter decreases.
Compatible with this theory of motivation is also the concept of self-efficacy
. Dependent on the child’s experiences and the feedback provided by relevant
reference persons, the child develops a feeling for its own creative skills and
competencies which, in the sense of self-confidence, supports proactive action.
In the course of childhood these self-related estimations and self-images become
further differentiated, depending on the developmental domain and type of
behaviour [26, 27].
4. Early childhood education
All over the world the significance of day care institutions has increased .
Today, not only families but also day care institutions crucially influence how young
children are growing up. These developments are also viewed critically, and it is
emphasized particularly that children should not be degraded to become sheer
addressees of adult ideas on how to educate and raise children. The organization
of the generational order of the different age groups, such as adults and children,
in modern society moves into focus . In the course of these debates, theories
of an organic development during childhood as well as mono-dimensional ideas
of education lose their significance. Findings from more recent psychological
studies indicate that for early institutional education the various opportunities for
young children to interact with adults and peers must be taken into consideration
instead , and that an understanding of relations which is based on sensitivity
is of high significance. Against the background of these insights, early childhood
education establishes a socio-cultural understanding of education and learning.
Basically, these models refer to Lev Vygotsky  who closely relates cognition and
sociality to each other and attributes particular importance to the development of
(oder through?) socio-cultural activities. Also, the studies by Jerome Bruner 
and Barbara Rogoff  are of outstanding significance for developing an idea of
bringing up and educating based on the perspective that children are social actors.
These theories have recently been boosted by the studies of Michael Tomasello .
In his research he connects to these theories and develops them further towards a
neo-Vygotskyan approach. Right from birth, he describes human development as a
close interplay between evolutionary and cultural dynamics of development. The
dialectical logic is a basic element of socio-cultural theories . That is why they
are so appropriate for understanding educational processes. Man’s flaw – not being
able to survive without other humans – is at the same time also man’s strongest
Education in Childhood
point. Being socially referred proves to be a core element of the human species
and a driving force of culture. A reflective kind of early childhood education takes
up these insights and makes use of them not only for a modern understanding of
education but also connects a differentiated understanding of educational relations
to it – an understanding which is aware of the powerful responsibility of adults and
the fragile dependence of young children .
4.1 The quality of educational interaction
The extension of institutionalised early childhood education is greatly influ-
enced by education policy debates. Children have a right to high quality early child-
hood education as well as to institutions of high educational quality [1, 34]. Since
the beginning of the 2000s and triggered by the post-PISA debates, early childhood
education is at the heart of European educational policy. In Germany, these debates
had their peak e.g. in the decision by the 16 state ministers to develop a “Common
Framework for Early Childhood Curricula” . This decision supported the
introduction of educational and orientation curricula which, at the structural and
topical level, were a significant innovation as they strengthen the educational tasks
of day care centres. These changes were fostered, among others, by the OECD’s
“Starting Strong I” study and initiated debates on improving the quality of early
childhood curricula under the perspective of “lifelong learning”. With the publica-
tion “Starting Strong: Curricula and Pedagogies in Early Childhood Education and
Care Report”  a consensus was achieved that communication, collaboration and
creativity must be at the heart of early childhood-educational approaches.
For a long time, quality research on institutionalised care was most of all inter-
ested in clarifying how non-family caring affects young children. The appropriate
studies emphasized that attending a day care institution had a positive influence
on the intellectual development of young children, even influencing later academic
skills . From the 1980s on, such studies – particularly in the English-speaking
countries – were increasingly designed to assess the quality of the experiences
of young children in non-family caring [38–40]. Thereby, the study approaches
became more complex. More recent studies emphasize that not only attending an
institution but the stimulations the children are provided with while engaged in
direct social relations and interactions exert a strong influence on their develop-
ment . Also, the interplay of domestic and non-family care plays an important
role for the studies on early childhood development. The effects of ECEC on child
development seem to be conditioned to high quality. Some studies identify a higher
potential for children prone to so called socio-economic risks . At the interna-
tional level, high quality ECEC appears to be most effective regarding cognitive
performance . The fact that in this field socio-emotional indicators can be less
satisfactorily depicted might, among other factors, be due to the fact that these indi-
cators are more difficult to assess . Longitudinal studies such as the “Effective
Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education Project” (EPPSE 3–16) provide
evidence for effects of early childhood education reaching as far as adolescence .
Like in other fields of education, the analysis of the quality of early childhood
education is nothing new . However, so far no sustainable education research
has been established in this field that goes beyond the initiative by individual
actors. Also, the development of tools for assessing quality lags behind compared
to the strong expansion of day care. One of the oldest and still internationally
most frequently used tools for the measurement of quality is the “Early Childhood
Environment Rating Scale” (ECERS) . As early as in the late 1980s there were
different attempts to replace the dualism of programmes in the field of early
childhood education by a debate on quality. In the tradition of this scale, further
Early Childhood Education
tools have been developed – which in particular address the process quality of
everyday business in day care institutions. Among these is a scale for younger age
groups (ITERS for children below the age of three), for different academic domains
of education (ECERS-E) or concerning the quality of interaction and well-being
(SSTEW). Furthermore, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) 
for recording process quality has been developed. Meta-analyses show that process
quality varies much between as well as within individual countries. In all countries,
the quality of institutions of day care lags behind their expansion. Currently,
comparative studies from different countries do not provide a common answer
to the question, which structural factors particularly influence process quality.
Professionalization, structural and socio-economic factors are influential to differ-
ent degrees in different countries [45–48].
4.2 Implications for pedagogical practice
The various studies on ECEC quality attribute a high significance to the organi-
zation of the interaction process between adults and children for the development
of small children. Well-founded insights on early parent–child interactions have
been provided by attachment research, among others. When it comes to caring
for children younger than three, a meta-analysis  reveals that the sensitivity
displayed in interactions is also significant for the interactions between ECEC
professionals and children, although the character of caregiver-child attachment
is somewhat different to parent–child attachment, due to the fact that the dyadic
relationship in a group context is less exclusive. In this context, Ahnert  empha-
sizes group-orientation as a crucial feature.
.. Sustained shared thinking
Also concerning children older than three, the quality studies indicate a closer
connection between direct interaction and children’s cognitive development. In
particular, the “Sustained Shared Thinking” (SST) interaction format has become
highly significant for the shaping of educational and learning processes during
early childhood. This interaction format was identified by analyzing observa-
tion data collected in the British longitudinal study on “Effective Preschool and
Primary Education” (EPPE/EPPSE) [48, 49]. In the EPPE study, the educational
quality (process quality) of ECEC institutions was assessed with the ECERS-R and
ECERS-E . The SST interaction format goes back to categories of “instructional
techniques” worked out in the context of the EPPE project. In the course of doing
so, the following sub-categories were outlined: demonstrating, telling and dialogue
. Bringing together the different sub-categories to form the SST interaction
format explains the high degree of complexity while at the same time describing the
competences required by professionals (e.g. preschool teacher).
Siraj-Blachtford  defines sustained shared thinking as “an episode in which
two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem,
clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must con-
tribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend.” SST is a kind of cognitive
cooperation. It requires active participation by the interaction partners and aims at
solving problems by jointly considering them. SST also aims at finding definitions
or assessments of events. In the course of a co-constructive process, ideas, stories
and experiences are exchanged, extended and newly developed. According to SST,
the balance between (child-initiated) free play and adult-structured learning phases
is emphasized . Solving problems or tasks together may be accompanied by
educational professionals who apply strategies that facilitate language development
Education in Childhood
in everyday situations. One important strategy involves asking open questions (e.g.
What do you think …?). SST covers the co-constructive processes of understand-
ing and scaffolding, through which educational professionals create a theoreti-
cal scaffold to purposefully support children in their acquisition of knowledge.
Additionally, the dialogue component of this teaching-learning method supports
the establishment of knowledge. For the time being it is still an open question if in
these situations it is the children or the pedagogs who promote learning by social
interaction. It is also an open question if in this case there is a more sensitive reac-
tion to weaker children or if an important potential of educational interaction stays
unused and if, thus, the children are provided with fewer learning stimuli, which
inhibits their further development. There is empirical evidence that the following
aspects positively influence the learning processes positively [48, 49]:
• Adults create a relaxed socio-emotional atmosphere.
• Educators at the institution are highly skilled.
• The learning arrangements are suitable for both the educational domains
(literacy, language, mathematics) and for social development.
• In the individual settings, interactions between educational professionals and
children are characterised by sustained shared thinking (SST), which may
provide an optimum of support for children’s learning.
SST pursues several principles: on the one hand, a particular kind of social-
ity, such as a dyadic connection of the educational professional and the child or
the small group dealing with each other is connected to it. Furthermore, dealing
with each other in a cognitive way (jointly referring to an object) is considered
important. In this context, there is particular emphasis on processes of problem-
solving, clarifying situations, assessing or describing activities as well as on invent-
ing stories. These principles – as demonstrated by the studies by Iram Siraj – are
positively connected to children’s learning processes. Thus, this interaction format
or the implementation of these principles is of great significance for the shaping of
interaction processes in the field of early childhood education. SST requires much
involvement of those participating in the interaction process, which is characterized
by the actors jointly focusing on one subject and exchanging their ideas, opinions
etc. on it. Crucial for this interaction format is the key word “sustained” which
refers to the broadening of perspectives. In addition, the studies share an under-
standing of interaction that is also part of many qualitative studies e.g. [54, 55].
The reciprocity of the interactive relationship is a basis for a stimulating learning
process. Salminen et al. show this with children under three years: “Scaffolding
children’s actions, thought processes or educational dialogue seems to require
different types of educator engagement” . A systematic review of teacher-child
interaction with multilingual children  illustrates these challenges as well.
.. Informal learning
Education embedded into everyday situations in day care institutions relies
on informal learning processes. For early childhood education, this approach is
supported by findings of recently published effectiveness studies. The SST inter-
action format describes the quality of exchange in a differentiated way. Mutual
interactions or dialogue, i.e. staying with the child, are crucial for effective and
sustained informal learning. The empirical findings can be explained in terms of
Early Childhood Education
socio-cultural theories. At the same time, however, these conceptions also point
to blind spots of the debate. For example, current educational research does not
take sufficiently into consideration how the peer group, or the social group in
general, influences learning and how young children experience social inclusion.
Concerning the care of children under three, differentiated models have already
been described [29, 47]. Also, for children older than three the relationship between
the professional and the child is not an exclusive one. These insights are important
for considering appropriate group arrangements and effective conditions for
informal learning. The strong orientation towards a school-oriented teaching-
learning research (formal learning) does not seem to be sufficient for the analysis of
informal learning processes of young children.
Education embedded in everyday situations has an inclusive orientation.
Fundamental for this is an orientation towards diversity education as well as an
understanding of education which is based on human rights and democratic values.
Inclusive approaches take into account the basic human rights principles and
democratic values. Any early childhood education based on dialogue and exchange
must also include the complex interactions within the social group, where exclusion
from or participation in interaction emerges. Participation in education focusses on
economic, socio-cultural and gender equality regarding the access to educational
institutions. Participation puts the inequality of generations into question – “that
is the powerful responsibility of the older and the vulnerable dependency of the
younger generation” . Socio-cultural learning can be related to a relational
and transgenerational perspective. Here the potential for participation within the
informal setting of day care institutions become obvious. The mutuality of interac-
tions, joint attention and cooperation are typical features. Typically, participation
is demonstrated by “listening” and by “the children influencing” the interaction
process. Sharing and appropriation of knowledge are crucial aspects of cultural
learning. Thus, this kind of learning shows features of implicit, explicit, and also
intentional learning. Children may experience this kind of learning both with adults
and with peers, particularly while playing children may experience various types of
participation. The research on “peer-culture”  and on “co-construction”  is
fundamental for these insights. These underlined action patterns are not a matter
of course, not even in the context of play. The implementation of a qualitative,
inclusive early childhood education requires well-trained professionals who have
not only developed a sensitive educational practice but also have scientific reflective
skills, so that they are able to acquire a differentiated understanding of the system
of education and are able to integrate sustainably insights from educational research
into everyday practice.
Day care for children has changed much over the past decades . Among
other reasons, this is due to effectiveness studies that have increased the interest in
early childhood education. However, a practice which is only based on empirical
evidence runs the danger of losing the core qualities of early childhood education,
which in particular include informal educational and learning processes. Early
childhood education is different from learning in higher age groups. Tomasello 
refers to a neo-Vygotskyan approach. He describes human development as a close
interplay between evolutionary and cultural lines of development, starting imme-
diately after birth. The dialectical logic is a basic element of these socio-cultural
theories . Sensitivity and the opportunity to play are also highly relevant. Thus,
it is a crucial challenge to move into focus on those criteria that are particularly
Education in Childhood
emphasized by research, namely high-quality relationships and interactions (pro-
cess quality). Under such conditions, the potentials of (academic) education could
be increased , and children and their families can experience better participa-
tion and social inclusion. An inclusive early childhood education formulates its
educational concepts based on the core idea of social coherence. Never before in
history has the right to education for all been proclaimed as clearly as in the more
recent publications of the United Nations .
To this end, awareness has been raised in recent decades and the number of
institutions has increased. Today ECEC is part of an established infrastructure
in many countries. Nevertheless, when it comes to early childhood education,
there are still enormous differences in how well this infrastructure is developing.
Differences exist between rural and urban areas and according to the wealth of the
society. Since 1999, globally we have observed a rise in the number of pre-school
institutions. Also, research on process quality shows how much practices in indi-
vidual countries can differ . Establishing sustainable educational research is
crucial to better understand barriers within the educational system, also in early
childhood education. In the field of childhood education, educational research is
indeed nothing new – investments into this field have been made as early as the first
Head-Start projects. Nevertheless, up to this day it has not been possible to establish
a sustainable and comprehensive educational research in this field, with a perma-
nent research infrastructure independent of education-political cycles and not
limited to effectiveness studies. Science intended to improve educational practice
is the precondition for professional education. Since the development of education
in the 18th century science has been aiming to develop a theory of educational
practice that is a different of practical work. Education requires practical orienta-
tion and research effort . It means reflecting on the education and bringing
up of children. As far as early childhood education is concerned and in contrast to
other sectors of educational science, this target has not yet been met. Early child-
hood education as a discipline must be strengthened. As long as the training of
early childhood professionals is separated from research and science, the transfer
of insights gained by research as well as the establishment of a scientific-reflective
early childhood education will remain difficult .
Establishing sustainable educational research must happen against the back-
ground of these debates. In this context, also the differentiation of the system of
early childhood education must be taken into consideration . Theoretical reflec-
tion combined with empirical monitoring and analyzing of pedagogical practice
seems to be a promising way to face the challenges of early childhood education
for the 21st century. This chapter tried to outline the practical value of scientific
research on learning and development for ECEC practice.
Sustainable educational research provides descriptive, explicative and operative
knowledge . Apart from official statistics, replicative surveys and prospective
panel studies are crucial to disentangle effects of social change, ontogenetic devel-
opment and pedagogical program and intervention. In this context, both large-
scale studies and more sophisticated studies taking a deeper look into pedagogical
interactions are necessary. Multiperspective study designs are essential in order to
analyse the interplay of contexts and socialization agents (e.g., family and ECEC).
A biographical or life-span perspective is suitable in order to analyse developmental
and institutional transitions (e.g. entering ECEC, entering school). Insight into
the complex interplay of contexts and institutions over time will only be possible
utilising differentiated research approaches at the micro-, meso- and macro-level of
the educational system. Micro-level studies focus on the direct interactions between
educational professionals and children, on educational practices and routines.
Meso-level studies take a differentiated view at organizations. Finally, macro-level
Early Childhood Education
BernhardKalicki1* and AnkeKoenig2
1 German Youth Institute (DJI), Munich, Germany
2 University of Vechta, Vechta, Germany
*Address all correspondence to: email@example.com
analyses integrate the wider context including the sub-systems of professional
training and further education, providers, stakeholders and governance of the
ECEC and the broader educational system. Also, these analyses require profound
and sustainable research funding.
Parts of this chapter are based on a paper published in a German pedagogical
journal . We thank Mrs. Carolyn Seybel and Mrs. Tine Fassomytakis for com-
ments to earlier drafts of this chapter.
© 2021 The Author(s). Licensee IntechOpen. This chapter is distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/
by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
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