Frances O’Connell Rust. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.
“I have seen the world of the child grow smaller and smaller … from a world in which children could learn as they grew in it, to a world so far beyond the grasp of children, that only the school can present it to them in terms which they can understand, can prepare them with knowledge of it so that they can take their places in it with confidence when the time comes.” — Caroline Pratt, I Learn From Children, pp. xv-xvi
With this brief reminiscence, Caroline Pratt (1867-1954) begins her life story. She was 81 at the time and was revered then as she is now as one of the preeminent figures in early childhood education. Pratt’s life’s work was to shape a place for children and a way of working with them that would enable both the joy of discovery and ability to make sense of the world that were hers as a child while also preparing young children to “take their places” in the world as adults.
The educational dilemmas that she confronted then— purpose, curriculum, and method—are the very dilemmas that confront educators today. In the area of early childhood education, that is, education focused on children between the ages of birth and 8 years (as defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC]), these issues are particularly acute because an increasing number of young children both here and around the world—30.3% of all children under 3 (United States Census Bureau, 2003) and nearly 50% of all 3- and 4-year-olds (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000)—are participating in some form of care and education provided by individuals other than their parents. Hence, the issue of how as a society we choose to shape the environments in which our youngest members learn and grow assumes critical importance.
This chapter focuses on the curriculum and practice of early childhood—a contested territory. Throughout the 20th century, discussions of early childhood have been driven by debates between those who hold that work with young children before school age should be seen as child care and those who see it as education. Furthermore, there have been deep divisions among educators, policy makers, and the general public about whether educational services—kindergarten, preschool, 4-year-old programs, child care—should be provided universally to all young children. Various discussions of curriculum, of how children learn, of race and class, and of practice and professional preparation figure in these debates. And throughout is the question of the mode and extent of government involvement.
Traditional use of the term curriculum in education as a course of instruction suggests its Latin derivation, “a race, a race course, and a racing chariot.” Jackson (1992) notes, “At the heart of the word’s educational usage … lies the idea of an organizational structure imposed by authorities for the purpose of bringing order to the conduct of schooling” (p. 5). This understanding of curriculum is quite different from how it is used in early childhood. First, there are no states in the United States, and only a few countries in the world, where there currently exists any universal and systematic policy and concomitant curricular vision for early childhood education. Second, the period from birth to age 8 is one in which there is so much change in a child’s ways of knowing and interacting with the world, that it is almost impossible to impose a cohesive system or structure that addresses the wide range from infancy to primary school. Where such systems do exist, as in New Zealand (see Adema, 2006; Meade & Podmore, 2002), there has been a concerted effort to inform early childhood practice with the rich history of early childhood education, current research on learning and the role of culture and community in learning, and commitment to human rights and particularly the rights of the child (see UNICEF, 2002).
Foundations of Early Childhood Education
Williams (1992) and others trace the modem history of early childhood education and its acknowledgement of children being different from adults to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-88). Before that time, as Philippe Aries (1962) demonstrates in his discussion of the ways in which young children have been depicted historically in arts and letters, young children were viewed as miniature adults; infants and toddlers as babies.
Williams (1992) writes that Rousseau’s work brought two important new dimensions to perceptions of children that have been fundamental to modem understandings of young children and their world and are foundational principles of most early childhood curricula. First was Rousseau’s ability to see the young child as different from adults and “moving through a succession of stages, each of which had its own internal order and coherence” (Williams, 1992, p. 2). The second was his “insistence that children learned not through the abstractions of the written word, but through direct interaction with the environment” (Williams, 1992, p. 2).
Rousseau’s theories were further articulated by Johann Pestalozzi (1746-27) and later by Fredrich Froebel (1782-52), both of whom argued for a child-centered, naturalistic education for young children. Pestalozzi developed a curriculum that placed importance on the guidance of parents and, according to Williams (1992), stressed manual dexterity “as a survival skill in the newly emerging industrial revolution” (p. 3). Froebel, writes Bruce (1987), “saw the mother as the first educator in the child’s life—a revolutionary view at the time when only men were seen as capable of teaching children” (p. 29). For Froebel, the child must be seen as a whole. No one aspect of the child’s development is more important than another. Williams (1992) holds that “Froebel is generally considered the founder of early childhood education not only because he was the first to design a curriculum specifically for young children … but because he introduced play as a major medium for instruction” (p. 5). But Williams also notes:
Froebel’s notion of ‘play’ was substantially different from modern conceptions. He saw play as a teacher-directed process, largely imitative in nature and revolving around predetermined content. But he also understood play to be a form of ‘corrective self-activity,’ expressing children’s emerging capabilities and reflecting their particular way of learning, (p. 5)
Maria Montessori (1869-52) seems a direct intellectual descendent of both Pestalozzi and Froebel. Her attention to children’s small motor and sensory development, her invention of mathematical, sensory, and practical-life materials, her understanding of the need for a prepared environment scaled to a child’s needs, and her articulation of a coherent method and approach hearken to Pestalozzi’s emphasis on manual dexterity in children’s work, as well as the importance of adults as guides in children’s lives, and to Froebel’s attention to the spiritual and intellectual life of the child.
New (1992) suggests that “both Froebel’s and Montessori’s methodologies represented a compromise between a child-centered approach and one that emphasized knowledge transmission, and their suggestions for projects that integrated the various subjects areas were often highly structured” (p. 288). For her, “the (20th) century’s best and earliest advocate for an integrated early childhood curriculum was surely John Dewey” (p. 288). Dewey (1902/1990) saw wholeness to learning and to the focus of learning:
Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child’s experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child’s present experience into that represented by organized bodies of truth that we call studies, (p. 189)
Dewey emphasized experience, support, and guidance from wise others, interaction with peers, and relevance (both development, as appropriate to the child’s physical skill and ways of knowing, and cognitive, as appropriate to the child’s interests and context).
Dewey’s (1902/1990) vision of education and of how children learn has become core to whatever coherently American vision of early childhood education there is. Williams (1992) writes of Dewey and his followers:
While not rejecting the picture of children as innately creative beings, the progressive followers of John Dewey reached backward in time to reclaim some of Pestalozzi’s understanding of learning through direct experience with the natural world, and forward into the new century to envision children as builders of a new social order—a democratic society. Progressive educators found the highly defined and teacher-directed Froebelian curriculum to be too removed from the challenges and problems of daily living. Instead, they suggested, a curriculum for young children should be designed to meet the circumstances children faced as members of a group living in a modern world, (p. 5)
Simultaneous with and following Dewey and Montessori, are Susan Isaacs and Margaret MacMillan in Britain and Pattie Smith Hill, Caroline Pratt, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell in the United States, all whose work many list as essential to current understandings of early childhood practice. “While these early childhood advocates each had a distinct point of view,” writes Williams, “they all emphasized the centrality of process, and play as an expression of process in the growth, development, and education of young children” (1992, p. 7); and, in their work, they were inventors and shapers of the child-centered early childhood curricula for children that has become the hallmark of early childhood practice for school-age children the world over.
Psychology and Early Childhood Education
These pioneering thinkers did not address birth to age 3, the period of infancy and toddlerhood. Until the latter part of the 20th century, most educators gave little thought to very young children because their capacity for knowing, learning, and communicating was largely unexplored. True, there was a budding movement that focused on what Williams (1992) describes as “the child development perspective” (p. 7):
The American Child Study Movement, under the leadership of G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) was starting to influence early childhood practice. Observations of children’s behavior in a variety of contexts began yielding powerful data that, in turn, were causing curriculum makers to rethink what were appropriate learning experiences for young children … The complexity of the ‘whole child’ was beginning to reveal itself and to require increasingly sensitive applications of integrated approaches to teaching and learning.
But it was not until the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) became available in English in the mid-1960s and early 1970s through the intervention of Jerome Bruner that the attention of psychologists and educators turned to the youngest children; and it was only then that scientists began to understand what many mothers and caregivers of young children already knew: the earliest years are times of amazing growth, of fantastic learning, and of extraordinary powers of thinking. Very young children, as Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) have put it, “are very competent, active agents in their own conceptual development” (p. 68).
Piaget (1929/1975, 1952; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) described children’s cognitive growth as proceeding in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. The process from stage to stage is highly individual (Lee, 1992) and leads children’s thinking from the general to the abstract as they construct their understandings of the world. Infants inhabit what Piaget describes as the sensorimotor stage of development. Here is when infants and toddlers learn about the world through their senses: they watch carefully and can be surprised, they learn to bring objects to their mouths, they can distinguish voices and respond to sound, they know when they are uncomfortable. This is also the time when children develop physical skills: bringing their hands together, holding onto an object, turning over, getting up on hands and knees, crawling, walking, talking. Preschoolers enter what Piaget describes as the preoperational stage—now children interact with the world using language and physical movement to develop internal understandings of how the world works. Sometime between the ages of 7 and 9, children enter the period of concrete operations, and in their teens, they move into formal operations.
Children make their way through these various stages by engaging in reciprocal acts of assimilation and accommodation. With assimilation, children try to fit new knowledge into existing structures. With accommodation, they have to modify existing structures to make sense of new information or represent new skills (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). Williams (1992) describes the ways in which children’s play enables them to move in and out of these reciprocal activities:
Play especially exercises the assimilation process, using action and frequently language as proving grounds for newly acquired ideas. As children proceed through the four periods of intellectual development …, play assumes a variety of forms; and within any one period, it can have multiple functions. Sensorimotor play, for example, generally revolves around practicing physical skills acquired through the use of the five senses. However, it can also be used as a medium for establishing social relationships. During the preoperational period, play might be used symbolically or constructively to solidify physical knowledge of one’s surroundings, to practice problem solving in the adult world, or to create a microsociety in which to try out new capabilities or to refine social interactions, (p. 9)
For early childhood educators, Piaget’s emphasis on children as knowing agents in their own learning and their ability to construct understandings of the world is critically important for shaping both environment and practice (New, 1992). Thus, the cradle and crib as well as the surround of early childhood centers and classrooms become important sources of information for children and, to go back to Mon-tessori, these environments must be prepared thoughtfully and with understanding of how children learn.
Vygotsky’s (1962, 1978) work offers a different and much broader conception of constructivism. Piaget’s child operated alone in constructing an individualistic understanding of the world; Vygotsky has the child “collaborating with others in the co-construction of the higher structures of its own mind” (Lee, 1992, p. 206). Vygotsky suggests that children’s learning is shaped and colored by their surroundings—by the people, the communities, the cultures into which children are born and within which they grow and learn. Learners’ readiness for new ways of knowing can be facilitated in what Vygotsky termed the zone of proximal development—a cognitive bridge between what learners are able to do on their own and what they can do with help from a knowledgeable other. Both peers and teachers, parents, and other adults can act as the knowledgeable other.
As with Piaget, young children’s play is a critical facet of their cognitive development but play in the Vygotskian frame is situated in the cultural ways of knowing and language or symbol systems available to children in their unique settings. Play functions as a major way by which young children integrate social, emotional, physical, and imaginative experience in a particular cultural surround. Thus, there are few hard and fast developmental milestones in Vygotskian theory. Rather, there is, as Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner, and E. Souberman so aptly named their translation of Vygotsky (1978), the notion that mind evolves in society.
What Vygotsky’s theory offers is a broad and deep reassessment of ways in which learning takes place, and it suggests that the contexts of learning are multiple and complex. The work of both Piaget and Vygotsky make it clear that children, from the moment of birth, are primed for learning and that they actively pursue learning. Vygotsky’s work makes it clear that all children, even infants, are deeply engaged in learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999).
Developmentally Appropriate Practice
The ring of scientific truth in the psychological research that grew out of Piaget’s (1929/1975,1952; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) work and that of the child study movement presented difficulty for educators and policy makers. I say difficulty because, along with the stage theories of Erikson (1963) and Freud, this research, which appeared to so ably describe optimal learning environments and optimal learning treatments, seemed to completely overshadow the work of early childhood pioneers. Early childhood education became synonymous with theories of child development, and efforts to spur children’s cognitive development took precedence in the field. As Williams (1992) noted, two schools of thought emerged from this perspective: one suggests that programs for young children (4- and 5-year-olds) should be framed around the traditional school subject areas and should engage children in “formal, academic skills such as reading and computation” (p. 12), and the other calls for a nuanced, child-centered approach for 4-and 5-year-old children. Seefeldt and Galper (1998) describe the split as between behaviorists and those who advocated a child-centered curriculum (p. 173).
Slowly and over time, resistance to stage theories and to an exclusive focus on cognitive development emerged most noticeably in the concept of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP; see Bredekamp, 1987), which is discussed in depth by Florez in Chapter 43. Essentially, DAP is an attempt to create a balance for early childhood practitioners between adherence to strict timelines of development and the more fluid understandings of development that emerged from the work of Piaget and Vygotsky.
In the United States and around the world, the statement drew and has continued to draw both praise and criticism. Praise for the statement focuses on what it has enabled. It has given early childhood practice visibility and has put early childhood education in the limelight of education policy in this country and abroad. The criticism has come from those who question the “suitability of this approach for young children, for at-risk children, and for children from varying cultural backgrounds” (Huffman & Speer, 2000, p. 169). These critiques were foundational to the development of a new line of research and theory known as the reconceptualist perspective.
The Reconceptualist Perspective
In 1991, a special issue of the journal Early Education and Development edited by Swadener and Kessler launched a critique of DAP that zeroed in on the ways in which the editors claimed that “psychological and child development perspectives in the field” (p. 85) had come to dominate thinking and practice. It was Swadener and Kessler’s (1991) contention that psychological and child development perspectives had “often served to narrow the parameters of inquiry within early childhood education to an almost exclusive analysis of children’s development, and thus, eliminated other possible perspectives from which to view children and the early childhood curriculum” (p. 85). Although to many, DAP appears not to be a part of the psychological and child development perspectives that they attack, Swadener and Kessler hold that it is has a ring of homogeneity that suggests all children learn in the same ways and does not acknowledge family, community, and culture.
Situating the Reconceptualist Movement
The movement that Swadener and Kessler’s (1991) work initiated owes much to Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) theory of ecological environments, to Vygotsky’s (1962,1978) theory of the social construction of knowledge, and to Gardner’s (1985) theory of multiple intelligences—interestingly, all psychologists who themselves pushed the field toward new ways of thinking.
Bronfenbrenner (1979) described ecological environments using four propositions:
- Proposition 1: A primary developmental context is one in which the child can observe and engage in ongoing patterns of progressively more complex activity jointly with or under the direct guidance of persons who possess knowledge and skill not yet acquired by the child and with whom the child has developed a positive emotional relationship, (p. 845)
- Proposition 2: A secondary developmental context is one in which the child is given opportunity, resources, and encouragement to engage in the activities he or she has learned in primary developmental contexts, but now without the active involvement or direct guidance of another person possessing knowledge and skill beyond the levels acquired by the child, (p. 845)
- Proposition 3: The developmental potential of a setting depends on the extent to which third parties present in the setting support or undermine the activities of those actually engaged in interaction with the child, (p. 847)
- Proposition 4: The developmental potential of a child-rearing setting is increased as a function of the number of supportive links between that setting and other contexts involving the child or persons responsible for his or her care. Such interconnections may take the form of shared activities, two-way communication, and information provided in each setting, (p. 848)
Dramatically, Bronfenbrenner (1979) called into question the press for high IQ and achievement gains. “I argue,” he wrote, “that such outcome-focused comparisons no longer represent a strategy of choice in research on human development. Specifically, they do little to increase our understanding of how ecological contexts affect the course of psychological growth” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 844). Bronfenbrenner (1979) situated children’s healthy development to their relationships with significant others and their environments, and he pushed his argument toward the shaping of public policy of early childhood education:
If we were to examine systematically the actual contexts in which children in our society spend their waking hours, I predict that many of the settings would be found to fall substantially short of meeting either set of requirements [a reference to Propositions 1 and 2 above]. Specifically, in many places and for many hours, children probably do not have available to them valued adults who engage them in progressively more complex joint activities, nor is the situation likely to be one that provides resources and incentives for children to engage in complex activities previously learned, (p. 846)
The implications for child care and education are unmistakable: the two cannot be separated. Hence, neither can the preparation and continued support of early childhood practitioners or the fact of inadequate facilities for young children continue to be separated and ignored.
Like Bronfenbrenner (1979), Howard Gardner’s (1985) theory of multiple intelligences helped to move the discussion of child development and education away from an achievement focus. Gardner posits seven intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. These emerge with differing strengths in deep connection to the child’s environment. Gardner (1991) takes issue with Piaget’s stage theory as too inflexible and too individualistic: “… people do learn, represent, and utilize knowledge in many different ways…. Such well documented differences among individuals complicate an examination of human learning and understanding” (p. 12).
It was with these antecedents and the cumulative evidence of classroom-based research that the critique of DAP was launched, thereby opening the field to new voices, new perspectives, and, most important, the opportunity to reexamine curriculum and practice in early childhood education.
Toward New Understandings of Early Childhood Education
As this review shows, there has been considerable debate in the field of early childhood education about several fundamental issues. Chief among these is whether care and education belong together as early childhood education. Policy with regard to this issue has in many countries, including the United States, tended to keep the two separate, designating care as the central activity of the home and education as the central activity of the school and, therefore, the state. In this country, in England (Smith, 1994), and in many western countries, efforts to implement all-day kindergarten, universal prekindergarten, and to support families needing child care have all been shaped by this debate. Thus, although early childhood education has increasingly been embraced around the world, public policy has generally focused on preschool-age (3 to 5 years old) children’s experience of school to the exclusion of attention to the learning and development of younger children.
One major barrier to redefining the field to encompass birth to age 8 is the equation of services to the youngest children and their families as outreach to the children of the poor (Meade & Podmore, 2002). Countering this perspective, however, is a growing body of research cited by Kuamoo (2007); Bowman, Donovan, and Burns (2001); and Barnett (2005) regarding the critical importance of the care and educational experiences of the early years for children’s later success in school. Another barrier has been what Swadener & Kessler (1991) and Fleer (2006) describe as a failure on the part of educators and policy makers to move the field beyond a conceptualization of development as “ages and stages” (Fleer, p. 131) to a reshaping of early childhood practice and curricula in ways that add and infuse both local knowledge and beliefs and cross-cultural developmental and educational research:
Through normalizing difference rather than recognizing only one cultural developmental trajectory, expectations in relation to development can be problematized immediately. Building institutional and cultural intersubjectivity gives teachers permission to move away from an evolutionary model of development and toward a revolutionary model, thus éliminating the perspective that any difference to normalized western development would be constituted as a ‘disease’ of normal child development. (Fleer, 2006, p. 138)
These views are enacted in two curricula: that of Reggio Emilia in Italy and that of the nation of New Zealand. Both bring care and education together and are completely in and of their cultural contexts.
Bringing Care and Education Together in Early Childhood
Debate persists about images of the young child, optimal methods, environments, and configurations to support children’s learning. Three grand experiments demonstrate the possibilities inherent in flexible, context-sensitive, well-supported programs that bridge the birth to 8 continuum. These are Head Start with the later addition of Early Head Start in the United States; Reggio Emilia, an Italian municipality’s post-World War II effort to ensure a solid beginning for all of its children; and New Zealand’s recent move to a common early childhood curriculum for children from birth to age 8. Each of these see young children as different from adults, recognizes that children learn in different ways, and positions the family and community as essential partners and guides in the child’s development. Each recognizes early childhood is a time of extraordinary physical, cognitive, and emotional growth—so much so that its effect is felt throughout the life span.
Head Start was created in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty as a means of stopping the cycle of poverty. It provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families across the United States. Initially, the program focused on children ages 3 to 5. In 1994, the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), which currently administers all Head Start programs, initiated Early Head Start. The program was designed as a two-generation program to enhance children’s development and health, strengthen family and community partnerships, and support the staff delivering new services to low-income families with pregnant women, infants, or toddlers. It was expanded in 1995 and 1996 and brought under the Head Start umbrella. Today, Early Head Start operates in 664 communities and serves approximately 55,000 children (Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., 2002).
Since its inception, Head Start itself has served more than 22 million preschool children in more than 1,600 sites in every state and nearly every county in the nation. Understandably with a program as large, complex, and long lived, evaluations of Head Start have been mixed with some researchers claiming early on that the academic benefits are quickly washed out (see Cicirelli, 1969), though numerous studies since have shown that the children for whom the program is intended do benefit academically. Furthermore, the program’s positive effect on young children of poverty and their families—the intended focus of the program—is increasingly acknowledged (see Oden, Schweinhart, Weikart, Markus, & Xie, 1996). Additionally, researchers have found that greater opportunities for former Head Start students to lead productive lives accrue over time (see Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997).
Reggio Emilia is a small town in Italy with a resident population of approximately 130,000 people. Just after World War II, the townspeople came together and decided on a plan to provide high-quality, full-time child care for all the children under 6 years old in the town. They set aside 12% of the town’s budget for this purpose and began the renovation of buildings throughout the town as sites for children’s centers. Subsequently, the child care model of Reggio Emilia has achieved worldwide attention from educators, psychologists, and policy makers in large part because of its attention to children’s symbolic languages—drawing, sculpture, art, and writing—in the context of a project-oriented curriculum (see Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993; Reggio Children, 2008), but also because of the extraordinary settings which are these early childhood centers.
Each classroom has two teachers who are often found working with small groups of children. The environment of each center is considered the third teacher, and this shows in a variety of ways throughout the city’s 22 centers: each center emphasizes the children’s work through documentation, the display of children’s completed and ongoing projects in and around the classrooms. Time is considered “an ally, not an enemy” (New, 1992, p. 310). Children stay with their teachers for 3 years. Each day’s schedule evolves in a fluid, holistic way that enables both small- and large-group activities, exercise, naps, and meals, as well as large amounts of free play that allow children to get deeply into their various projects.
The centers are beautifully furnished; they are light and airy, with child-sized furnishings throughout. Infant rooms are designed to enable young children’s earliest efforts to interact with their world. For example, children who are learning to crawl can move from soft floor mattresses in what look like little Pullman compartments right onto the floor when they wake up. Children of all ages eat lunch together with their teachers family-style in small groups of varying ages in dining rooms that feel like home rather than like a school.
There is genuine commitment to these children’s centers across the community and deep engagement by parents in their children’s learning. They are acknowledged by teachers as equal partners in the children’s education. As New (1992) notes, “there is an articulated belief in the ability of parents to participate in a variety of meaningful ways to children’s early education. These beliefs combine to create an atmosphere of community and collaboration that characterizes adult relationships with one another as well as their efforts with the children” (p. 312).
The Early Childhood Curriculum of New Zealand
The Labor government of New Zealand moved in 2000 to bring the care and education of young children together under the ministry of education—with a commitment to necessary funding and to the improvement and training of all early childhood educators. According to Meade and Pod-more (2002), the country had been primed for this decision by the intensive work of a state services commission work group who, drawing on research—particularly Bronfen-brenner’s (1979) theory of the ecology of human development, Schweinhart and Weikart’s (1985, 1997) research regarding Head Start and the High/Scope curriculum, and Lazar and Darlington’s (1982) research suggesting that the care and education of young children cannot be separated—were instrumental in shaping an approach to early childhood education that was both in synchrony with research in the field and embracing of the complex cultures of the country.
Addressing the concerns of the diverse cultural groups in New Zealand, and particularly the country’s indigenous Maori population, was critical in the shaping of the national early childhood curriculum and the provision of free early childhood education (birth to school entry) throughout the country to children.
Meade and Podmore (2002) write, “The title Te Whaariki translates from the Maori language as ‘a woven mat for all to stand on’” (p. 23). Alvestad and Duncan (2006), write that the title “illustrates both the nature and content of the document—that of a woven mat—interweaving the strands, goals, aspirations, and the view of the child and the family/Whänau for all the early childhood services in New Zealand” (p. 33). About the curriculum plan as a whole, they write, “There is no prescription on method, but a shared vision for outcomes for children in New Zealand” (p. 33).
Although it may be too soon to assess the effect of the new curriculum, Meade and Podmore (2002) write that implementation and assessment (“trialling”) of the various strands of the curriculum has been ongoing “across a range of early childhood services including child care centers, kindergartens and play centres, and language immersion centres” (p. 23)—all as a means of bringing the parts of the curriculum together as a whole.
Toward the Future
Each of these programs has brought care and education together under one umbrella. Each provides a good example of ways in which policy and practice can come together and represents an act of will on the part of government. All of these emerged as a result of intensive research and collaboration and a consensus-built vision of a society’s future. Head Start moved gradually toward an embrace of children from birth to 3 years old and has remained true to its mission of serving the poorest children and their families to prepare children for school. Both Reggio Emilia and New Zealand break through the focus on poverty that has bound early childhood programs for so long. The New Zealand program of free early childhood for all goes further than any program anywhere and certainly than any state-funded program to embrace the powerful tug of culture.
Will the schism between those who focus on care and those who focus on education remain in early childhood education? Will the propensity to provide state-funded early childhood programs only to poor children persist? One hopes not, and there is good research to support that hope (see Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001). Yet, there is much to be done to arrive at the point of implementing policies that bring care and education together as early childhood education.
Enmeshed in the continuing debate are political and economic issues (parental leave policies, family support, on-site child care, providing care and education for all who wish it); educational issues (who determines the content, mode, and effectiveness of early childhood education, professional preparation and support over time, optimal environments); and the issues that grow out of personal and societal belief systems. It will not be easy to answer these questions and to shape new ways of embracing early childhood education for all. The Head Start experiment makes clear that research over time is essential if we are to really understand the powerful effect of early childhood on the lives of adults and the future of societies. What is needed now is continuing research and a commitment of the research and policy communities to dialogue with families and communities to enact policies that will, in the long run, benefit both our youngest children and the societies in which they will take their places.