Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years

Series Critical Issues in the Early Years
Editor(s) Linda Miller and Linda Pound
Publisher Sage
Published 2011
Pages 192
Price £22.99
ISBN 9781849205788
Reviewed by Dr Margaret Simms
Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln
Review published 15 July 2011

The main purposes of ‘Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years’ are to encourage examination and reflection of practice and position and develop critical thinking and analytical skills. Divided into three parts, the book covers Theoretical and Analytical Positions, Foundational Theories and Contemporary Theories. Chapters focus on key influential thinkers, like Froebel and Montessori, and approaches such as Forest Schools and Te Whariki.

Miller and Pound, in Chapter One, ‘Taking a Critical Perspective’, exemplify how degree students could engage with theory in relation to the curriculum, and their views of the child and the adult role. The chapter reiterates that "the theories and beliefs we hold – whether formal or informal, explicit or implicit – influence practice."

In Chapter Two, Manning-Morton considers the relationship between psychoanalytical ideas, the unconscious mind, defence mechanisms and projection, all of which are "embedded" (p. 22) in everyday language and culture, and therefore intrinsically related to the development and care of children.  Avoiding such deep theories may limit the reflective practitioners’ capacity to build professional working relationships with colleagues, children and parents.

Albon, in Chapter Three, theorises and critiques the application of postmodern and post-structuralist perspectives to early childhood practice. Her thinking challenges practitioners’ and professionals’ acceptance of assessment processes that identify ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ children. Perhaps, like Bruce, in Chapter Four, it is Froebel’s innovative understandings of the importance of play in learning in a child’s early years that will appeal to highly educated and trained professionals.

A collaborative approach is taken in Chapter Five, by Bradley, Isaacs, Livingston, Nasser, True and Dillane, to a discussion of 100 years of the Montessori Approach. As with all other chapters, a critique of the particular theoretical perspective is offered. Questions for discussion, further reading, websites and references draw the chapter, but not the discussion to a close. Chapter Six, ‘Steiner Waldorf Early Education: Offering a curriculum for the 21st Century’, continues in similar vein.

The Highscope Approach, The Wisdom of Vivian Gussin Paley and Forest Schools in the Early Years are packed in to Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine respectively by Epstein, Johnson and Lafferty; Lee and Blackwell and Pound. Though very different, these contemporary theories consider children’s early learning potential and the role of the practitioner in bringing out that potential. The honesty of the book lies in the critique of each theory.

In Chapter Ten, Smith expounds the virtues and common-sense of the New Zealand Te Whāriki framework for early learning and development.  These chapters should be recommended reading for early childhood students who, in writing academic assignments often seem to attribute all theoretical knowledge to Piaget, Bowlby and Vygotsky rather than exploring, other approaches such as Te Whāriki.

The Te Whāriki approach to ‘school readiness’ is to focus on children’s "motivational aspects of learning" (p.153), learning how to learn rather than what to learn. The success of this approach, as with any other approach described in the book depends on well trained and qualified professionals in childcare and early education for its enlightened and successful implementation to enhance provision and practice. 

Critical thinkers, concerned with influencing critical issues, such as so-called ‘schoolification’ and ‘school-readiness’ will appreciate in this book the pivotal positioning of learning through play. In the final chapter the editors reiterate the importance of play in theories of early childhood learning and challenge current political trends towards  the ‘schoolification’ of learning in the early years.

As today’s graduates become the leadership and management of tomorrow’s world of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) they are well advised to proceed to the book store for their own copy of ‘Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years’.