What is Early Childhood Education?

Early Childhood Education is the learning approach for children aged zero to five years old.

The study of early childhood education examines child development through various lenses – social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language. The history of early childhood education explains many of the influences that have shaped the field of early childhood education into what it is today. Early Childhood Education is separate from formal K-12 schooling and although there is limited state funding for all children, early childhood education is not universally accessible. Early Childhood Education is segmented into learning frameworks for infant, toddlers and preschool age groups, and some consider kindergarten aged children to be within the early childhood education philosophy.

Early Childhood Domains


The social domain includes social interaction with others, getting along with others, turn-taking, participation and cooperation. Social skills are important during the early years because children learn to communicate, negotiate and collaborate with others.


The way in which children express themselves, recognize their own feelings and those of others, and develop ways to manage their emotions. Emotional development is important for a child’s overall well-being.

Communication, Language and Literacy

Refers to the interactions children have with literacy materials and the way a child communicates. Early literacy provides opportunities for educators to talk with children about print materials, and for children to develop reading and writing skills.


The cognitive domain refers to reasoning, thinking and understanding. Cognitive development is important for knowledge growth. The cognitive domain includes: cause-and-effect, spatial relationships, problem solving, imitation, memory, number sense, classification, and symbolic play.


The physical domain allows children to develop fine and gross motor skills. Physical skills are important for growth, physical coordination and the movement of the body.

Play Based Learning

A Play Based approach involves using play as a context for learning. In this context, children can discover, create, manipulate, experiment and explore. Play allows children to learn and make meaning of the world and their surrounding environment through active engagement with objects and people. “Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development. … Play develops the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. It paves the way for learning” (Canadian Council on Learning, 2006, p.2).

“There is a strong link between play and learning for young children, especially in the areas of problem solving, language acquisition, literacy, and mathematics, as well as the development of social, physical, and emotional skills” (NAEYC, 2009; Fullan, 2013; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014c).


The Reggio-Emilia Approach originated in the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy during the 1940s. This is considered a child-led approach because it encourages children to express themselves and explore their environment independently. Reggio-Emilia focuses on the image of the child and the relationships and interactions children have. It values children as active, strong, capable and competent learners. Reggio-Emilia is based on the following principles: the belief that children use many different ways to show their understanding and express their thoughts and creativity (i.e. the hundred languages of children); children’s learning is based on their interests and self control over their direction to learn; and the classroom environment is considered a “third teacher”.

Emergent Learning

Emergent learning is a way of teaching and planning curriculum, which is based on a child’s initial interest to create meaningful play learning experiences. Educators observe and plan based on their observations of children and thoughtfully plan the environment based on the children’s needs and interests. Learning occurs naturally and learning opportunities are provided in support of the child’s key developmental skills (e.g. fine motor skills). Both the educator and children make decisions and have initiative. The benefits of emergent learning include: fostering a lifelong love of learning, strengthening a child’s sense of identity and encourages self-regulation.


Waldorf is a holistic approach founded by Rudolf Steiner in Germany during 1919. This approach is unique and distinctive to educating children. The aim is to educate the whole child, “head, hands and heart”. Academic subjects are not taught until the age of seven years old or so. Activities are taught and carried out in groups, which are led by the teacher. The curriculum incorporates storytelling, art, music and imagination. Children use their natural curiosity to teach themselves and at their own pace, and are free to explore and express themselves without any teacher direction. Materials in the classroom are made from natural objects and are not made of plastic.

Related Links

Types of Preschool Programs

Current Trends in Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood Education Assessment Tools

Scaffolding in Early Childhood Education