Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Images of the Child and Learning in the Early Years Curriculum: A Historical Overview

  • Lynley Tulloch
  • Margaret Stuart
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_58


Western early childhood education (ECE) curricular traditions have emerged from philosophical thought of the Enlightenment (late seventeenth to early nineteenth century). This entry is a thematic exploration of images of the child (for example, child as rational or spiritual being), conjured by Enlightenment philosophers. The image of the child sat alongside imagery used by these philosophers in explaining theories of children’s learning and teacher pedagogy. The authors suggest that this imagery has underpinned traditions in ECE including developmental psychology (DAP) and sociocultural models.

Enlightenment philosophers conjured a curious mix of imagery to help explain their ideas of childhood and pedagogy that, nonetheless, make sense within their sociohistorical context. Thus, this entry demonstrates a genealogical exploration of philosophical imagery that reflects a modernist privileging of scientific knowledge, individualism, and reason (empiricist trend). These were positioned alongside a focus on the child as a spiritual being (spiritualist trend) and Romantic themes of nature as divine (nativist trend). In addition, the child was also positioned through Enlightenment imagery as an interconnected being, part of a wider community and not just an isolated biological entity (interactionism trend) (Bruce 2011).

The Enlightenment Period

Over the past three centuries, philosophers have presented differing views of the child: images that posit the child variously as tabula rasa, an unfolding organism, a developing moral and spiritual being, and as a scientist exploring nature. Many eighteenth century images of the child were drawn from biological assumptions of the child based on the science of evolution. Other views regard the child as developing according to God’s divine plan, expressed in nature.

These two insights of the child as a spiritual masterpiece and as “developing” according to evolutionary science were not contradictory within the context of seventeenth and eighteenth century Western traditions. The science of evolution that children’s fetal and childhood stages were in fact recapitulating evolutionary and societal stages was a critical insight that forged an understanding of “childhood” as a stage and of the child as “developing.”

During the European Enlightenment, concepts of humankind such as those of life, of work, and of language became integral to the State and to curriculum. The mediaeval city as God’s “heaven-on-earth” was replaced with a belief in society and self-seeking beings bound together by civic contracts. Now rational humankind should engage with the world to discover God’s plan. Rational civil beings were able to draw on the natural laws of the sciences, mathematics, and logic to make sense of the world. Childhood was the period for molding the child-to-be-citizen, with curriculum the mechanism for developing civil domains required by society.

However, as European societies became industrialized, later philosophers adopted images of the mind as a machine, of learning as architecture. An understanding of the child as a spiritual being were overtaken in the twentieth century by the concept of “child development” which was shorn of its deeper spiritual meaning.

The modern construction of “the child” as a rational human being emerged to remain embedded within contemporary child development psychology and by association early childhood education (ECE). So in this entry, the authors discuss some of the historical imagery that has descended to inform current principles in ECE. For example, the widespread use (particularly in the United States) of DAP owes its genesis to the Enlightenment philosophers discussed such as Froebel, Montessori, and later developed by Pia get, Erikson, and Skinner (Pound 2011). To illustrate this, the authors discuss the imagery of Froebel who focuses on ages and stages and Montessori who looks at sensitive periods in the developmental process.

Philosophers’ Images of the Child and Children’s Learning

In this section, we trace some of the historical ideas that have occurred across time and place to construct the modern child and theories of children’s learning. The categories of spiritualist, empiricist, nativist, and interactionist, identified by Terri Bruce (2011), are used alongside the additional theme of spiritualist. These overlapping themes discussed below have emerged and become central in understanding the child and learning within society. They have significantly contributed to the construction of certain ontological images of the child, teacher, and curriculum.


Spirituality was powerfully embedded in Enlightenment images of the child and learning. It was linked to emerging ideas of science, nature, and civil society.

Frederich Froebel (1782–1852) is notable in ECE for creating educational toys that he called “gifts.” Froebel’s “gifts” had metaphysical connotations: the sphere as “the first, and the last, natural form,” universal, experienced by all. For example, his first gift was the balls which were soft, made of yarn and of a solid color, designed to teach the child (through her interaction with them) the physical laws of the universe such as motion, object, weight, and gravity. The gifts were designed to foster in children a knowledge of humankind and of God and nature (as God’s garden on earth’) (Adleman 2000, p. 104). Thus the spiritualist and nativist themes were not discordant within Froebel’s overall philosophy.

Maria Montessori (1870–1952) combined spiritual and scientific planes. Both planes worked to ensure the unity of spirit, soul, and body. For Montessori, the young child learned through natural laws of development imbued with psychic energy. Montessori used the image of the child as a “spiritual embryo.” In the early unconscious stage, Montessori said, this spiritual embryo was guided by natural laws of development which are seen as akin to the psychic life of the child. She argued that this psychic force is cosmic and runs through all of humanity in its natural state. The mind absorbs impressions so that the child undergoes a transformation and does not remain separate from them. The child absorbs language, habits, and customs effortlessly and unconsciously whereas adults have to work hard to acquire these. Thus the spiritual and natural laws of development worked concordantly in the child’s growth and education (Tzou 2007, p. 37).

In addition, the child went through what Montessori called “sensitive periods,” which were nature’s plan to support psychic aspects of mind. Montessori also held that birth to age 3 is the time of the “unconscious absorbent mind,” whereas age 3–6 is the time of the “conscious absorbent mind” (Edwards 2002, p. 6). Montessori suggested that the child was engaged in valuable “work,” guided by psychic natural laws involving the construction of a “masterpiece” – the future adult. She had a very specific use of the term “work” as a metaphor for construction of the future adult. The child has the potential to provide new direction for the future of humanity.

The spiritual dimension was all-encompassing for Montessori who likened sinful tendencies in the teacher as to weeds in a field: unable to see the child as Jesus saw him.


John Locke’s (1632–1704) tract, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1690), addressed the issue of the child’s character, of the child as rational being. The newly emerging concept of the child’s will was central in such philosophies. The child being free to express him/herself was seen as important in the development of individuality and reason, both of which are prerequirements of a civil society.

Locke’s image of tabula rasa was of young children as analogous to white paper, or wax, to be fashioned by the tutor. Children were “prerational” and required the teacher to mould their emerging rational capacities. This imagery supports a deficit view of the child as lacking and needing to be filled with experiences, concepts, knowledge preidentified by the teacher (Bruce 2011).

Nevertheless, Locke did suggest that education proceeded best when based on the child’s interests and acknowledged the child’s need for self-expression. Hence, Locke argued that teachers of young children should offer books appropriate to their interest, such as Æsop’s fables and integrate reading with games, for example pasting letters on the sides of dice to familiarize them with vowels, letters, and syllables. Children while playing could be taught to read.


Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712–1778) believed that the child was biologically preprogrammed to learn naturally. He suggested that immersion in nature was the best way to facilitate the child’s growth toward a rational, civil, and empathetic adult.

Here the Romanticist tradition is positioned precariously alongside the Enlightenment belief in rationality. Rousseau did not shy away from explaining how the two themes are connected. Using the image of unripened and immature fruit, Rousseau argued that because children differed in important ways from adults they should be educated in the natural world, the locus of all reality. Trying to force them to reason when they do not have the faculty is to impose adult prejudices on them. This could result in their corruption (like rotten and unflavored fruit).

In his novel Emile Rousseau used the metaphor of cultivation to express the nature of education (Rousseau 1762/2011). Emile, a fictitious character, served to demonstrate Rousseau’s educational proposition that the child needs to interact with nature independently from human theories and bodies of knowledge that construct it in terms of inert highly verbal information. Rousseau rejected Hobbes’ view of civilization as the state that ordered society, of the social contract. He was deeply skeptical of civilization, and he argued that all humans were born equal and innocent but through social processes humans become affected and manipulated.

Rousseau held that children have natural inquisitive impulses that are always correct. The child rather than the tutor governed their interactions, in an inversion of Hobbes’ or Locke’s view of the child-tutor relationship. “Take an opposite course with your pupil. Let him always believe he is master.” He ought to do only what he wants, but “he ought to want only what you want him to do” (cited Baker 2001 p. 257). Free will is retained by the child but is supported by the tutor to choose wisely.

Froebel drew on Schelling’s philosophy, and his contemporary Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s pedagogy, in stressing the importance of children’s interactions with natural phenomena. The kindergarten – meaning literally “garden of children” – refers to his educational philosophy of creating the “right conditions” (environment) for children to flourish (grow and learn). The kindergarten was an idealized view of German society, removed from outside influences (Adlemen 2000; Baker 2003). As with the development of inner spirituality, so Froebel’s pietism portrayed children’s development as requiring the same series of steps for the religious life as is found in the development of the human race.


Interactionist philosophies stressed the child as more than just a biological unit preprogrammed to learn naturally, but one who must interact with both social (family/society) and natural elements in order to develop. The child’s sense impressions were regarded as critical in this interaction between the interior will, innate developmental predisposition (often regarded as divine), and external world.

To Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841), the child was born without a will of his own (see Baker 2002). It was in the family he initially learned of authority and love. The teacher fostered – through cultivation and exercise of the child’s sense impressions – each individual soul to a greater knowledge of their will. Herbart focused on governing, rather than punishing. The teacher guided her charges’ mind through a variety of “presentations” which supported the student’s “apperception,” always building on what had gone before. An ordered program (the “reals”) offered a balance between the interior will and the exterior world. Learning built on earlier knowledge, as it was from previously understood perceptions that the child made new sense.

For Montessori, the child’s interaction with the wider environment was critical to her development. The role of the teacher was to observe the child closely to see where they expressed interest, in order to take advantage of “sensitive periods of development.” Doing so was regarded as the basis of a relevant scientific pedagogy – a premise still significant today. For Montessori, children “revealed themselves” and their “natural intelligence” through free exploration of the didactic material set up and demonstrated by the teacher. The teacher’s role was that of a person being precise like the scientist, yet spiritual like the saint; being skilled in techniques of science, yet open to the wider social world. The Montessori equipment was designed to develop the child’s sense through which she makes sense of the world.

Herbart also believed that training was most effective when the teacher worked through the student’s observed interests and facilitated her interaction with the environment. Learning, Herbart believed – seeing parallels with the laws of Newtonian science – involves action and interaction by an individual seeking equilibrium. The teacher’s role was to guide this through careful scientific observation. The power of education to guide the child to societal morality was central to the interactionist theme. Herbart argued that the teacher should train the child’s moral sympathies by introducing the knowledge of previous generations: a science based on ethics and psychology.

Philosophers such as Frederich Froebel, J H Pestalozzi, and Maria Montessori believed that by following their own interests, and reflecting on their learning, children develop civil behaviors and judgments. This is strongly linked to the modern day premise that children should be able to choose their own equipment and follow through with their play. Governance of children, by the State and tutors, would lead to habits of self-governance. For Froebel, the kindergarten was an idealized view of German society, removed from outside influences.

Enduring and Marginalized Images Over Time

In this entry, the authors explore the roots of the current ECE curriculum through an analysis of imagery and images of the child used by Enlightenment philosophers. Current ECE traditions (whether those based on the principles of sociocultural theories or DAP) began as explorations of the metaphysical purposes of being – of life, learning, and civil engagement. The four themes identified (spiritualist, nativist, empiricist, and interactionist) above are highly influential in current ECE contexts.

Thus the images of the child and imagery used by philosophers still inhabit curriculum concepts to a greater or lesser degree (Davis and Sumara 2002). Bruce (2011) has identified a set of common principles that are generally accepted in current ECE theory and practice based on the work of early pioneers such as Montessori and Froebel. For example, intrinsic motivation is based on the early ideas of the child’s will discussed above. It also rests on nativist ideas of natural internal impulses. Currently the idea of intrinsic motivation is highly valued in ECE, resulting in environments being prepared to foster child-initiated and self-directed activity (Bruce 2011).

Another common principle in ECE is that of the child’s education being based on interactions between themselves and the wider social and natural environment. Enlightenment philosophers discussed in the interactionist section above focused on this critical educational insight which informs both sociocultural and DAP traditions. The idea that there are certain times when children can learn things best is another principle originating in Montessori’s sensitive periods.

However, many of the ideas discussed above have lost any connection to their original social and historical contexts and thus the original intent has become significantly altered. Cut loose from their original source, children’s curriculum and teachers’ knowledge has become a universal educational “science.” While the spiritualist theme has in many cases been cast to the margins, other key ideas have descended to significantly inform both DAP and sociocultural approaches. Arguably, both these approaches coexist in curricula documentation today, with the DAP being dominant.

Universalized assumptions, under the status of “the science of Human Development” operate often undisputed in the global society of today. DAP theories draw on both the empiricist and interactionist trends. They privilege the individual and ahistorical stages of development each child must pass through. For instance, children are seen as infants, toddlers or young children, as they progress through their early childhood years.

Sociocultural theories point to the significance of the cultural and historical contexts that shape teacher-student interactions and aspirations. They also draw significantly on the interactionist thought of early philosophers.

Other insights have been marginalized rather than altered. For example, the centering of theodic curriculum, of moral development by Froebel and Montessori, is less evident today in ECE. Today, Enlightenment images like “divine sphere” or concepts of “will” are shorn of their spiritual meanings in curriculum. As nature has become sanitized, teachers as agents of the State order the child through curriculum with foci on early literacy, numeracy, and social and emotional skills that relate to later employable competencies. The concept of child as a spiritual being has descended so that in most western curricula it is, at best, covert.

Nativist themes have also become marginalized with structural images replacing biological images; the child-in-nature of Froebel is no longer valued. Rather the science of development prevails. Balls are merely balls: no longer representations of that which connects the child with nature as the universe connects man with God.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Independent researcherMatangiNew Zealand