The formative years of life

Written by Martin Woodhead

That the early years are formative of children’s long-term prospects is one of the most ancient, enduring and influential themes shaping early childhood policy. It has specific resonance with programmes aiming at intervention in social/economic disadvantage and other adversities, and at prevention of the negative consequences for children’s fortunes. But its repercussions are expressed much more broadly, including curriculum and pedagogical assumptions about developmental appropriateness, economic theories of human capital and political theories of social justice.

The core idea can be traced back at least as far as Plato (428-348BC):
‘And the first step… is always what matters most, particularly when we are dealing with the young and tender. This is the time when they are taking shape and when any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark’ (cited in Clarke and Clarke, 2000, p 11).

It found influential expression within John Locke’s eighteenth century claims about ‘tabula rasa’, as well as through a host of influential early childhood reformers and pedagogues throughout the centuries. The first detailed systematic observations of infant and child development were carried out within a scientific frame in the late nineteenth century, (notably by Darwin himself), and this field of research was soon firmly established and increasingly influential throughout the twentieth century. A few key theorists have dominated the textbooks, notably Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky and their work has directly informed a range of curricula and pedagogies (see MacNaughton 2003 for an overview and more recent critical perspectives on developmental models).

Leaving aside the specific emphases of influential current theories, developmental perspectives encompass the following (for the most part uncontroversial) themes:
• Young children’s physical, mental, social and emotional functioning is distinctively different from that of older children and adults, comprising distinctive phases, stages and milestones of development.
• Numerous progressive transformations occur in children’s physical, mental, cognitive and social-emotional competencies, from earliest infancy to the beginnings of schooling in modern societies. These transformations mark the acquisition of skills and capacities, ways of relating, communicating, learning and playing etc;
• Early childhood is the period of life when humans are most dependent on secure, responsive relationships with others (adults, siblings and peers), not just to ensure their survival, but also their emotional security, social integration and cognitive and cultural competencies.
• Young children’s development is especially sensitive to negative impacts from early malnutrition, deprivation of care and responsive parenting, or disturbed and distorted treatment;
• Where children’s basic needs are not met, or if they are maltreated or abused, the repercussions are often felt throughout childhood and into the adult years.
• While early development can be summarised in terms of universal general principles, the contexts for, experiences of, and pathways through development are very variable, notably linked to young children’s individual capacities and special needs, their gender, ethnicity, and economic, social and cultural circumstances;
Insights from child development research have long been a major source of theories, evidence and controversy surrounding care and education of young children. Rapid industrialization and urbanisation, and the establishment of universal schooling in Western societies created a widespread demand for knowledge about children’s needs and capacities at particular ages, not least to inform training for new teachers and other child professionals, as well as manuals of advice to parents (Walkerdine, 1984; Rose 1985; Woodhead, 2003). Making sure the particular needs of the youngest children were recognised was already a focus of concern, with advocates for early education (nursery schools, kindergarten etc) drawing on insights from developmental research in their advocacy, notably for informal, holistic, child-centred, play based settings. One of the most enduring policy debates was already well-established during the first decades of the twentieth century, with advocates for young children in Britain arguing for a ‘nursery education’ appropriate to young children’s needs and development, and in particular rejecting the formal teaching methods and emphasis on numeracy and literacy skills commonplace in primary schools of the period. Debates surrounding recognition of the early years as a distinctive phase in children’s development have as much resonance now as a century ago and are most often expressed as about promoting ‘developmentally appropriate’ policies and practices (Bredekamp and Copple (1997), and about avoiding the developmental risks for the ‘hurried child’ (Elkind, 1981).

Another equally longstanding policy debate focussed on young children’s emotional needs, the significance of early attachment relationships and the appropriateness of care outside the family, in day care centres or with childminders etc. Much of the initial research came from studies of children whose lives had been disrupted by World War II, as well as children in residential institutions, and in hospitals. It was especially linked with the concept of ‘maternal deprivation’ and subsequent work on early emotional attachments (Bowlby 1953; Ainsworth et al 1978; reviewed by Schaffer 1996). Concern about the well-being of young children in institutional settings played into much wider debates about women’s role in family and economy (e.g. Singer, 1992; 1998). It is unclear how far this research influenced policies on early care and how far it merely reinforced competing ideologies, especially since anxieties about risks to the well-being of young children were expressed much more strongly in some European societies (e.g. UK) than they were in others (e.g. Sweden) where day care services have more often been viewed as a positive experience for children and for parents. While the debate is no longer as polarized as in the past, and is beginning to take greater account of diversity in child care arrangements globally, issues about appropriateness and quality of care continue to be a major focus for research and policy, especially where very young infants are concerned (e.g. Belsky 2001; 2003).

The somewhat artificial academic divisions in theory, research and policy between children’s cognitive/educational and their social/emotional development became a significant issue in its own right during the latter decades of the twentieth century, with concerns about fragmented policies and services in many western societies, and significant experiments in co-ordinated services. Again, Scandinavian countries offered an alternative model, with integrated care/education arrangements longer established, and most recently expressed through the emergence of the ‘social pedagogue’ as a model of multi-disciplinary professional work (Moss and Petrie, 2002).


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