An Origin Story: The European Roots of Popular ECE Approaches

As early childhood education (ECE) has taken shape in the policies and practices of education systems globally, it’s easy to lose track of the reality that any systematic approach to educating young learners as we know it has really taken shape over the last century. While philosophers from Plato to John Locke theorized how young children learned and developed, it is relatively recent in human history that early childhood education as an institution outside of the home has developed. Four of the most influential theories and trends in ECE systems have their origins in European philosophy and practice over the last two centuries: Froebel’s kindergarten movement, Maria Montessori’s method, Steiner’s Waldorf schools, and the Reggio Emilia approach popularized by Loris Malaguzzi.

Friedrich Froebel & Kindergarten  

“Children are like tiny flowers: They are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers. Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.

Friedrich Froebel, The Education of Man

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) became one of the early educational philosophers whose work valued young children’s intrinsic desire and abilities to learn. Born in a region of Prussia that ultimately became Germany, he founded the first Kindergarten—“garden for children” (or “garden of children,” depending on translation)—in 1816. He was heavily influenced by apprenticing under Pestalozzi, an early Swiss educational philosopher who embraced and practiced an education of the “hands, head, and heart” intended to guide students toward deeper exploration and understanding in an appropriate progression. Froebel’s schools used tools such as wooden cylinders and blocks to provide tangible, concrete experiences to guide learning experiences. He believed that play was central to child development: “In play [the child] reveals his own original power.” His ideas about development in social contexts and the role of music in early learning far predated research in this field, and have been validated through later study. After his death, the Froebel Society for the Promotion of the Kindergarten System provided credentialing to those interested in becoming trained kindergarten teachers. In this way, Froebel’s schools represent one of the first times a coherent pedagogical system rooted in the study of and unique needs of early learners produced a system of education. His work was not translated into English until 1885, but had profound influence on North American and European pedagogy for young children.

Rudolf Steiner & Waldorf Schools
Waldorf Education, also sometimes referred to as Steiner by the name of its founder, Rudolf Steiner, also traces its origins to Germany, almost a full century after the first Kindergartens emerged under Froebel. Rudolf Steiner established a school for the children of the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. His approach to education was marked by an appreciation of the needs of children to develop holistically, through imaginative play, creative expression, and immersion in the natural world and natural materials.

British educational philosopher Martin Ashley captures the unique context within which Steiner’s early school emerged:

“To understand Steiner/Waldorf education, it is necessary to journey back to the Germany of 1919 that stood in social ruin at the end of the Great War. Thinking-people were in despair at the ravages of social inequality compounded by national defeat. It was a time receptive to radicalism. These were the conditions that allowed Rudolf Steiner to present his ideas for a new social order, based upon a radical reinterpretation of the time-honored notion of liberty, equality and fraternity … Underlying Steiner’s entire philosophy was the primacy of freedom. Education comes into the sphere of culture, and it is absolutely fundamental that the school should serve the child, not the state.”

Waldorf philosophies have now been implemented in over 800 schools in sixty-six countries worldwide. International organizations of schools following the approach convene regularly to monitor alignment and share practices. Modern approaches continue to value child-driven creativity, immersing students in fairy tales, postponing an emphasis on literacy development until later than many school systems would approach these skills, avoiding the use of technology in the classroom, and valuing the development of fine and gross motor skills through creative efforts in class.

Maria Montessori & Montessori Education

The Montessori method, pioneered in Italy by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), has been one of the most widely discussed and internationally implemented approaches to early childhood education. Maria Montessori opened her “Casa dei Bambini” (“house for children”) in a housing project in Rome. Montessori advocated for a stage-based view of children’s development, wherein “children’s self-construction can be fostered through engaging with self-directed activities in a specially prepared environment.”

This “specially prepared environment” features many unique materials intended to guide children through self-guided “work” processes that build understanding through hands-on experience and logical progression. It treats this work as a serious endeavor, not to be interrupted and to be supported, rather than led directly, by the teacher. Montessori’s philosophies have continued to grow in popularity and international attention, including in India, where Maria Montessori spent some time toward the end of her career. Notably, Jeff Bezos has pledged $2 billion toward a “One Day Fund,” intended to be invested in early childhood projects, including an emphasis on expanding access to Montessori education in underserved areas of the U.S.

Loris Malaguzzi & the Reggio Emilia Approach

What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.

Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children

A fourth and final philosopher and educational approach was that of Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), who founded schools in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy on a premise of belief in the socially situated, context-based learning that children participate in. Children’s “third teacher” is, he posed, the classroom environment itself, and thus a supportive and exploration-rich environment is not only beneficial for the child, but necessary for learning. The child is seen as the leader of the discovery process, and many current Reggio Emilia-approach-driven schools emphasize an “emergent curriculum” that follows the child’s interests. At the heart of the Reggio Emilia approach is the essential role the social and relational context plays in learning. The Reggio Emilia region’s schools continue to be studied and explored as a source of inspiration for the approach, even as it is re-contextualized, studied, and implemented globally.


While these approaches vary considerably in terms of the practical elements of classroom approaches, each has had a role in the popularization of a massive pedagogical shift toward child-centered practices in the early years. Implicit in these approaches is the valuing of a child’s agency and active role in constructing their own knowledge. Whether through relationships, environmental stimuli, independent exploration, or the use of materials and manipulatives, the child is seen as central to the building of meaning and understanding. Rather than passively receiving learning, the child is an active part of the educational process. It is important to know which philosophical and historical foundations the current ECE movement efforts are building on as the movement is advocated for globally. Importantly, knowing the foundations of the movement is also essential to making appropriate criticisms of the ways in which these models, tested and implemented initially in a European context, have been embedded in the conversation and pushed outward as “the” methods of early years pedagogy. The next article in this series will take up this issue, highlighting some of criticisms of child-centered pedagogy in ECE systems-building efforts internationally, and posing new interpretations of these philosophers’ approaches.  

References & Resources for Further Reading

How Children Learn, Linda Pound (2014) for a primer on educational philosophers, their influence on ECE as a field, and critiques.

“A global history of early childhood education and care.” Sheila B. Kamerman (2006), prepared for the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report in 2007.

Published by Shelby Dodd

Vanderbilt '19 M.Ed. candidate in International Education Policy and Management // Virginia Tech '17 Alum // Excited about early childhood education, global development, international education, asking questions, faith, travel, and learning from the stories of others.

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