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Linking early childhood theories and practices

Renowned author and researcher Andrea Nolan describes how early childhood theories provide a lens for how we see children and childhood that shape our practices.
early childhood theories

Early childhood educators aspire to make a difference in the lives of young children and their families. With this in mind, it is not surprising that there is often a concentration of early childhood programs on aspects of learning, development and wellbeing. And early childhood theories provide a lens for how we see children and childhood.

This work takes meaningful planning on the part of the educator, informed by observations of children’s everyday interactions in the service, information shared by families, and conversations with other educators. Mindful deliberation ensures that intentional teaching and spontaneous interactions with others and the environment support each child’s growth.

As educators, we know the importance and benefits of reflecting on our practices, engaging in reflective conversations with colleagues, and thinking about what we bring to our work. This can be enhanced by considering the theory or theories that we ascribe to. These can underpin why we do what we do the way we do it. Early childhood theories have us thinking about how we perceive children and childhood that shape our practices in certain ways.

Early childhood theories and the EYLF

What is exciting about working in the early childhood sector is that there are many theories that we can draw from to inform our work.  As outlined in the EYLF V2.0 (AGDE 2022), these can include developmental theories, socio-cultural theories, practice theories, critical theories, feminist and post-structural theories, place-based sciences, as well as ancestral knowledges informing ways of knowing, being and doing.

Some of these theories may appear more familiar to us than others. For example, developmental theories have traditionally been part of early childhood pre-service courses. In contemporary times we have been introduced to other theories that we may not have been aware of up until now or not connected their relevance to young children. These can be embraced as a way to support reflections on our practices as they open up our thinking to other ways of seeing and understanding working with young children.

Two types of theories that can prompt our thinking about how young children are positioned as learners and the consequences for educators’ practices are practice theories and critical theories.

Practice theories

Two theories that come under the banner of practice theories are Affordance theory and the Theory of Practice Architectures.

As the name suggests, Affordance theory focuses on the way the environment is set up and the opportunities it provides for each child. Children must be able to see what the environment offers them as this influences their motivation, interest and abilities. This highlights the interplay between the environment and the child which is determined individually by a child’s perspective, age and previous experiences. Educators are aware of the materials, objects, places, values, rules, events, norms and people within the environment and how these provide young children with different action opportunities or affordances (Gibson 1986).

The Theory of Practice Architectures (Kemmis et al. 2014) invites educators to think about how social life and learning are produced and reproduced in practices (Soloman et al., 2016). In this theory, practices comprise of:

  • sayings – the language, thinking and understandings that unfold within practice
  • doings – the actions/activities of the practice
  • relatings – the social space reflecting relationships between people and the material world during the practice.

These sayings, doings and relatings are interrelated in a practice. These practices are influenced by three arrangements that create the conditions under which educators are able to practice.

These arrangements are:

  • cultural-discursive arrangements – the language and thinking that shapes practice -what is said, how it is said – what words are used etc.
  • social-political arrangements – ways of relating to others – who relates to who and how, as well as how power and agency play out
  • material-economic arrangements – resources, materials and employment conditions that shape practices.

This provides a systematic way of considering practices and the arrangements that constrain or enable these practices.

Critical theories

Drawing from critical theories brings a stance were questioning and challenging occurs as to whose knowledge/s are being assumed, how they are being used and how they inform the early childhood curriculum. Questions are also asked about how children’s rights are being upheld, and their agency in decisions that relate to them. Educators are encouraged to ask questions about what is happening in their settings and for what purposes (Blaise 2016; Rinaldi 2021). 

Reflecting on ‘why’ questions can expose practices that exist for no good reason, or a curriculum and/or pedagogy that privileges some children and not others (Ryan & Grieshaber, 2014). This questioning attempts to create a more democratic society and challenges taken-for-granted assumptions. It prompts us to consider how decisions regarding practices may affect children differently.

The focus is on ensuring equity and social justice, rather than accepting the status quo. This type of critical thinking provides opportunities for educators to consider issues of cultural difference and diversity.

Stimulating further thinking about early childhood theories in practice

Engaging with theories can stimulate our conversations and thinking at the individual and/or service level to assist in better understanding the interplay between theories and practices. The next edition of the Theories into Practice book introduces and explores each of the major groups of theories and world views outlined in the EYLF V2.0 and promotes further reflections on practices in the early childhood sector.

About the author

Andrea Nolan is Professor of Education (Early Childhood) in the School of Education at Deakin University. She has had extensive experience teaching in early childhood education settings as well as in primary schools, and has taught in the TAFE and university sectors, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as supervising higher degree research students. Andrea has conducted research in both schools and preschools and has worked on a number of state, national and international projects on literacy development, program evaluation and professional learning for teachers. She has researched the impact of the current Australian reform agenda on professional identities and educator practice, leadership, mentoring, inter-professional work, and reflective practice as a means to better understand practice.

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