The word theory has its roots in ancient Greek, basically meaning a view, a notion or contemplation.  In the domain of early childhood education, theories are the overarching ideas that influence our pedagogical practices, and each theory or theorist has a perspective that has generally evolved over long periods of time.  Iterative in nature, theories are often contributed to and expanded upon by others as ideas continue to be developed and rethought.

Early childhood educators rely on the work of many theories and theorists to help us understand and interpret our work with children. These theories often translate into personal philosophies and beliefs that ultimately shape our pedagogical practices. In the field of early childhood education and care, there are generally five theoretical approaches that educators might call upon in designing and implementing early learning programs; Developmental, Socio-cultural, Socio-behaviourist, Post-structural and Critical.

The place of theory is so important in our work that the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) encourages us to employ a range of different theoretical viewpoints in our approaches to learning and development and to provide multiple perspectives in our work. The word multiple used here is important as sole reliance on one set of theoretical ideas can impose a set of assumptions or beliefs about children and how they learn and develop, that can be ultimately limiting both to children and educators.

It is often the case, however, that when developing programs or particular learning experiences, educators will align these to a theoretical link. Our aim is to find a ‘fit’ with the theory. The problem with trying to fit what we do within a theoretical paradigm is that this can become the dominant discourse and can blind us to other possibilities, questions or ways of doing things.

Theory should not become the tool of power that we hold over children but rather a way of possibly understanding children better. You do not force the child into the theory, but rather you find a way to see the theory reflected in the child. What theories do I see in practice here when I look at the child in front of me?

Theories should not stay in books. They are to be part of the lived experience, explored, challenged, refuted and discussed. New theories should be found and explored. The field of early childhood intersects with many disciplines and we construct our theoretical knowledge in a relational context.

What do non-early childhood theorists have to contribute to our knowledge? 

We should also be using the theory of children. Children’s theories are ephemeral, often short-lived and transitory but powerful, even if for a moment.

The challenge in our practice is to reverse the notion of making it ‘fit’ and instead try and determine where in our work with children we can ‘see’ the theory. We need to provide theoretical links that are oriented not towards our capacity to evidence their inclusion but rather as a way of informing our approaches to working with young children.


karen hope consultingKaren Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing are strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via website at:  and

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