Developmental theory and
early childhood education:
Necessary but not sufficient
Daniel J. Walsh
Over the years I have become frustrated by the strident emphasis on developmental theory in early childhood education (hereafter, the field), as though little else is necessary for working with young children. Hearing people in the field describe themselves and others as 'developmental', as though they had reached a higher plane troubled me. However important understanding children's development and learning is, early schooling, in its many forms, requires other understandings as well. In this chapter schooling refers to the broad range of contemporary early childhood programs that exist for children both in the USA and internationally.
I have wondered whether many self-described 'developmentalists' are actually interested in early schooling and children, or if they simply viewed it as a convenient 'subject pool' for studies. Much research that goes on in 'university lab' preschools often has little to do with schooling. University preschools in the USA are indeed convenient places to find subjects – parents have already signed consent forms and the schools are designed for researchers with observation booths and laboratory rooms for ease of access. In fact, when nursery schools, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, began in Home Economics units at major universities in the 1920s, they were not used for teacher training or for research on early schooling. They provided young women with experiences deemed necessary for good mothers and provided psychologists with a readily available subject pool of young children to study. The early childhood programs that grew up around these university nursery schools focused on children's development with little attention to the context within which children were developing.
These frustrations notwithstanding, I argue in this chapter for the importance of developmental theory for those who work with young children. In my view, abandoning developmental theory would be seriously short-sighted. My argument is straightforward. Because the dominant developmental perspective in the field is based on outmoded theory that has not stood up to empirical testing, we can and should replace it with contemporary