Models and Approaches to Early Learning: Where is the Play and Inquiry?

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. There are many perspectives on philosophies and theories and how they should guide early learning practice. Program models and approaches have been been influenced by historical, contemporary, and postmodern views of children, families, and learning. The many program models and approaches in practice in the early learning world are complex in nature given their philosophical and theoretical influences. Have you ever been asked to state your philosophy of early learning? Have you ever been asked to articulate your theoretical influences? When I teach History and Philosophy of Early Childhood Education at the university where I work I will be expecting the students to think deeply and critically about their values, beliefs, images, views and influences.

Model and Approaches - Influences

In Empowering Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education, Beverlie Dietze and I discuss models and approaches to early learning. The image above is from the textbook and depicts the various influences on program models and approaches. The term curriculum model refers to a conceptual framework used for making decisions about education priorities, including policies and practices regarding instructional and evaluative methods. The term approach in addition to model because some of the programs we describe view the term model as less flexible. The articulation of a program model or an approach to programming is often a licensing requirement for early learning centres, depending on where the centre is located. Many early learning centres will proclaim their affinity to one model or approach in their philosophy statement. Understanding theories, how theories inform practice, as well as influence environmental designs and the programming model/approach, is a complex process. How many early learning programs review, revisit and rethink their stated philosophy? I wonder how often they do? I will offering my students an opportunity to construct their own philosophy statement using one of the pedagogical tools described in our textbook.

Philosophy in Five Steps

The construction of a philosophy statement should come after considerable time for reflection and should include examing various models and approaches. I will be asking my students to reflect on various models and approaches as they relate to the big idea of play-based and inquiry learning. In Ontario, Canada our early learning pedagogy, How Does Learning Happen? clearly supports the inclusion of both play and inquiry in early learning.

Children succeed in programs that focus on active learning through exploration, play, and inquiry. How Does Learning Happen, p. 4

To aid in the process, I have created Pinterest boards on the following models and approaches featured below. I also have other boards on other models and approaches as well as the requisite recipe and interior design boards! As someone who is highly influenced by the social constructivist theories of Lev Vygotsky, I find the Tools of the Mind approach to be particularly fascinating.


In 1907, Dr. Maria Montessori (1870–1952), Italy’s first female doctor, founded Montessori education. Montessori believed that children can teach themselves in a “prepared environment” with self-correcting apparatus for learning (Daniels & Gamper, 2011, p. 62). In prepared environments, children are active explorers of their environment, learn at their own pace, and choose  variety of materials and activities that emphasize learning through the senses.



The programming framework of HighScope was originally known as the cognitively oriented curriculum and was developed by Weikart, Rogers, Adcock, and McClelland (1971). It is grounded in Piaget’s cognitive development theory and constructivism and influenced by Vygotsky and Dewey. Interest areas arranged for the children and a posted daily routine that permits children to plan, carry out, and reflect on their own activities. The teacher engages in conversations with children that scaffold and extend the children’s plans, and helping them think through their ideas and identify new potential areas of interest.


the project approach

The project approach, while many may considered new and exciting, has a long history in early learning. “Projects to facilitate the education of young children have been part of the progressive tradition for over 80 years” (Spodek & Saracho, 2003, p. 3) The project approach refers to a way of teaching and learning as well as to the content of what is taught and learned. It is a set of teaching strategies that enables, teachers to guide children through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Children are instrumental in deciding on topics, becoming the experts, and sharing accountability for learning with adults (Katz & Chard, 2000).

The Project Approach



During the early decades of the twentieth century, much of Europe was “struggling to cope with the devastation of the aftermath of World War I.” Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) envisioned a better world and “devoted his life to exploring human potential, spirituality, and growth and development” (Follari, 2011, p. 243). As a result, he developed a programming model that emphasized the importance of an arts-based curriculum that incorporated imagery, music, movement, drawing, painting, mixed media, drama, and rhythm as core program components. While Steiner was influenced by John Dewey’s perspective of children learning by doing, he developed his own form of spiritual science called anthroposophy: “a philosophy based on examining more deeply the three parts of the human being (body, mind, and spirit) and the connections that bond humanity together” (Follari, 2011, p. 243).


the reggio emilia approach

Reggio Emilia is one of several small, wealthy cities in Emilia Romagna, a region in north- ern Italy with a history of collaboration and political activism (New, 2000). Shortly after the Second World War, during a time that also saw the end of the Fascist dictatorship in Italy, the first early learning program for young children was established. It was inspired by the parents of the community who had a shared desire to create a new, more just world, free from oppression (Gandini, 2004). In order to rebuild the war-ravaged economy, the parents needed to work and so required care for their children. They wanted an environment where children could acquire the critical-thinking and collaboration skills essential to rebuilding and ensuring a democratic society (Gandini, 2004). This strong sense of purpose inspired Loris Malaguzzi to join the collaborative effort (New, 2000). Malaguzzi, a young teacher influenced by Dewey, is credited as the guiding force behind the unique philosophy that emerged. For Malaguzzi, the central notion for the philosophy of Reggio Emilia resides in the concept of images. The image of the child is one in which children are strong, competent, intellectual builders of theories. While the educators in Reggio Emilia acknowledge the influence of Dewey, as well as Piaget and Vygotsky, their emphasis on their own continuous research and analysis of practice. This approach allows them to formulate new theoretical interpretations, hypotheses, ideas, and strategies about teaching and learning (Stremmel, 2002). In Reggio inspired programs a strong connection to the guiding principles should be evident.

Reggio inspired

outdoor programs

Currently, outdoor programming for the early years has gained momentum that could evolve to become a naturalistic movement. Forest schools, outdoor classrooms, and eco- or green schools are changing the landscape of programming in the early years. Warden (2010) described nature kindergartens as “an approach of naturalistic, wild spaces that provide children with a landscape in which to play for very long blocks of time” (p. 7). She further suggested that children’s natural play space encompasses aspects “from the landscape, to the food, to the materials and resources used and the sense of community within it” (p. 13). In addition to the space and materials, natural play spaces offer children the freedom to have their voices heard and to design their experiences based on their interests. In Canada, Forest School Canada  is leading the movement to expand the provision of outdoor programs. In a blog post, that I wrote for the York Region Nature Collaborative, I elaborate on forest school.


Forest School and Outdoor Programs

I am inviting early learning professionals and students to consider models and approaches and reflect on how they support play and inquiry. This reflective process may bring forth some “aha!” moments, disequilibrium, or the need for discourse with colleagues and your critical friend as a way to support you in bringing further clarity to your vision. Expanding your understanding of how theories influence early learning programming is essential to defining your personal philosophy about early learning programming, children, play, and inquiry.

3 thoughts on “Models and Approaches to Early Learning: Where is the Play and Inquiry?

  1. Diane, you have invited us to think about our notion of play and inquiry in the 21st century. So much has influenced pedagogy throughout the years, pausing to reflect on how our current thoughts have been shaped by the past is intriguing. It makes me wonder what educators will be wondering 100 years from now!


  2. You have inspired me to write my own one page philosophy statement for early learning. I write a blog for first time parents because I feel I have a special affinity to understanding the spark of a young child’s brain. I obtained an AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) degree a while back, but now feel much more generalized as to my philosophy to early learning. I base my advocacy of early childhood development and education on philosophical ideas of raising newborns. I find most parents don’t understand and don’t necessarily care to learn, what to me is the essence of raising a child. Does that make any sense?


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