In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Childhood Education in Europe

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education
  • Professionalization in Early Childhood Education
  • Gender Issues in Early Childhood Education
  • Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Learning in Early Childhood Education
  • Play and Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education
  • Digital Technologies and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education
  • Children’s Participation, Voice, and Agency in Early Childhood Education
  • Pedagogical Documentation and Assessment Practices in Early Childhood Education
  • Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood Education

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

  • Institutional Differentiation and Diversity in Higher Education
  • Non-Formal & Informal Environmental Education
  • Risky Play in Early Childhood Education
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Education Early Childhood Education in Europe
Valerie Sollars
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0193


Europe has a rich history and legacy in early childhood education, resulting from the beliefs, theories, and contributions of key European pioneers considered the founding fathers of the discipline. Martin Luther (b. 1483–d. 1546) promoted the importance of education for all children, with parents’ involvement and support from the wider community. John Amos Comenius (b. 1592–d. 1670) emphasized sensory training, while John Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704) highlighted the importance of a well-equipped sensory environment and children’s interactions with it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712–d. 1778) focused on children’s social and emotional development, acknowledging the child as the central figure in his or her own educational curriculum and learning path. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (b. 1746–d. 1827) attributed importance to the child’s family in educating children. Robert Owen (b. 1771–d. 1858) believed in early education as a means to make up for potential deficits in the environment. Friedrich Froebel (b. 1782–d. 1852) set up the first kindergarten, believing early childhood education to be a formal process that could occur in an organized setting. Maria Montessori’s (b. 1870–d. 1952) focus on observations led to the first attempts at inclusive education, and she promoted the view that the best education was one that supported a lifelong love for learning. Jean Piaget (b. 1896–d. 1980) argued in favor of the critical role of the environment in children’s acquisition of knowledge for active engagement. Lev Vygotsky (b. 1896–d. 1934) formalized the notion of scaffolded learning through the zone of proximal development, giving importance to the social environment within which children learn, grow, and develop as members of a community. Susan Isaacs (b. 1885–d. 1948) valued the nursery school for its benefits toward children’s development, where opportunities in indoor and outdoor areas potentially engage children in self-directed activities. Although these theories and beliefs have survived and contributed to the foundations of early childhood education, social contexts and the worlds inhabited by children have evolved, as have current thinking and practices associated with good-quality provision in early childhood. Despite this rich inheritance, politics, policies, and practices in Europe are as diverse as the countries making up the continent. Differences can be attributed to cultural divergences; geopolitical forces; historical and technological developments; provision of varied services; and adults’ perspectives, beliefs, and expectations about children and childhoods. Evolving policies and practices highlight the diversity and complexity of the field, pointing to a need for multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches among stakeholders engaged in different institutions and agencies, and contributing to a coherent understanding of early childhood education. This annotated bibliography offers snapshots of how key issues and challenges in early childhood education are being addressed in Europe, either through research in specific countries or through a comparative approach.

General Overview

Early childhood education (ECE) has been high on the agenda of governments for the last two decades (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2001). Comparative studies have been undertaken to consider systems, services, and policies across European countries (Bertram and Pascal 2016). Other studies have examined the development of early years in a European context, juxtaposing this with a broader international perspective (Melhuish and Petrogiannis 2006). There has been a commitment to increase availability and access to high-quality provision, ensuring that settings address and accommodate diversity, promote social cohesion, and facilitate entry or reentry for women in the labor market (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2006). With the increase in the number of women in the labor market, demands for provision for care of children below school age has increased. However, countries across Europe differ radically in their approach to child care, with two main competing foci: some countries consider child care a priority to facilitate women’s paid work and presence in the labor market, but others attribute more importance to the educational needs of young children (Scheiwe and Willekens 2009). Beyond these broad agendas of availability and accessibility of early years services, there is an ever-growing concern about monitoring and regulation, the quality of services, and the competences of professional staff employed in the sector (University of East London, and University of Ghent 2011, Oberhuemer 2000). Goals and targets associated with higher and vocational education qualifications, which are set at European policy level, have had an impact on national restructurings and qualifications in the early childhood education sector (Oberhuemer 2011), and on curricular demands. More recently, early childhood education in Europe is facing a new challenge arising from migration and mobility. European Commission 2016 emphasized the fundamental role of early childhood education and care in the integration of families and children from third countries. Such services are considered to offer crucial environments and opportunities that contribute to learning to live together in heterogeneous societies and support the acquisition of linguistic competences. This new reality requires professional development for practitioners in order to be able to assist migrant families. Member states are encouraged to promote and support the participation of migrants’ children in early childhood education. Current shifts in population demographics reinforce the notion that developments in the provision of services must examine and review early childhood education and its organization within contextual and historical scenarios (Willekens, et al. 2015).

  • Bertram, Tony, and Chris Pascal. 2016. Early childhood policies and systems in eight countries. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-39847-1

    This publication compares early years policy, practices, and structures in a number of countries, including six European contexts. In addition to sections presenting individual country profiles and methodological approaches to data collection, specific chapters are dedicated to the similarities and differences in public policy, delivery models and providers, participation and enrolment, how quality is interpreted and supported, and the expectations for child outcomes through assessment and reporting procedures.

  • European Commission. 2016. Action plan on the integration of third country nationals. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Brussels: European Commission.

    In this policy document, education and training are identified as a key policy that the European Commission and the Member States must address in order to support and facilitate the integration of third country nationals. Early childhood education is specifically identified as fundamental for the integration of families in light of its effectiveness on reducing social exclusion, addressing poverty, and giving children early opportunities to realize their potential.

  • Melhuish, Edward, and Konstantinos Petrogiannis. 2006. Early childhood care and education: International perspectives. London: Routledge.

    The book compares policies and provision of early childhood education in a number of countries from different continents, including Europe. Separate country chapters map the development of services and their varied trajectories arising from the interplay of factors and events, including economic, social, historical, and cultural contexts and ideological beliefs. The concluding chapter draws on common aspects gaining international attention and contributing to changes in practices and expectations about the sector.

  • Oberhuemer, Pamela. 2000. Conceptualizing the professional role in early childhood centers: Emerging profiles in four European countries. Early Childhood Research and Practice 12.2.

    This article can be considered a pioneering one in introducing issues in European contexts associated with professionalization and interpretations of what it means to be a professional. Developments in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and England and their impact on professional activities in early years settings are emphasized, prior to extrapolating challenges and opportunities facing the emerging role of professional staff and the professionalization of the sector.

  • Oberhuemer, Pamela. 2011. The early childhood education workforce in Europe between divergencies and emergencies. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy 5.1: 55–63.

    DOI: 10.1007/2288-6729-5-1-55

    This article summarizes data from the SEEPRO study conducted across all countries of the European Union. Qualifications and workplace settings of practitioners were compared. Data indicate that although formal education and training requirements of the early years workforce across Europe vary considerably, there are two common concerns: the lack of flexible and inclusive pathways toward formal professional recognition and status for all practitioners, and the absence of men in the workforce.

  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2001. Starting Strong: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.

    Arising from a comparative analysis of policy initiatives and challenges in twelve countries (ten of which are European), eight key recommendations are identified to promote equitable access to quality services. A systemic and integrated approach to policy development and implementation, substantial public investment, attention to the training and working conditions of staff, systematic attention to monitoring and data collection, and a long-term agenda for research are among the recommendations.

  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2006. Starting Strong II: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.

    This second report outlines policies in eight countries, five of which are European. In addition to examples of policy initiatives, the report proposes ten policy areas requiring critical attention from governments. Recommendations favor family and community involvement in early childhood services; improving the working conditions and professional education of staff; strengthening autonomy, funding, and support for early childhood services; and promoting systems that support broad learning, participation, and democracy.

  • Scheiwe, Kirsten, and Harry Willekens. 2009. Child care and preschool development in Europe: Institutional perspectives. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230232778

    This book illustrates the historical development of child care from ecological and ideological perspectives within shifting economic contexts, governance, and policies. A comparative and interdisciplinary approach is adopted to study factors that help or hinder the development of child-care provision. The analysis draws from various fields of study, including sociology, political science, history, and the law. While identifying key policymaking issues, the complexities around service provision are discussed.

  • University of East London, and University of Ghent. 2011. CoRe: Competence requirements in early childhood education and care. A study for the European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture.

    This European study explored conceptualizations of “competence” and professionalism in early childhood practice. It identifies systemic conditions for developing, supporting, and maintaining competence throughout the system. The study includes a review of the literature, a summary of the SEEPRO study, a survey conducted in fifteen European countries, and case studies. Professional competence is highly complex and dynamic because it is derived through a continuous process of learning throughout one’s professional career.

  • Willekens, Harry, Kirsten Scheiwe, and Kristen Nawrotzki. 2015. The development of early childhood education in Europe and North America: Historical and comparative perspectives. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137441980

    Ten chapters in the first section of this book consider the historical development of early childhood education during the 19th and 20th centuries. Emphasis is given to the role and influence of the church, along with subsequent struggles toward more secular settings in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain. Actors and critical junctures in the development of services in Luxembourg, Denmark, Italy, and Germany are addressed in the second section.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.