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Early Childhood Education And Care In Canada

Early Childhood Education And Care In Canada

Early Childhood Education And Care In Canada


The field of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Canada has been informed by a myriad of influences and these factors continue to shift and shape the curriculum, pedagogy, research, and practice in Canadian ECEC. Historically, following many of the theories and practices embraced by the United States, early child-care centers, day nurseries, and kindergartens were established to alleviate pressures on overcrowded schools and allow for mothers to work outside of the home. At the same time, Canadian child care took on a broader role in social welfare and later social justice, working to reduce inequities and inequality. These motivations have not been shared across all ECEC, and this is particularly evident in Indigenous early education. Here, Indigenous children and families have endured the horror of the residential school system and its legacy of colonialism, trauma, and cultural genocide. Along with these underpinning histories, Canadian ECEC has been informed by, is continuing to be shaped by, and is beginning to be guided by a number of models and movements in early learning. These include developmentalism, child-centered pedagogies, Reggio Emilia approaches, children’s rights, holistic education, the reconceptualist movement, and postdevelopmentalism, and many of these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Finally, the policies and practices at federal, provincial, and municipal levels and the unique tensions between these levels of government structure Canadian ECEC policy and practice. Provincial and Indigenous early learning frameworks are created to enhance educator understandings and application of program principles, values, and goals, and these embrace responsive relationships with children and families, reflective practice, the importance of the environment and play in learning, and respect of diversity, equity, and inclusion, to name but a few shared principles. Taken together, the complexity of ECEC in Canada is clear, with historical approaches and attitudes continuing to preserve structures that devalue children and those who work with them, while concurrently efforts continue to honor the rights and voices of all children, advocate for professionalization in the field of ECEC, and reveal and reconcile past and current truths and injustices in Indigenous children’s education and care, in order to support and heal all children, families, and communities.

Keywordsearly childhood education and careCanadahistorytheoryframeworksIndigenous early learningpolicy and advocacyresearchprofessionalism

SubjectsEducation, Change, and DevelopmentEducational Politics and PolicyEducational Theories and PhilosophiesEducational History

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Canada, in a Euro-Western context, has been evolving since before the country’s Confederation in 1867. It is complex and shifting, ethical and political, and continues to be subject to particular theoretical perspectives, ideologies, and policies as much as it questions and challenges them. This article begins with an overview of the histories that ground ECEC in Canada including child care, day nurseries, kindergartens, and Indigenous early learning. Next, the models and movements guiding Canadian ECEC are critically examined. Finally, the policies and practices that frame ECEC in Canada are detailed. While this article does not claim to provide a complete picture of Canadian ECEC—that is impossible within the page limits of a single article—this overview traces the colonial foundations as well as the feminist and activist roots which continue to shape and shift understandings of childhood, early learning frameworks, research, Indigenous early learning, policy, advocacy, and professionalism in Canadian ECEC. There is a growing urgency for us to question and unsettle the entrenched theories, beliefs, values, and practices of ECEC in Canada. Growing economic disparity, neoliberalism, and the climate crisis put the sustainability of the current understandings and ways of providing early childhood education into question and demand new theories, language, and ways of responding to the issues faced collectively by Canadian children, families, and educators. In order to move forward, one can first look back and around at the histories, models and movements, and policies and practices that underpin, guide, and frame ECEC in Canada.

Histories Underpinning ECEC in Canada

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Canada has historically been modeled on and extended upon the basis of the practices and theories underpinning ECEC in Europe and the United States. Meeting a range of needs, from reducing overcrowding in schools to enabling mothers to earn a wage outside of the home, and dating back to before Confederation in 1867, Canadian ECEC has evolved in response to social, economic, political, and educational movements and motivations. The following provides a brief overview of the history of ECEC in Canada. For a more in-depth exploration, along with detailed examples of historical Canadian ECEC sites, please see Prochner and Howe (2000).

Kindergartens, Child Care, and Day Nurseries

At the time when Canada became a united country in 1867, it was becoming widely recognized that children can flourish in formal early education and that mothers can benefit from support with child rearing. Private kindergartens were created that embraced child-centered approaches to teaching and that were led by educators trained in Froebel’s methods. By the end of the 1870s, private kindergartens were common in large Canadian towns and cities and were identified as sites of social reform and mission work. As with earlier early childhood education models, public school kindergartens served to relieve overcrowding brought on by compulsory school legislation in many provinces and to engage children in a curriculum that was suited to their age and developmental level. However, public school kindergartens were a largely urban phenomenon, often with inconsistent or absent funding (Prochner & Howe, 2000).

As early as the 1890s, day nurseries were established in major eastern cities to provide child-care support for wage-earning mothers. When school attendance was made mandatory in some provinces in the early 1890s, schools became overcrowded with children, as those who would have otherwise stayed home to care for their younger sisters and brothers while their parent(s) worked were now attending school. Again, and as with other formal ECEC structures, Canadian day nurseries followed the curricular and pedagogical approaches of their American counterparts. Growth in the number of day nurseries in Canada was slow, and informal arrangements of child care by relatives and neighbors was common (Prochner & Howe, 2000).

In the early 20th century, and in addition to its custodial support and ease of crowding in schools, child care in Canada began to take on a broader social welfare role. Some child care centers supported mothers by also helping them to locate and secure employment outside of the home. Day nurseries began to respond to the increased social needs and pressure on health and social services stemming from immigration and migration from rural areas into urban centers (Prochner & Howe, 2000). However integration often translated into assimilation, as highlighted by Atkin (2001), who identifies the assimilationist agenda of upper-middle-class white women in the establishment of a day nursery in Toronto known as the West End Crèche in the early 20th century. She notes the influence and funding provided to that crèche by the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE), whose goal was to “Canadianize” immigrant children and their families into adopting British imperial values (pp. 32–33).

Prior to World War II, most day nurseries were operated by charitable organizations, but with the start of the war, the Canadian federal government initiated a child-care scheme to encourage women to work in war-related industries. The need for child care was considerable; in 1939 there were 200,000 wage-earning women in Canada and by 1944 that number had risen to 1,000,000 women working outside of the home. Despite the need, only Ontario and Quebec entered the child-care agreement with the federal government. However, the impact on perceptions of and practices in Canadian child care was significant, as group child care was promoted as a beneficial support in which children were able to learn with highly trained and skilled teachers and mothers were able to freely work outside of the home (Prochner & Howe, 2000).

After World War II, child care took up a renewed social welfare role and in the 1950s, teachers, administrators, and child development experts created nursery schools in child-care centers. At the same time, contemporary research was stressing the importance of children’s healthy emotional development through a secure attachment to their mothers and bringing into question the benefits of having young children in care outside of the home. Furthermore, group child care was identified by some as overstimulating for young learners. Day nurseries came to be viewed as insufficient social agencies, with poorly trained staff who were careless with casework. Following a social-work approach, nurseries began to require that mothers demonstrate needs beyond the financial, and child-care professionals worked closely with other services including child welfare and healthcare agencies. Some nurseries began to embrace inclusion and worked to meet the needs of children with disabilities in the content of curriculum and context of programs. However, most nurseries in practice continued in a primarily custodial role (Prochner & Howe, 2000).

Since the 1960s, new programs have been introduced, some in new locations. The kindergarten movement has been renewed once again, and schools have become sites for social justice and the reduction of social inequities, inspired by a variety of models. The Canadian Assistance Plan (1966) placed children at its center as a national concern, and child care itself grew in that period, with the increase in wage-earning Canadian women and the rediscovery of early childhood education in North America. Currently, education, health, and social services are integrated in child care. Since the early 2000s, many provinces have even moved the governance of child care and early childhood education from social services to education (McGrane, 2014). Full-day kindergartens have become widespread across provinces and territories, and kindergarten itself is seen by many as a national preschool program.

Indigenous Early Education

According to Canadian census data, Indigenous people make up approximately 4.9% of the population and of this, almost one-third are children and youths under age 14 (Statistics Canada, 2017a). Indigenous, an umbrella term used to recognize the first people of what is known as Canada, refers to First Nation, Métis, and Inuit people. Children hold great importance in Indigenous cultures, and decision makers are expected to consider how action will affect seven generations past their own, a principle found in the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee (Duhamel, 2018). Across Canada, Indigenous populations hold diverse and sophisticated knowledge about the land, cultural traditions, and languages, which has been passed down from generation to generation (Ball, 2012; Hare, 2011; Johnson, 2013). However, Canada remains a settler-colonial state whose influence has disrupted this transfer of knowledge, and the history of colonization transcends generations and continues to impact the health, education, and well-being of Indigenous children (Duhamel, 2018; Hare, 2011; Peterson, Jang, San Miguel, Styres, & Madsen, 2018).

Starting in the 1870s, the Government of Canada mandated Indigenous children to attend residential schools, state and church-run schools that were separate from their families and communities, with the intended goals of removing Indigenous culture from children and youths, and assimilating them into Canada’s Eurocentric society. It was only in 2008 that a formal apology to former students of residential schools was issued by the Government of Canada (Government of Canada, 2008). The apology recognized the failures and abuse that took place at these schools, as well as the continued impact of this legacy of trauma. Following the formal apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established in order to address the history of residential schools. In 2015, the TRC produced a document which called all levels of government in Canada to 94 points of action. Several of these calls to action address education for Indigenous children, as governing authorities are urged to address education gaps and funding discrepancies for Indigenous populations, and specifically “develop culturally appropriate early childhood education programs for Aboriginal families” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 2). As early childhood education and care moves forward with reconciliation, it is clear that the Eurocentric education systems that are dominant in Canada do not meet the needs of Indigenous families and children (Ball, 2012; Hare, 2011; Johnson, 2013; Peterson et al., 2018).

Education is considered to be a holistic aspect of Indigenous children’s health and well-being (Greenwood & de Leeuw, 2012); however, a mistrust in government-run operations can make Indigenous caregivers hesitant to participate in early learning programs (Gerlach, Browne, & Greenwood, 2017; Hare, 2011). Both the historical and persisting impacts of colonialism in Canada affect this concept of trust. The 2016 census reported that despite accounting for only 7.7% of children aged 0–4 years in Canada, Indigenous children represent just over half of all children in foster care (Statistics Canada, 2017b) and comparisons have been made between this and the Sixties Scoop, a term which refers to the forcible removal of over 20,000 Indigenous children from their families, which occurred over a period spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s (Johnson, 2013; Sinclair, 2007). Canada has been found to be “willful and reckless” (Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, 2019, p. 73) in its discrimination against First Nation children in the current foster care system and has been charged under the Canadian Human Rights Act with compensating Indigenous children who have been removed from their homes on reserves and taken into care since 2006 (Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, 2019). Furthermore, Gerlach et al. (2017) found that Indigenous caregiver relationships with the welfare system contributed to concerns regarding the cultural safety within Aboriginal Infant Development Programs (AIDPs) specific to the province of British Columbia.

Models and Movements Guiding ECEC in Canada

In early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Canada, theoretical perspectives are typically enacted within the field through the images or conceptualizations of childhood—the beliefs about childhood or views on who the child is—that inform pedagogy, the curriculum, and relations with children and families. Accordingly, theoretical advances often lead to shifts in the dominant conceptualizations of childhood that are integrated into pedagogical and curricular decision making or that inform quality initiatives and regulatory mechanisms. This section outlines seven conceptualizations of childhood that are currently circulating within Canadian ECEC practice, research, and policy. It is important to note that these images of childhood do not encompass the full array of understandings of childhood that diverse children, families, educators, and communities hold, because dominant images of childhood in Canada remain largely grounded in Euro-Western theoretical paradigms. Further, these conceptualizations of childhood are not fully divisible from one another, often sharing similar theoretical underpinnings that are entangled in practice.


Developmental psychology is a dominant paradigm for both conceptualizing and interpreting children’s experiences in ECEC in Canada. Owing to canonical developmental theorists, including Piaget and Vygotsky, developmentalism sets forward as fundamental the idea that young children are in a critical period of growth. This emphasis on the importance of childhood as the foundation for a person’s life positions the child at the core of educational practice and as the site and unit of development (Burman, 2016). An emphasis on the linearity of children’s development, whereby children are positioned as adults-in-progress who must achieve particular developmental milestones that sustain their trajectory toward becoming skilled, productive, mature adults and citizens, continues to be a powerful discourse in ECEC in Canada (Elliot, 2012; Pacini-Ketchabaw & Kummen, 2016). Children are often understood in terms of their future activities and value, as is evident, for example, in popularized approaches to school readiness which argue that ECEC should prepare children for academic achievement (e.g., Geoffroy et al., 2010). Here, early education is positioned as a preparatory stage for equipping young children with the predetermined literacy, numeracy, and behavioral skills they will need to conform to the expectations of primary education (Ashton, 2014). Founding developmental psychology theories emphasized the relational aspects of development, centering the importance of parents, educators, and peers who had already acquired desired skills in supporting children’s achievement of developmental milestones. This locates the educator as an expert in supporting children’s learning, an understanding of the educator’s role that continues to dominate in ECEC in Canada (Bjartveit, Carston, Baxtor, Hart, & Greenidge, 2019; Harwood & Tukonic, 2017). Developmental milestones are often positioned as universals: all children should demonstrate these skills within this temporal period. Sequential conceptions of development continue to inform developmental images of childhood in Canadian ECEC, as is evidenced by age- and-stage-based assessments of children’s development. Recent advances in developmental theory attend to the complexities of growth and maturation, unsettling the universality of developmental psychology. Sociocultural and social relational approaches to development, as well as insights from the bioscientific and neurological sciences, highlight an intermingled array of factors that influence and support children’s development in Canada, including maternal health, nutrition, socioeconomic status, race, gender, ability, urbanization, access to nature, displacement and immigration, ongoing settler colonialism, and relational connections to place and community.

Critiques of how developmentalism understands the child in Canada highlight how this universalizing function serves to position an idealized (i.e., white, able-bodied, socioeconomically privileged, heteronormative) child as the referent against which diverse children’s experiences are measured (Kirova & Hennig, 2013; Pence & Benner, 2015; Whitty, 2017), perpetuating minoritization and devaluing the diversity of children’s experiences (Ball & Pence, 1999).

Child-Centered Pedagogy

Child-centered pedagogy, which echoes developmentalism’s contention that the child is the central focus of education, is a popularized approach to ECEC in Canada (Wien, 2012). Child-centered practice disrupts taken-for-granted adult–child power dynamics and places children’s unique needs, preferences, opinions, and contributions at the center of their own learning. Langford (2010) contends that child-centered practice weaves together “Froebel’s notion of the child at the centre of his world; the developmentalist notion that the child is the centre of schooling; and the progression notion that children should direct their activities” (p. 114).

Reggio Emilia Approach

The image of the child as “capable and competent” has become a popular refrain in ECEC in Canada. This conceptualization of childhood derives from the Reggio Emilia philosophy which was created as a response to the intense violence of fascism and the need to open up democratic educational processes in postwar Italy (Rinaldi, 2005). Reggio Emilia educators, scholars, pedagogistas, and atelieristas assert an image of the child as a capable, confident, competent co-creator of knowledge and an active participant in educational commons (Wien, 2015; Wood, Thall, & Parnell, 2015). Threads of Reggio-inspired practice are evident in multiple curricular frameworks across the country (for example, the British Columbia Early Learning Framework, and Flight: Alberta’s Early Learning and Care Framework) and are well represented in ECEC literature (e.g., Atkinson, 2012; Fraser, 2006; Wien, 2011; Wien & Halls, 2018). Typically, the image of the child as capable and competent is aligned with constructivist paradigms where children are positioned as constructors of knowledge. Children are understood to have the skills and relations necessary to construct their own understanding of the worlds around them through experiencing, documenting, and reflecting upon their experiences (Wood, Speir, & Thall, 2012). In Canadian ECEC, the image of the child as capable and competent relays the assertion that the child is the central actor in educational experiences. The emergent curriculum is an increasingly popular approach to learning in ECEC in Canada that draws upon an image of the child as capable and competent (Wien, 2015). As an iteration of child-centered practice, the desire to “follow the child” means that educators tune in to children’s interests and constructed understandings, working alongside children, who are capable of actively participating in their own learning to build upon their desires and curiosities. Critiques of Reggio-inspired conceptualizations of children as capable and competent question how this understanding re-articulates the normalizing and disciplining functions of universalized approaches to development. If children are capable, what are the criteria for establishing capability? When children are deemed to be competent, what skills and dispositions do they perform?

Children’s Rights

Right-based approaches to understanding childhood recognize the child as an active participant in achieving social justice by enacting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989). As Di Santo and Kenneally (2014) describe, maintaining an image of the child as a rights holder conceptualizes children as “active social agents who should participate in decisions that affect their day-to-day lives” (p. 397). Understanding children as rights holders situates children within their relational networks, framing them as central actors in working with community and policy stakeholders to enact their rights in locally meaningful ways (Caplan, Loomis, & Di Santo, 2016; Wood, 2018). Di Santo and Robichaud (2019) outline four general principles to support the implementation of the UNCRC: (a) “the right to non-discrimination”; (b) “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”; (c) “the right to life, survival, and development”; and (d) “respect for the view and feelings of the child in matters that affect the child” (p. 127). Children are understood to have many rights, including the right to participation (Howe & Covell, 2005), expression and identity, education, protection (Covell, Howe, & Blokhuis, 2018), and access to services and structures that can support their growth and continued participation in social spaces (Underwood, Frankel, Spalding, & Brophy, 2018). Importantly, some scholars argue that Canada’s positioning of children as rights holders requires sustained advocacy in order to bring into realization an image of the child as a rights holder equivalent to that of other Western states (Paré, 2017). Amid ongoing settler colonialism, this is especially salient to understanding Indigenous and racialized children as rights holders (Caputo, 2016).

Holistic Education and Multimodalities

Increasingly popular in Canadian ECEC is the contention that a child’s learning relates to their entire self. Education is not simply an intellectual endeavor but should attend to a child’s whole experience and well-being (Miller, 2010). This enacts an image of the child as a holistic learner, one who integrates multiple modalities of knowing the world within their learning (Fung, 2019). Positioning children as mindful and spiritual actors, these approaches often stress meaning making over rote assessment. They weave together sociocultural developmental theory, ecological theories, and Reggio-inspired philosophies as children make meaning within the unique contexts they live in, and with the unique learning styles and relations they bring with them. Children’s literacies are a leading-edge field in understanding children’s emergent (Bell, Copage, Rogers, & Whitty, 2018; Heydon, Crocker, & Zhang, 2014) and holistic learning in Canada, as scholars detail the multimodal communicative practices with which children learn and share their funds of knowledge (Binder, 2017; Heydon, 2012). Focusing on expanding children’s communication modalities, these curricular approaches position children as creative communicative beings within complex social and material education spaces (Heydon, Moffatt, & Iannacci, 2015).

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