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Summary: Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky by Carol Garhart Mooney

Theories of Childhood (2000) is a foundational text for early childhood educators that explores the lives and work of five influential thinkers who have shaped modern education over the past century.

Introduction: Look at the impact five pioneers have had on child development.

Let’s face it: children don’t live in a bubble. They see things, hear things, and absorb information around them at a staggering rate – and that includes both the good and the bad. For this reason, it’s crucial to acknowledge the ways in which children’s growth and development are significantly influenced by societal factors in the world around them, whether we like it or not.

For example, as increasing crime rates in the United States contribute to an overall environment of fear and insecurity, these feelings in turn directly affect American children’s development. Another pervasive influence is media, particularly violent content, which studies suggest contributes to real-world violence.

Summary: Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky by Carol Garhart Mooney

These influences can come from within the home as well. Many community organizations and schools are failing to adapt to the modern transformation of family and community life, like the rise of dual-career or single-parent families. Work hours have increased while free time has dwindled, leading to less time spent with family and friends, which can further increase stress for children.

Amid these societal shifts, children’s negative behavior and struggles are often unfairly blamed on parents, when the reality is far more complex.

It’s here where a fundamental understanding of child development theory becomes crucial, because the nostalgia for traditional family forms alone isn’t productive for addressing modern challenges. The problem lies instead in translating theoretical knowledge into practical use. The aim should be to make theory practical and relatable, helping everyone see its value in making their jobs easier. For instance, knowing that just holding babies during feeding aids in their development of trust is much more important than knowing Erik Erikson is the theorist who introduced this concept.

To be effective, education must acknowledge and adapt to societal changes. It must underline the significance of understanding, and effectively applying, child development theories in the classroom. In an effort to do just that, this Blink will take a look at five fascinating theorists in the field of child development, and cover their unique contributions to this dynamic area of research. So let’s dive in.

Child-centered education, with John Dewey

Born in 1859 in Vermont, John Dewey is one of the most influential figures in American education. He earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, then joined the University of Michigan as a philosophy professor. His wife, Alice Chipman, had a strong interest in education’s connection with social issues, which led Dewey to explore educational studies.

In 1894, the couple moved to the University of Chicago, where Dewey blended philosophy, psychology, and educational theory in his teaching. He established the Laboratory School within two years, placing the university at the forefront of progressive education – a child-centered, democratic approach that differed vastly from the rigid, traditional style of education prevalent during the nineteenth century. Despite facing criticism at the time, Dewey’s approach led to extensive educational research and theory that are still relevant today.

In 1899, Dewey addressed parents worried about the changing times and their impact on children’s education. He emphasized that change brings new challenges but also opportunities, urging parents to find innovative ways to instill social responsibility in their children without clinging to the past.

Today, Dewey’s theories still resonate strongly with our current educational conundrums. His writings provide significant insights into how to introduce children to subject matter, the feasibility of multi-age classrooms, curriculum planning, supporting classroom teachers, and teaching thinking skills. His teachings align with those of other early theorists like Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, who advocated learning by doing and encouraged experimentation and independent thinking.

Key to Dewey’s pedagogical approach were his beliefs that education should be child-centered, active, and interactive. Education should involve the child’s social world, too. Dewey proposed that curriculum should evolve from real-life situations, and that the interests and background of each child should be the basis for planning learning experiences. He viewed education as a part of life, not merely a preparation for the future. He argued for a gradual progression from home life to school life, with the school deepening and extending the values of the home.

These ideas formed the crux of his influential book My Pedagogic Creed, published in 1897. He argued that teachers are more than subject-matter instructors; they help shape society and form proper social life. Dewey emphasized the importance of teachers’ confidence in their skills and abilities, which in turn helps to nurture inquiry and learning dispositions in children.

Maria Montessori and child-centered environments

Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori was a visionary educator and the first woman in Italy to graduate from medical school. Despite facing traditional societal expectations and challenges in the predominantly male medical profession, Montessori followed her passion for understanding human development and excelled in the field. Her pioneering work was sparked by her early experiences in insane asylums, where she discovered that children diagnosed as unteachable responded positively to her unique, observation-based approach.

This keen sense of observation and innovation led Montessori to establish the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in 1907, in the slums of Rome. Here, she created a nurturing, stimulating environment for children, most of whom came from impoverished homes. From providing furniture scaled for children to developing specific educational materials, Montessori crafted a learning atmosphere that celebrated the needs and potential of each child.

Montessori’s insights were revolutionary for her time. Concepts like child-sized furnishings and the notion of children working independently were unheard of in the early 1900s. Montessori’s ideas formed the foundation for subsequent educational theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky, whom we’ll discuss later.

Today, her influence pervades all early childhood programs, not just those bearing her name.

Central to Montessori’s philosophy was the creation of child-centered environments. She asserted that the learning environment isn’t limited to the physical space, but also includes the individuals and the atmosphere they co-create. Montessori recognized the importance of a beautiful, orderly environment rich in sensory experiences, equipped with tools and utensils suitable for the children’s size.

Among Montessori’s contributions are key recommendations for early childhood educators. She advocated for real, functioning tools that empower children and promote their competence. She emphasized the importance of making things accessible to children, fostering their independence, and their responsibility for their own learning. Further, she urged educators to create beauty and order in the classroom, viewing these as integral to teaching, not simply additional chores.

Montessori’s influence on our classrooms is still evident today-—from the child-sized tools to the aesthetics of the learning environment. Her emphasis on respect for the child, fostering independence, and creating beautiful and orderly learning spaces resonates with educators around the globe. Her life and work leave an enduring legacy, reminding us of the profound impact a dedicated, insightful educator can have on future generations.

The importance of trust, with Erik Erikson

Born in Germany in 1902, Erikson’s journey to becoming a renowned psychologist began in the company of Anna Freud, daughter of the renowned Sigmund Freud, and then took him to Harvard Medical School, and later to Yale University. Throughout his career, Erikson pursued the mystery of how culture, society, and individual stages of development play a role in shaping our lives, from infancy to old age.

Erikson’s significant contribution is his theory of psychosocial development, lovingly referred to as the Eight Ages of Man. This theory posits that each stage of human life comes with a task that needs to be accomplished. Successfully navigating each stage influences how we handle the next, shaping our personality strengths or weaknesses. Erikson was the one to coin the term identity crisis, which he saw as an unavoidable part of youth’s transition to adulthood.

Let’s take a closer look at the first three stages, as Erikson believed these early childhood years were crucial in molding trust, autonomy, and initiative in children. But he also believed that if kids stumbled during these initial stages, all was not lost.

In Erikson’s framework, these stages serve as windows of opportunity, indicating when our brains are most receptive to specific types of learning. During the first year of life, for instance, a baby’s experiences lay the groundwork for developing trust or mistrust toward the world, depending on whether their needs are regularly met. Even if trust isn’t developed, it’s never too late; with the right environment and interactions, this can be repaired.

Erikson believed that this sense of trust cultivated during the first year of life affects how children approach the world and engage with adults. It is this trust that allows children to build attachments – the special bond between children and the significant adults in their lives. A securely attached child feels safer and more comforted in the presence of these adults.

This foundation of trust is crucial for moving into the next stage and developing autonomy. Erikson noted that children who do not develop strong attachments often struggle with developing empathy. When a child’s needs go unmet, they can find it challenging to trust themselves or the world, leading to difficulties in higher levels of social functioning.

To nurture this basic sense of trust, Erikson recommended warm physical contact when feeding babies and responding promptly when they are distressed. As our society changes and more babies spend time in childcare centers, we are challenged to ensure that these needs are met and that we foster an atmosphere where babies and their families can thrive.

Jean Piaget and the importance of play

Jean Piaget, a renowned Swiss-born scientist known for his work in the field of educational psychology, spent his career focused on how children acquire knowledge, rather than simply what or when they learn. Despite starting his academic career in biology, Piaget’s curiosity led him to psychology, where he observed children’s thinking processes and developed influential theories on cognitive development.

Piaget’s key contribution lies in his belief that children are not passive recipients of knowledge, but active builders of their own understanding through interactions with their environment. He advocated that learning occurs best when children engage in direct experiences, rather than receiving explanations from adults.

One could imagine this principle in action when considering how children learn about plant growth. While reading a book would undoubtedly increase their factual knowledge, Piaget argued that firsthand experiences such as planting and tending a garden would allow children to form a deeper, more personal understanding of the process.

Piaget also emphasized the crucial role of curiosity and problem-solving in learning. He proposed that educators should focus on stimulating inquiry and supporting children’s quest for answers, rather than simply disseminating information. In his eyes, play was a significant avenue for learning, where children could experiment, imitate their surroundings, and gradually build their understanding.

Piaget’s theories also included stages of cognitive development. He acknowledged the variability in the ages at which children reach these stages, cautioning that individuals develop at their own pace. In fact, he dismissed the idea that intellectual growth can be artificially hurried along, believing instead that it’s rooted in physical development and environmental interactions.

Piaget’s work has faced criticism as well as praise. Some educators feel he overemphasized thought processes, while underplaying the importance of feelings and social relationships. His use of complex terminology and the fact that he based his theories largely on observations of his own children have also been scrutinized.

Yet, despite these limitations, Piaget’s work continues to influence the way we approach early childhood education. The essence of his theories – the active construction of knowledge, the role of direct experiences, and the importance of curiosity and problem-solving – remain valuable in helping educators stimulate young minds.

Lev Vygotsky and scaffolding

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian scholar who took an unconventional route into the world of education and psychology. Born to a middle-class family in 1896, Vygotsky first pursued literature, teaching it at the secondary-school level after graduating from the University of Moscow. But his fascination with how people learn, and especially the relationship between cognitive and language development, lured him into psychology and educational theory. He engaged deeply with the works of luminaries like Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montessori, spurring him to explore children’s learning processes in his own way.

One of Vygotsky’s key discoveries was that children at the same developmental level could learn differently. Some, he found, were able to learn with minimal help, while others struggled on their own. Sadly, his life and promising career were cut short by tuberculosis in 1934, when he was just 38. Despite the overshadowing influence of Piaget’s theories, Vygotsky’s ideas have resurfaced recently, inspiring educational approaches in the esteemed preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

What makes Vygotsky’s approach stand out is that he didn’t rely solely on intelligence tests to assess children’s abilities. Instead, he proposed a balanced approach incorporating tests and careful observation in research. Further, he emphasized the inseparable nature of personal and social experiences in a child’s learning process, believing children’s understanding of the world is significantly influenced by their surroundings, cultural backgrounds, and interactions with adults and peers.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky underscored the importance of play in children’s learning, seeing it as a crucible in which language and cognitive development converge. Children communicate, negotiate roles, correct each other, and explore new ideas during play, constructing knowledge through dynamic interactions.

One of his most significant contributions to our understanding of child development is the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. He defined ZPD as the gap between what a child can do independently and what they can achieve with help. To bridge this gap, Vygotsky introduced the idea of “scaffolding,” in which teachers or more knowledgeable peers support a child in attaining a new skill or concept.

Vygotsky asserted that teachers needed to be astute observers to scaffold effectively, using their observations to support children’s learning. Echoing Dewey’s thoughts, he believed teachers should leverage their greater knowledge of the world to make it comprehensible to children. His emphasis on social interaction, observation, and scaffolded learning continue to resonate in modern education.


Five visionary pioneers have shaped modern views of child development. Lev Vygotsky emphasized the influence of personal and social experiences on children’s learning, and introduced the idea of scaffolding – assisting children in developing new skills. On the other hand, Jean Piaget asserted that children are active builders of their own understanding through interactions with their environment, emphasizing curiosity and problem-solving in learning. Maria Montessori’s focus on child-centered environments, and Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, stress the importance of trust and independence in children. And John Dewey promoted a child-centered, active, and interactive approach, viewing education as an integral part of life, not just preparation for adulthood and employment.

About the Author

Carol Garhart Mooney


Parenting, Philosophy, Education


This book provides an in-depth introduction to the theories of childhood development, focusing on the works of five influential theorists: John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. The author, Carol Garhart Mooney, presents a comprehensive analysis of each theorist’s work, exploring their ideas, methods, and contributions to the field.

The book is divided into five chapters, each dedicated to one of the theorists. The chapters are structured chronologically, allowing readers to follow the progression of ideas and how they have influenced contemporary understandings of childhood development. The book also includes an introduction and conclusion that provide a framework for understanding the significance of these theories in modern-day educational practices.

Key Strengths

  • Accessible and Engaging Writing Style: Mooney’s writing is clear, concise, and engaging, making the book suitable for a wide range of readers, including students, educators, and professionals. The use of relatable examples and case studies helps to illustrate complex concepts, making the theories more accessible to readers who may not have a background in psychology or education.
  • Comprehensive Analysis: The book provides an in-depth examination of each theorist’s work, exploring their major theories, key concepts, and contributions to the field of childhood development. Mooney also discusses the strengths and limitations of each theory, offering a balanced perspective on their applicability in real-world settings.
  • Practical Applications: Throughout the book, Mooney highlights the practical implications of these theories, demonstrating how they can be applied in educational settings. She provides concrete examples of how teachers and educators can use these theories to inform their practice, create effective learning environments, and promote child-centered education.
  • Historical Context: Mooney places the theories within their historical context, allowing readers to understand the social, cultural, and political factors that influenced their development. This historical perspective helps readers appreciate the evolution of childhood development theories and how they have shaped contemporary educational practices.
  • Critical Thinking and Reflection: The book encourages readers to engage in critical thinking and reflection, inviting them to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each theory and how they can be applied in diverse contexts. This reflective approach helps readers develop a deeper understanding of the theories and their relevance to modern-day educational challenges.

Areas for Improvement

  • Limited Scope: While the book provides an in-depth analysis of five influential theorists, it would have been beneficial to include a broader range of theories and perspectives, particularly those from diverse cultural and international contexts. This would have enriched the book’s content and provided a more comprehensive understanding of childhood development.
  • Lack of Visual Aids: The book would benefit from the inclusion of visual aids, such as diagrams, charts, and illustrations, to help readers better understand complex concepts and theories. Visual aids can make the information more accessible and easier to digest, particularly for readers who are not familiar with the subject matter.
  • Limited Discussion of Contemporary Issues: While the book provides some examples of how the theories can be applied in contemporary educational settings, there is a need for a more extensive discussion of current issues and challenges in childhood development. This would have helped readers understand the relevance of these theories in addressing modern-day concerns, such as technology integration, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In conclusion, “Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky” by Carol Garhart Mooney is an excellent resource for anyone interested in understanding the foundations of childhood development. The book provides a comprehensive introduction to the theories of five influential theorists, exploring their ideas, methods, and contributions to the field. Mooney’s accessible writing style, engaging examples, and practical applications make the book an invaluable resource for educators, students, and professionals. While there are some areas for improvement, such as a limited scope and lack of visual aids, the book remains a valuable addition to the field of childhood development.

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