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Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education: A Brief Introduction

The reconceptualist movement in early childhood education gained momentum in the 1980s with conversations among scholars around the world who were concerned about the dominance of psychology and child development theory and drew from an array of more critical, feminist, postcolonial and postmodern perspectives in their work. Such reconceptualist scholars, like those in other fields, question the belief that scientific truths could be "discovered" about any individual or group of children and then applied to all children, no matter the culture, language, belief structure, or physical life circumstances. In other words, the early work from reconceptualists in our field questioned the promotion of universal prescriptions for "best practice" and other "grand narratives" which continue to dominate our field. Many of us were doing anti-bias or cultural and gender focused research that seeks to appreciate and support diversity in people, ideas, and ways of being. We share a concern about privileging particular sets of beliefs or forms of knowledge (or "grand narratives" that typically reflect western or Eurocentric values), which can create power for certain groups of people and oppress others.

Much of the early U.S. reconceptualist scholarship (e.g., Kessler & Swadener, 1992) challenged the NAEYC Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice, charging that the perspective was ethnocentric and ignored the range of life contexts and knowledges experienced by children from diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic and value contexts, such as individualistic orientations or connectedness of people as cultural ways of knowing (Canella, Swadener & Che, 2007; Cannella, 1997). This relates to scholarship focusing on how are created for some groups of people while "others" are judged and disqualified as lacking or labeled as disadvantaged or "at risk," documenting patterns of power and privilege. These concerns have been addressed using different methods and forms of critique, including qualitative research that attends to the voices of people who are often under-represented or work done by members of these groups, historical genealogy, theory juxtaposition and critical personal narrative.

Earlier work addressing power and privilege related to poverty and the lives of young children (e.g., Polakow, 1993) and more recent work addresses a range of issues that include contradictions and challenges in indigenous education (e.g., Kaomea, 2003), the colonization of early childhood education through universal prescriptions for "quality" (e.g., Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 1999); and "decolonizing" methodologies (e.g., Mutua & Swadener, 2004; Soto & Swadener, 2005). Researchers have also demonstrated children's recognition of colonialist binaries (e.g., Tobin, 2000), feminist methodologies and gender issues (e.g., Hauser & Jipson, 1998; Mac Naughton, 2000), and possibilities for transformational early childhood practices in global context (e.g., Ryan & Greishaber, 2005), just to name a few. Still other reconceptualist scholars have worked with metaphor, including Lobman (2005), using improv (theatre) as metaphor and practice for interactions between caregivers and infants and toddlers.

Partly in response to frustrations in finding appropriate outlets for dissemination of reconceptualist work in conferences and journals, the first Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Research, Theory and Practice Conference (RECE) was held in Madison, Wisconsin in 1991. Since that time, conferences have been held in locations across the U.S. and in Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Palestine, UK, and Canada. Recent meetings have drawn participants from over 15 countries and reconceptualists in France have held their own conferences. In 1999, a Critical Perspectives on ECE special interest group was founded within the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Several publishing companies now devote an entire series to Reconceptualizing early childhood education scholarship (e.g., Peter Lang, Routledge and Palgrave-Macmillan) and many of us have published in a range of journals and implemented various forms of critical practice in education and public policy work. The range of scholarship, activism, and involvement in Reconceptualizing has provided new forms of praxis (reflective practice) in the field of early childhood education, as reflected by other articles in this special issue.

Reconceptualist scholars see a compelling need for this work in the context of recent public policy practices in the U.S. as well as around the world. Neoliberal policies such as welfare "reform" in the U.S. and the UK have been critiques by reconceptualists (e.g., Bloch, Holmlund, & Popkewitz, 2004) and U.S. legislative mandates like No Child Left Behind in 2001, Smart Start, and the National Research Council report on Scientific Research in Education demonstrate the ways that prevailing beliefs about child, family and education/care practices are linked to socio-political agendas that prescribe every narrower regimes of "truth" or masterscripts on our field.

Reconceptualist perspectives and methodologies are oriented to and argue for "Hope and possibility as we move toward a newly evolving, liberating 'third space,' an early childhood dreamscape of social justice and equity" (Soto, 2000, p. 198). Many of us believe that to ensure an equal and emanicipatory early childhood education for both children and adults, all educators who are concerned about children and the future of humanity and our work, practitioners and theorists, teachers and parents, reconceptualists and developmentalists, must join together and take action in solidarity.


Bloch, M., Holmlund, K. Moqvist, I., & Popkewitz, T. (Eds.). (2004). Restructuring the governing patterns of the child, education, and the welfare state. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cannella, G.S. (1997).Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution. New York: Peter Lang.

Cannella, G.S., Swadener, B.B., & Che, Y. (2007). Entry: Reconceptualizing early childhood education.In R. New (editor), International Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Education.

Cannella, G.S. & Soto, L.D. (2010). Childhoods: A handbook. New York: Peter Lang.

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. & Pence, A. (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer Press.

Hauser, M. & Jipson, J.A. (Eds.). (1998). Intersections: Feminisms/early childhoods. New York: Peter Lang.

Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange. EducationalResearcher

Kessler, S. & Swadener, B.B. (Eds.). (1992). Reconceptualizing the early childhood curriculum: Beginning the dialogue. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lubeck, S. (1985). Sandbox society: Early schooling in black and white America. London: Falmer Press.

Mac Naughton, G. (2000). Rethinking gender in early childhood Education. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Mutua, K. & Swadener, B.B. (2004). Decolonizing research in cross-cultural contexts: Critical personal narratives. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Polakow, V. (1993). Lives on the edge: Mothers and their children in the "other" America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ryan, S. & Grieshaber, S. (Eds.). (2005). Practical transformations and transformational practices: Globalization, postmodernism, and early childhood education.

Soto, L.D. (Eds.) (2000). The politics of early childhood education. New York: Peter Lang.

Soto, L.D. & Swadener, B.B. (2005). Power and voice in research with children. New York: Peter Lang.

Tobin, J. (2000). Good guys don't wear hats: Children's talk about the media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.