Early Childhood Education, abbreviated ECE, refers to educational programs for young children. In some cases, it refers to children who are not yet legally required to be in school, and in this case it may be called preschool education or prekindergarten education. This article reviews the basics of Early Childhood Education.

Although it often refers to education that takes place prior to the point that children are required by state law to be in school --usually kindergarten-- especially in teacher education programs, Early Childhood Education may refer to education of children from birth to grade 2 or so. In either case, the fact is that attention to Early Childhood Education has transformed the beginning stages of education for many children.

Early Childhood Education has, to put it simply, worked its way down from first grade to younger and younger children. The Common School Movement in the 19th century helped spread public schools until by 1918 all schools had compulsory school attendance laws for children of elementary age and schools for them to attend. But even with changes to these laws over time, no state requires school attendance for a child younger than 5, and most states only require children age 6 and over to be in attendance at a public school.


The concept of kindergarten began with Friedrich Froebel (1782 - 1852), a German educator, and the spread of kindergartens in the United States was begun in 1855 by Margarethe Schurz in Watertown Wisconsin. The first training school for kindergarten teachers in the United states was opened in1868 in Boston by Matilda and Alma Kriege who had studied with one of Froebel's disciples, Baroness von Marenholtz-Buelow. And the first public kindergarten in the United States was opened in 1873 in St. Louis by William Torrey Harris, the superintendent of public schools there.

The number of kindergartners grew and grew. There were 250,000 in 1900; 360,000 in 1910; and 777,000 in 1933. As more and more kindergartens became part of public schools, licensure standards for kindergarten teachers became important. For that reason, special training for kindergarten teachers began to be incorporated into teacher training programs.

Nursery School

The nursery school movement was begun in England in 1911 by Margaret and Rachel McMillan, and by 1924, there were 28 nursery schools in the United States. Growth was such that by 1933, there were 1700. As nursery schools turned up in the U.S., Early Childhood Education came to be more associated with preschools - nursery schools and other education prior to kindergarten.

As the need for teachers focused on younger students grew, the teacher training that would provide them with the grounding they needed also increased. By 2000, there were nearly 1,400 institutions - some two-year offering associate's degrees and some four-year offering bachelor's degrees - offering early childhood teacher education programs. And though states define early childhood education differently in terms of years, specific licensure for this area has become far more common.

Head Start, Title I, and Other Options

The Head Start program is a preschool initiative of the Federal government that was started in 1965. Through this program, the Department of Health and Human Services provides funding to make sure that children from low-income families and those who are at-risk in some way have the opportunity for early childhood education.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title I) is a provision for local education agencies (LEAs) to apply to state agencies for program approval and federal funding if approval is given. Using these funds for preschool programs was encouraged by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001.

There is also a movement toward universal preschool in some places. The state of Georgia, for example, was the first to institute a statewide, universal pre-kindergarten program, which provides all four-year-old Georgians with free early childhood education. The states of Florida, New York, and Oklahoma have similar initiatives.

Seeking Early Childhood Education

As with other fields, not all early childhood education is of equal value. Parents who are considering a placement for their preschoolers should research the options to ensure that their child attends a quality program.