Skip to content

A Humanistic Outlook on Early Childhood Education


Author(s): Annica Källebo and Scott Douglas Jacobsen (Secretary-General, Young Humanists International)

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/12/02

These are the things expected with human rights for the young.

Early Childhood Education

175 million children lack access to early childhood education (ECE). This is a period of life in which brain development is the most rapid. This requires international efforts on mainstreaming ECE. From previous efforts on education for all, to the focus on transitions between educational levels to reduce drop-out rates amongst students, the time has come for efforts on mainstreaming ECE for the youngest children.

As a vital notion within the Sustainable Development Goals, ECE bridges current societal challenges such as the right to education, gender equality, and reduced inequalities. Although, the current efforts mainly provide tools on how to establish ECE as a sub-sector in educational planning for governments and NGOs, little is mentioned about the actual content, as in pedagogical aims and goals for children enrolled in them.

Despite unique national challenges, what should or ought to be considered as universal in terms of what education for our youngest children can be? At this stage, the intersection of physical and educational development presents an opening for discussions on how the mainstreaming of ECE can include humanist approaches.

Physical Development

Physical development of the body continues for nearly two decades in human beings with significant time required for the full development of the brain. Any physical-structural development of the brain brings about new functions and dynamic changes to other functions of the mind.

Early childhood is defined as birth to eight years old. The physical development, in this sense, includes the body and the brain from birth to eight years old. According to the National Scientific Council on the Develop Child through the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University in “The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do,” the health and wellness of society depends on the quality of the life provided for the next generations.

The ability to become tomorrow’s responsible citizens, workers, and parents, requires appropriate nutrition for proper physical development. In this publication from a highly reputable source, the developments in the field of neurobiology provide an insight into the mechanics of early childhood development.

As an aside, the second note is the requirement of a highly skilled workforce of tomorrow. The requisite skill-sets for this workforce tomorrow rests of the implicit foundation of the first premise. They note the developments in the brain happen from the bottom up rather than top down. Any positive mental attributes will require earlier positive developments, in other words.

There is a “serve and return” relationship between the mind of the developing child, and the parents and the surrounding community. Simple skill circuits in the brain are necessary for the more desired advanced neural circuits seen in later life, in later childhood and, certainly, in adulthood. However, this requires long-term developments for the mind.

There can be impediments to the stable development of these base circuits in order to create the more advanced neurological architecture. As the authors note, “Toxic stress in early childhood is associated with persistent effects on the nervous system and stress hormone systems that can damage developing brain architecture and lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.” Consistent, or long-term, stress impairs development.

The brain has sensitive periods of development crucial for lifelong impacts in development. The forms of cognitive skills, emotional well-being, and social competence for a healthy child and adult come from an integrated mind. This mind as a product of the brain comes into effect through the stable environment in periods of early childhood development between ages 0 to 8, especially through crucial periods when brain architecture gets layered on top of prior contents. All this comes from an interaction between genes and environment, as humanists incorporate the (correct) idea of human beings as, in fact, evolved natural beings existing in a natural world.

Educational Outcomes

The development of cognitive skills, emotional well-being, and social competence of the child should lead the way on how to think about educational outcomes within ECE on a global level. How can we shift from regarding the preparation for primary school as the main educational outcome for pre-primary education, into consideration of the earlier stages of a child’s development as a time to develop humanistic traits such as critical thinking, reasoning, empathy and responsibility.

From this position, national reconstruction of globally set educational aims for ECE, interpreted into local realities, could enhance the creation of curriculums that values equivalent implementation and focuses on the development of humanistic traits. This could imply framing ECE as a universal framework to enhance the strive of shaping tomorrow’s citizens.

This stance also implies the surpassing of interests of separate nations, as those more often found in primary and secondary education curriculum, into a global common ground without values favoring one thing over the other. This position of framing ECE universally, to ensure human rights for the youngest children, also means another take on pedagogy.

It suggests a child-centered and holistic approach of where the child gets the opportunity to be challenged and encouraged, not only in regards to educational achievement but moreover on the socio-emotional development during ECE enrolment. If this notion could be perceived as further valuable, educational outcomes of ECE implies that children gain the ability to learn and live together with others. This is a highly valuable outcome for the future, whatever that might entail. Additionally, to achieve this further effort on ECE has to be made to ensure an environment that creates the conditions for children to develop intellectual and social skills. This includes mainstreaming ECE into educational planning, recruiting teachers and, especially, create a common ground for what ECE is and should be for children globally.

Humanism’s Place

Humanism posits a naturalistic world devoid of the supernatural — naturally. UNESCO emphasized human rights in ECE. Not coincidentally, if we look at the foundation of the American Humanist Association in 1941 with Curtis W. Reese, the European Humanist Federation in 1991, or the currently Humanists International and formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1945, and so on, the notion of human rights from the 1940s onwards seemed in the air. This comes into the educational arena as newer generations grow up. With a natural, or empirical and scientific, comprehension of the world, we can note the other principles too. An idea of human autonomy and freedom of inquiry.

If applied to ECE, we can see a naturalistic understanding of development leaving children to freely develop critical faculties in an educational setting. Taking some of the former parts of the commentary, this form of human rights and humanism in education requires a stable, low-stress environment for healthy development of the earliest layers of the circuitry of the brain. Children’s brains constructed over time with increasing levels of competency for the adult competency in social and emotional life, and in intellectual capacities. ECE may be where the rubber hits the road in terms of the future of humanism, especially as societies become more secular and the international systems more humanistic in orientation. When one is a carpenter, every solution may look like a nail; however, even in spite of one of us being an educator, in this instance, it is universally true for a 21st century global community: education is the solution to the problems of the world, taught and understood in a humanist way.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: