Liz Brooker
Martin Woodhead
Publication Date
September 1, 2010

This edition of Early Childhood in Focus (ECiF) addresses the major policy questions surrounding the place of culture in early childhood programmes and how to promote development and learning while respecting cultural diversities. ECiF is a series of publications produced by the Child and Youth Studies Group at The Open University, United Kingdom, with the support of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, intending to provide reviews of research on key policy and practice issues that are of value to policy makers and advocates for the rights of children.

This collection of articles seeks to compile information on the question: to what extent is child "development" a cultural process that varies between societies, or a natural process that is the same for all children? "On the one hand, crosscultural research describes diverse developmental niches inhabited by young children, which shape what they learn, how they learn and where they learn. On the other hand, universal features of early childhood, such as the progressive development of physical, motor, cognitive and communicative capacities, are equally well documented. One resolution of these conflicting accounts comes through recognising that learning and development are ‘naturally cultural’. Babies are biologically pre-adapted to engage in social relationships, and to make sense of their surroundings by sharing with others in a process of intersubjectivity which supports joint activity, cooperation and communication. These processes in turn are strongly shaped by the cultural practices of families and communities, including in early childcare settings and schools."

The central question raises further inquiries that impact upon policy on early childhood development (ECD), including language differences (mother tongue education as a vehicle for cultural identity), the place of 'working and contributing' as well as 'playing and learning' in the daily lives of young children, and cultural diversity, as well as economic inequalities, sometimes resulting in rapid social change and migration. "The lesson is that 'education for all' goals cannot be implemented in a vacuum, without taking account of children’s specific circumstances, including caregivers’ and professionals’ beliefs about their development and learning. At the same time, respecting cultural diversity is not an alternative to ensuring children’s basic rights." Enabling conditions for development and learning include those that also affect adults involved with children - access to healthcare, clean food and water, shelter, and sanitation. The document describes the intertwined nature of development and learning and states that factors such as play and social interaction (with both other children and with adults - in particular, emotionally responsive adults) support ECD. Altering the structural conditions of mothers and children through reduction of poverty and inequality is cited here as a universal principle in ECD.  There are both universal and local aspects of language learning: "most researchers now agree that both the biological (innate) characteristics of human infants and the cultural (experienced) characteristics of their environments are involved in shaping human language learning....Children may learn their language through a gradual process of observation and participation in family and peer-group activities. But in affluent societies, infants and young children may be given access to highly specialised input from adults, designed to make the process easier."

Cultural differences in caring for children includes who cares for children - mothers, parents, extended families, or non-kin caregivers. "Traditional patterns of caregiving are changing in most societies, as internal migration, industrialisation, and new patterns of employment promote the introduction of out-of-home care ('childcare') for many young children. Different caregiving arrangements shape, relationships and their opportunities for learning.” The recognition of the variability of caregiving leads to policy questions on caregiving, including how far laws and policies extend into local decisions on children, whether local practices are respected, while ensuring protection of the rights of children, and how structural inequalities are addressed.

Early childhood learning that takes into account local diversity can include the following:

  • "The processes of guided participation - building bridges between what children know and new information to be learned, structuring and supporting children’s efforts, and transferring to children the responsibility for managing problem solving - provide direction and organization for children’s cognitive development in widely differing cultures."
  • The home environment "reflects parents’ beliefs, goals and circumstances: it is one which, within the limits of their resources, they believe will best achieve the desired outcomes for their children."
  • "Playful learning" theories, deemed westernised, have been balanced with work and study foci, through cross-cultural studies."...[T]he apparently universal appreciation of ‘pretend play’ as a preparation for adult life, and a space to try out cultural behaviours, suggests that parents everywhere are able to identify a role for play in preparing children for participation in the community, if not for teaching them school-like knowledge and skills." A Sudanese case study on playing with dolls is included.
  • The document recognises the value of learning from work, the economic necessities associated with the work of children, and their need for protection from work activity that is harmful to child development.


Policy question include: analysing the local situations of children to ensure opportunities for play, work, and study, in a cultural balance that enhances early learning; protecting children from harmful or exploitative work while recognising the value of work to children and families; and including views of parents with scientific and professional knowledge and beliefs on child development.


The characteristics of quality early learning programmes are reviewed, beginning with a sample of a South African programme which promotes ubuntu - respect and self restraint - in the active lives of students. "Programmes which are responsive to the local culture experience high levels of enrolment and retention, and prove to be sustainable in the longer term, as parents recognise the value of early education for their children." The importance of being taught in a familiar language is described, including the example of the Te Whãriki curriculum for early childhood care and education in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It offers not only authentically ‘multicultural’ dimensions, but also a variety of types of childcare and early education to meet the family circumstances of its users, including home-based services and ‘language nests’ (kohanga reo) for immersion in Māori language. Madrasa preschools, initiated by Muslim groups concerned about the cycle of deprivation afflicting the children in their community, are found in Kenya and neighbouring states. The first Madrasa Resource Centre (MRC), developed in 1990 and supported by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), provides teacher training and low-cost/no-cost educational resources for preschools and coordinates outreach work, community support, and self-help "The curriculum in the MRC preschools includes traditional stories and songs, narratives from the Koran and art activities that incorporate African and Islamic motifs, as well as the adab, the rules of etiquette, courtesy and cleanliness rooted in East African culture." The Peruvian Wawa Wasi is "a community-based day care programme for children from 6 to 48 months old. Selected women from the community take care of up to eight children during weekdays, in their own homes, after undergoing training for the role." A study of three migrant mothers in Belgium revealed that they wanted socialisation in the dominant language and culture for their children, and that they were highly likely to follow advice of the childcare professionals in the day care situation, though they were empowered to create a mix of cultural factors from their origin and from the new culture in which they lived.


Policy questions include: how can quality of ECD programmes be insured in a market-driven economic structure; how is language managed in care situations; is there training of childcare professionals in the rights of the child and respect for cultural diversity; what supports are appropriate for migrant families in their adaptation; and how can ECD programmes help with transitions to school.