Skip to main content
23 Nov 2023

Pedagogical approaches for the early years

Pedagogical approaches for the early years
NMT editor Briony Richter explains some leading pedagogies and their key principles for early years education.

Pedagogy in early years refers to the techniques and practices used in educating and aiding children’s development.

There are several different approaches to research and take advice from, all of which provide a unique blend of strategies for learning.

Here's a guide to some pedagogies and their key principles for early years education.


Probably one of the most well known is Montessori. Recognised for its child-centred and independent paced learning, the Montessori Method, developed by Dr Maria Montessori, encourages independence, empathy, confidence, and a passion for lifelong learning through exploration.

Maria Montessori’s method of education, also known as the Montessori method, is based on the belief that each child is unique and has an innate desire to learn. This method emphasises independence, freedom of choice, and hands-on learning experiences in a carefully designed environment.

Montessori believed that children have a natural drive to learn independently and that the environment surrounding them should support their curiosity to explore. Therefore, the indoor and outdoor teaching environments are specifically designed to be child-centred and meet the needs of all individual children to encourage collaboration and self-learning. To incorporate Montessori into your setting you’ll need to introduce opportunities for independent learning as early as possible. This could take the form of getting the children involved in tidying up or cooking.

One of the key features of the Montessori pedagogy is the use of specifically designed toys and materials that encourage children to take ownership of their learning and actively tackle problem solving. Early years educators play a massive role in providing these tools and guiding the exploration at the right point in each child’s development.

Forest Schools

Forest School pedagogy originated in Denmark but is now commonly used around the world. Similar to Montessori, it is embraces a child-led approach through play and learning in a natural environment. They first opened in the UK in 1993 and have grown across the country ever since, boosting more significantly through the pandemic.

This type of approach gives children the opportunity to play and learn frequently outdoors, and allows them to be hands on with their learning, developing a close relationship with nature.

Forest School pedagogy follows six principles:

  • Rather than the occasional visit, Forest School is a long-term process with regular learning experiences outdoors.
  • Forest School will take place in a woodland or natural environment to encourage a lifelong healthy relationship between children and our natural world.
  • Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
  • Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of everyone involved, which then instils confidence, independence and creativity.
  • Part of the focus on independence means that Forest Schools will offer children the opportunity to take supported risks that are aligned with the environment.
  • Forest School will be run by qualified Forest School practitioners. Those working in a Forest School will continuously develop their pedagogy strategies.

Rudolf Steiner approach

Steiner education, also referred to as Waldorf Education after the factory in which the first school was started, is an education approach selectively pulling from the teachings and philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian educationalist who opened his first school in Stuttgart for the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in 1919.

He developed his theories for education in the aftermath of World War I and focused on creative, spiritual and holistic methods to support children’s development and learning.

Steiner education offers strategies for children from early childhood through to the end of secondary education, although we are focusing on the early years here. The approach is divided into three stages, with the first stage covering children from birth to seven years old.

One of the main features of the Steiner approach is creating a creative yet predictable environment with regular daily activities that are not overstimulating.

In the first seven years, the Steiner approach focuses on:

  • Physical development, including the coordination of the limb system and overall development of the senses and nervous system. 
  • Learning through imitation of what is heard, felt and experienced as the major lead and focus for development.
  • Developing will. Supporting the ability to follow through with a decision and complete it. Steiner believed that this helped children learn how to problem solve and be creative in doing so.

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia pedagogy originated in Italy and is heavily rooted towards a child-centred approach that highlights the importance of a child’s creativity. For this pedagogy, the educator is an observer and encourages each child’s interest. It is based on the belief that we learn through making connections between people, concepts and experiences.

One of the main principles of the Reggio Emilia approach is that all children are active protagonists in their growing processes and are already equipped with numerous potentials for learning. The pedagogy promotes that every child is the subject of rights and that children have many ways of learning and expressing themselves. It seeks to provide opportunities for children to develop their skills and knowledge in a variety of ways.

The Reggio Emilia approach also strongly emphasises the environment, as it believes that the environment serves as the “third teacher” alongside the child and the teacher.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory focuses mainly on behaviour. The approach explains that children learn a huge amount through observation and imitation.

He highlights the significance that parents, teachers and other adults have as role models while children grow, as they often observe and replicate similar behaviours.

Bandura recognised that children are more likely to imitate aggressive behaviour from those they trust unless those actions are criticised, which led to his theory of adults as models for behaviour. Therefore, adults must carefully consider their actions around children with the expectation that they will be copied.

The approach in the classroom is to teach examples of calm and respectful behaviour, and display thought processes out loud so that children can better understand the thought behind the action. In this theory, children are also encouraged to be a part of problem solving conversations with the adults they interact with, which teaches collaboration.


Have you secured your FREE ticket for Nursery Managers Show Vol. 2? Join us at ExCeL London on 24th-25th November to boost your management skills and learn from early years experts.


Content Streams








Cost to attend


Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest #NurseryManagersShow updates