This occurs in early childhood education settings when teachers facilitate children’s self-initiated play and projects. Early childhood education research states that children learn by engaging all of their senses during self-directed activities. However, increased implementation of quality rating systems in many countries has reinforced formal conceptualizations of quality with standardized requirements that leave little time for extended projects and true free play. Further, observation has long been encouraged as an approach to achieve depth in understanding children’s development, and a method to inform the design of activities to meet children’s individual needs. Yet, most often in today’s early childhood programs child observations are interpreted through checklists that rate a child’s developmental outcomes along an age-based norm reference of predetermined milestones. Rather than providing children with open ended prompts to promote self-initiated learning, the teacher instead may manipulate the child’s materials and play options with the aim to achieve a specific standardized outcome. More and more, early childhood classrooms appear with the same materials, in the same arrangements, seeking the same developmental outcomes, with teachers performing according to a nationally approved script.
The early years have a profound effect on a child’s ability to learn, their self-confidence, their self-esteem, and their sense of themselves as learners. Children are natural learners who engage deeply with every aspect of their environment to create coherence from their daily experiences. It has been demonstrated that children learn within relationship-based, real-life contexts. Nonetheless, many early education settings offer didactic lesson plans and superficial environments resembling educational toy stores. This superficial approach results in loss of a deeper form of self-knowledge in which children are able to form and follow their own patterns of thinking and learning and gain a sense of their own competence as learners. This is not to say there are not many deeply positive relationships formed in early care and education settings and that learning does not take place, but rather to consider the potential of what could be. Deep education does not require prescriptive materials and is not associated with a specific, predetermined curriculum. It is a continuously evolving approach to teaching and learning that is based on the mindset and actions of the teacher in a reciprocal relationship with the student. Deep education can be embedded in any setting at any time that children are encouraged and facilitated to engage in the curiosity and wonder of their own learning processes. In fact, early childhood educators share many values in common with deep education such as anti-bias education that centers on human social justice, eliminating inequity, and supporting sustainable ecology, healthy living, and inclusion for the well-being of all. Thus, early childhood settings are ideal for the implementation of deep education concepts. The challenge is to continuously realign early childhood policy and professional development to support teaching practices that allow for the realization of these values.