Beyond Quality: Gunilla Dahlberg’s Postmodern Approach to Early Childhood Education

Gunilla Dahlberg's Theories on Early Childhood Education

A Comprehensive Guide for Early Years Professionals and Students

Table of contents


Gunilla Dahlberg is an educational theorist who has profoundly influenced early childhood education. Her postmodern approach challenges traditional quality measures and offers a fresh perspective on how we view children and their learning.

Key aspects of Dahlberg’s theory include:

  • Viewing children as competent co-constructors of knowledge
  • Using pedagogical documentation as a reflective tool
  • Emphasising contextual understanding of quality in early childhood settings

Dahlberg’s work has transformed early years practice by encouraging educators to:

  • Question standardised assessment methods
  • Embrace multiple perspectives in understanding child development
  • Engage in ongoing reflection on their teaching practices

Her ideas relate closely to the Reggio Emilia approach, emphasising the importance of the learning environment and children’s multiple modes of expression.

This article explores Dahlberg’s key concepts, their practical applications, and their impact on contemporary early childhood education. It offers valuable insights for Early Years professionals, educators, and students seeking to enhance their understanding and practice in supporting young children’s learning and development.

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Introduction and Background to Gunilla Dahlberg’s Work

Gunilla Dahlberg reshaped early childhood education with her postmodern perspective. Her work challenged traditional views of children and learning. This article explores Dahlberg’s theories, their impact, and practical applications in early years settings.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1947 in Stockholm, Sweden, Dahlberg grew up in a country known for its progressive approach to education. She studied at the University of Stockholm, earning her PhD in Education in 1978. Her doctoral work focused on early childhood pedagogy and laid the foundation for her future contributions.

Key achievements:

  • Professor Emerita at Stockholm University
  • Co-founder of the Stockholm Project, a long-term study of early childhood education
  • Recipient of the OMEP Award for Outstanding Achievements in Early Childhood Education (2010)

Historical Context

Dahlberg developed her ideas during a period of significant change in early childhood education:

  • 1960s-1970s: Growing interest in child-centred approaches
  • 1980s: Emergence of postmodern thought in education
  • 1990s: Increased focus on quality in early childhood settings

This era saw a shift from viewing children as passive recipients of knowledge to recognising them as active participants in their learning (Dahlberg et al., 1999).

Influences on Dahlberg’s Work

Dahlberg’s thinking was shaped by several key influences:

  • Loris Malaguzzi: Founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, emphasising children’s competence and creativity
  • Michel Foucault: French philosopher whose ideas on power and knowledge informed Dahlberg’s critique of traditional educational practices
  • Gilles Deleuze: French philosopher whose concept of ‘rhizome’ influenced Dahlberg’s view of knowledge as non-linear and interconnected

These thinkers contributed to Dahlberg’s postmodern perspective on early childhood education (Dahlberg et al., 2007).

Read our in-depth article on Loris Malaguzzi here.

Key Concepts and Theories

Dahlberg’s work centres on several interconnected ideas:

  • The image of the child: Viewing children as competent, active co-constructors of knowledge
  • Pedagogical Documentation: A tool for reflection and meaning-making in early childhood settings
  • Quality in early childhood education: Challenging standardised notions of quality and advocating for contextual understanding

These concepts have significantly influenced contemporary approaches to early years practice and policy (Dahlberg et al., 2013).

Gunilla Dahlberg’s Key Concepts and Theories

Gunilla Dahlberg’s work centres on reconceptualising early childhood education. Her ideas challenge traditional views of children and learning. Dahlberg’s theories have significantly influenced contemporary approaches to early years practice and policy.

The Image of the Child

Dahlberg proposes a radical shift in how we perceive children. She advocates for viewing children as:

  • Competent beings: Capable of complex thinking and decision-making
  • Co-constructors of knowledge: Active participants in their own learning
  • Citizens with rights: Entitled to be heard and respected

This concept challenges the traditional view of children as passive recipients of knowledge. Dahlberg argues that children are born with immense potential and are active in constructing their own understandings of the world (Dahlberg et al., 2007).

Key implications:

  • Educators should listen to children’s ideas and theories
  • Learning environments should support children’s agency
  • Curriculum should be co-constructed with children

Pedagogical Documentation

Pedagogical documentation is a central tool in Dahlberg’s approach. It involves:

  • Recording children’s learning processes
  • Reflecting on these processes with colleagues, children, and families
  • Using these reflections to inform future practice

Dahlberg sees documentation as more than just observation. It is a means of making learning visible and a tool for democratic dialogue about education (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005).

Steps in pedagogical documentation:

  1. Observation: Educators observe and record children’s activities, conversations, and creations.
  2. Interpretation: Educators reflect on the observations, individually and collectively.
  3. Sharing: Documentation is shared with children, families, and colleagues.
  4. Dialogue: Discussions about the documentation inform future practice.
  5. Planning: New experiences are planned based on the insights gained.

This cyclical process supports continuous improvement in early years settings.

Quality in Early Childhood Education

Dahlberg challenges standardised notions of quality in early childhood education. She argues that:

  • Quality is subjective and contextual
  • Standardised measures often fail to capture the complexity of early childhood settings
  • A ‘language of evaluation’ is more appropriate than a ‘language of quality’

Dahlberg proposes a shift from measuring quality to engaging in meaning-making processes. This involves ongoing dialogue about values, goals, and practices in early childhood education (Dahlberg et al., 2013).

Key aspects of Dahlberg’s approach to quality:

  • Focus on processes rather than outcomes
  • Emphasis on contextual understanding
  • Involvement of multiple perspectives (educators, children, families)

Relationships Between Concepts and Theories

Dahlberg’s concepts are interconnected and mutually reinforcing:

  • The image of the child as competent informs the practice of pedagogical documentation
  • Pedagogical documentation supports a contextual approach to quality
  • The focus on quality as meaning-making aligns with the view of children as co-constructors of knowledge

These interconnections create a coherent framework for early childhood practice. They challenge educators to reflect critically on their assumptions and practices.

Developmental Progression

While Dahlberg does not propose a fixed developmental stage theory, she emphasises the importance of understanding children’s learning as a dynamic, non-linear process. Her approach recognises that:

  • Children’s development is influenced by their social and cultural context
  • Learning occurs through relationships and interactions
  • Development is not a universal, predetermined sequence

Dahlberg’s work encourages educators to focus on the processes of learning rather than predetermined outcomes. This aligns with her emphasis on pedagogical documentation as a tool for understanding and supporting children’s unique learning journeys (Dahlberg et al., 1999).

Gunilla Dahlberg’s Contributions to the Field of Education and Child Development

Impact on Educational Practices

Dahlberg’s work has significantly influenced early childhood education practices worldwide. Her ideas have led to tangible changes in classroom environments and teaching approaches.

Key impacts include:

  • Shift in documentation practices: Many early years settings have adopted pedagogical documentation as a reflective tool. For example, in Sweden’s preschools, educators now routinely use digital cameras and tablets to capture children’s learning processes, sharing these with colleagues and families to inform practice (Elfström Pettersson, 2015).
  • Reimagining learning spaces: Dahlberg’s emphasis on children as competent beings has inspired the creation of more open-ended, provocative learning environments. The Stockholm Project, co-founded by Dahlberg, showcased how preschool spaces could be designed to support children’s agency and creativity (Dahlberg et al., 1999).
  • Collaborative curriculum development: Many early years settings now involve children in co-constructing the curriculum. For instance, in New Zealand, the Te Whāriki curriculum framework, influenced by Dahlberg’s ideas, encourages educators to weave children’s interests and perspectives into the learning programme (Ministry of Education, 2017).

Shaping our Understanding of Child Development

Dahlberg’s theories have deepened our understanding of child development, particularly in social and cognitive domains.

Key contributions include:

  • Social construction of knowledge: Dahlberg’s work has highlighted how children construct knowledge through social interactions. This has led to increased emphasis on peer learning and collaborative projects in early years settings.
  • Multiple perspectives on development: By challenging universal developmental norms, Dahlberg has encouraged a more nuanced, context-sensitive approach to understanding child development. This is evident in the growing recognition of cultural variations in developmental pathways (Rogoff, 2003).
  • Agency and rights: Dahlberg’s emphasis on children’s rights and agency has influenced child development research, leading to more participatory research methods that involve children as active participants rather than passive subjects (Lundy & McEvoy, 2012).

Relevance to Contemporary Education

Dahlberg’s ideas remain highly relevant to contemporary education, addressing current challenges and informing innovative practices.

Examples of ongoing relevance:

  • Digital documentation: Dahlberg’s concept of pedagogical documentation has been adapted for the digital age. Many early years settings now use digital portfolios and learning stories to document children’s learning, facilitating easy sharing with families and supporting children’s digital literacy (Knauf, 2020).
  • Addressing diversity and inclusion: Dahlberg’s emphasis on context and multiple perspectives supports inclusive education practices. Her ideas have informed approaches to supporting children from diverse cultural backgrounds and those with special educational needs (Urban, 2008).
  • Sustainability education: Dahlberg’s view of children as competent citizens aligns with current efforts to involve young children in sustainability education. For example, the ‘Eco-Schools’ programme, implemented in many countries, draws on these ideas to engage children in environmental projects (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004).
  • Rethinking assessment: Dahlberg’s critique of standardised quality measures continues to influence debates about assessment in early childhood education. It has supported the development of more holistic, formative assessment approaches, such as learning stories used in New Zealand and parts of Australia (Carr & Lee, 2012).

Dahlberg’s contributions continue to shape early childhood education. Her ideas provide a framework for addressing contemporary challenges, from technological integration to promoting global citizenship in young children.

Criticisms and Limitations of Gunilla Dahlberg’s Theories and Concepts

Gunilla Dahlberg’s work has significantly influenced early childhood education. However, her theories have faced criticisms and limitations. Understanding these critiques provides a more comprehensive view of Dahlberg’s ideas and their application in early years settings.

Criticisms of Research Methods

  • Limited empirical evidence: Critics argue that Dahlberg’s work relies more on philosophical arguments than empirical research. This lack of quantitative data makes it challenging to validate her theories scientifically (Fenech, 2011).
  • Small-scale studies: Much of Dahlberg’s research focuses on Swedish preschools, particularly the Stockholm Project. This narrow focus raises questions about the generalisability of her findings to diverse global contexts (Urban, 2008).
  • Subjective interpretation: The emphasis on pedagogical documentation and meaning-making processes has been criticised for potentially introducing subjective bias in interpreting children’s learning and development (Hedges, 2014).

Challenges to Key Concepts or Theories

  • Complexity of implementation: Critics argue that Dahlberg’s approach to pedagogical documentation is time-consuming and complex to implement effectively, particularly in settings with limited resources or high staff-to-child ratios (Alasuutari et al., 2014).
  • Overemphasis on social construction: Some researchers contend that Dahlberg’s strong focus on the social construction of childhood might underplay the role of biological factors in development (Smith, 2014).
  • Critique of quality measures: While Dahlberg’s critique of standardised quality measures is valuable, some argue that it leaves a gap in how to assess and ensure quality in early childhood settings (Moss et al., 2016).

Contextual and Cultural Limitations

  • Western-centric perspective: Despite challenging universal norms, Dahlberg’s work is rooted in Western, particularly Scandinavian, educational traditions. This raises questions about its applicability in non-Western contexts (Nsamenang, 2008).
  • Socioeconomic considerations: Critics argue that Dahlberg’s approach might be more feasible in well-resourced settings, potentially widening the gap between affluent and disadvantaged early childhood services (Penn, 2011).
  • Policy implications: Some researchers suggest that Dahlberg’s rejection of universal quality standards could complicate efforts to establish and maintain baseline standards in early childhood education policy (Moss, 2016).

Addressing the Criticisms and Limitations in Practice

Despite these criticisms, Dahlberg’s work offers valuable insights for early years practice. Educators can address these limitations by:

  • Combining approaches: Integrate Dahlberg’s ideas with other theoretical perspectives and empirical research to create a more comprehensive approach to early childhood education.
  • Contextual adaptation: Adapt Dahlberg’s concepts to fit local cultural contexts and available resources. For example, the Te Whāriki curriculum in New Zealand demonstrates how similar principles can be applied in a different cultural context (Ministry of Education, 2017).
  • Balancing documentation and interaction: While embracing pedagogical documentation, ensure it doesn’t detract from direct interactions with children. Use time-efficient documentation methods, such as digital tools, to streamline the process (Knauf, 2020).
  • Critical reflection: Encourage ongoing critical reflection on the application of Dahlberg’s ideas, considering potential biases and limitations in interpretation.

By acknowledging these criticisms and adapting Dahlberg’s ideas thoughtfully, early years professionals can harness the strengths of her approach while mitigating its limitations. This balanced perspective supports a nuanced, context-sensitive application of her theories in diverse early childhood settings.

Practical Applications of Gunilla Dahlberg’s Work

Translating Dahlberg’s theories into practice enriches early years education. Her ideas inform curriculum design, classroom interactions, and family engagement. Applying these concepts promotes children’s agency, critical thinking, and collaborative learning.

Application in Curriculum and Lesson Planning

  • Project-based learning: Implement long-term projects based on children’s interests. For example, a group of children fascinated by shadows could explore light and shadow through experiments, art, and storytelling over several weeks (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005).
  • Documentation walls: Create visible learning journeys by displaying children’s work, photos, and transcripts of their discussions. This practice makes learning processes visible and encourages reflection (Rinaldi, 2006).
  • Open-ended materials: Provide a rich variety of open-ended materials like blocks, fabrics, and natural objects. These support children’s creativity and problem-solving skills, aligning with Dahlberg’s view of children as competent learners (Lenz Taguchi, 2010).
  • Co-constructed daily routines: Involve children in planning daily activities. This might include a morning meeting where children and educators discuss the day’s possibilities, fostering agency and decision-making skills.

Strategies for Classroom Management and Interaction

  • Pedagogical listening: Practice attentive listening to children’s ideas and theories. This involves not just hearing words but observing body language and considering the context of children’s expressions (Rinaldi, 2006).
  • Democratic decision-making: Implement strategies for collective problem-solving. For instance, use a ‘problem-solving tree’ where children post issues and collaboratively develop solutions (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009).
  • Reflective questioning: Use open-ended questions to extend children’s thinking. Instead of providing answers, educators can ask, “What do you think might happen if…?” or “How else could we approach this?” (Dahlberg et al., 2013).
  • Flexible spaces: Create adaptable learning environments that children can modify. For example, use moveable partitions or furniture that children can rearrange to suit their play and learning needs.

Engaging Families and Communities

  • Documentation sharing: Use digital platforms to share pedagogical documentation with families. This could involve weekly email updates with photos and narratives of children’s learning experiences (Knauf, 2020).
  • Family projects: Extend classroom projects into the home environment. For instance, if exploring ‘change over time’, families could document a plant’s growth at home, sharing observations with the class.
  • Community walks: Organise regular excursions in the local community. These walks can inspire new projects and help children connect their learning to real-world contexts (Moss, 2016).
  • Cultural storytelling: Invite family members to share stories, traditions, or skills from their cultural backgrounds. This practice values diverse perspectives and enriches the learning environment.

Overcoming Challenges and Barriers to Implementation

Implementing Dahlberg’s ideas can face obstacles such as time constraints, resource limitations, and conflicting educational priorities. Strategies to address these challenges include:

  • Gradual implementation: Start with small changes, such as introducing a daily reflection time or a single documentation wall. Gradually expand as educators become more comfortable with the approach.
  • Collaborative planning: Use team planning sessions to brainstorm creative ways of applying Dahlberg’s ideas within existing constraints. This collective approach can generate innovative solutions and shared ownership.
  • Professional development: Invest in ongoing training and peer support. For example, organise study groups where educators can discuss Dahlberg’s writings and share practical application ideas (Urban, 2008).
  • Adapt to context: Modify Dahlberg’s approaches to fit local needs and resources. For instance, if digital documentation tools are unavailable, use handwritten notes and drawings to capture learning processes.

By creatively adapting Dahlberg’s ideas, early years professionals can enrich their practice, even within challenging contexts. The key lies in maintaining a reflective stance, and continuously evaluating and adjusting approaches to best serve children’s needs and interests.

Comparing Gunilla Dahlberg’s Ideas with Other Theorists

Understanding Dahlberg’s ideas in relation to other child development theories provides a comprehensive view of early years education. This section compares Dahlberg’s work with Loris Malaguzzi, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner. Examining these comparisons deepens our understanding of child development and enriches early years practice.

Comparison with Loris Malaguzzi

Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, shares several key ideas with Dahlberg.

  • Image of the child: Both view children as competent, active learners. Malaguzzi’s concept of the “hundred languages of children” aligns with Dahlberg’s emphasis on children’s multiple ways of expressing themselves (Edwards et al., 2012).
  • Pedagogical documentation: Malaguzzi and Dahlberg both advocate for documentation as a tool for making learning visible and supporting reflection (Rinaldi, 2006).
  • Environment as teacher: While Dahlberg emphasises the importance of the learning environment, Malaguzzi takes this further, describing the environment as the “third teacher” (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007).
  • Role of the educator: Dahlberg views educators as co-constructors of knowledge, while Malaguzzi emphasises the teacher as a researcher and co-learner (Dahlberg et al., 2013).

Read our in-depth article on Loris Malaguzzi here.

Comparison with Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory shares some common ground with Dahlberg’s ideas, but also diverges in key areas.

  • Social construction of knowledge: Both theorists emphasise the role of social interaction in learning. Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” aligns with Dahlberg’s focus on collaborative learning (Hedegaard, 2012).
  • Cultural context: Vygotsky and Dahlberg both recognise the importance of cultural context in shaping development, but Dahlberg places greater emphasis on challenging cultural norms (Dahlberg et al., 2007).
  • Role of language: While Vygotsky sees language as central to cognitive development, Dahlberg focuses more on multiple modes of expression and communication (Bodrova & Leong, 2007).
  • Developmental stages: Vygotsky proposes a stage-based view of development, whereas Dahlberg critiques universal developmental norms (Smith, 2014).

Read our in-depth article on Lev Vygotsky here.

Comparison with Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner’s constructivist approach shares several points of connection with Dahlberg’s work, but also presents distinct perspectives.

  • Active learning: Both theorists emphasise children’s active role in constructing knowledge. Bruner’s concept of “discovery learning” aligns with Dahlberg’s view of children as co-constructors of knowledge (Takaya, 2008).
  • Scaffolding: While Bruner emphasises adult scaffolding of learning, Dahlberg focuses more on peer collaboration and children’s autonomy (Wood et al., 2006).
  • Cultural influence: Bruner and Dahlberg both recognise the cultural nature of education, but Dahlberg places greater emphasis on challenging dominant discourses (Dahlberg et al., 2013).
  • Narrative: Bruner emphasises the role of narrative in meaning-making, which aligns with Dahlberg’s focus on pedagogical documentation as a form of storytelling (Engel, 2005).

Synthesis and Implications for Practice

Comparing these theorists reveals common themes of active learning, social interaction, and cultural context. However, they differ in their emphasis on adult guidance, developmental norms, and challenging societal assumptions.

Early years professionals can draw on these varied perspectives to enrich their practice:

  • Combine Dahlberg’s emphasis on documentation with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to create targeted learning experiences.
  • Integrate Malaguzzi’s “hundred languages” approach with Bruner’s emphasis on narrative to support diverse forms of expression.
  • Use Dahlberg’s critique of quality measures alongside Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach to develop contextually appropriate assessment practices.

Limitations and Challenges of Comparing Theorists

Comparing theorists presents challenges:

  • Historical context: Each theorist worked in different time periods and cultural contexts, influencing their perspectives.
  • Philosophical differences: Underlying philosophical assumptions may not always be directly comparable.
  • Evolving interpretations: Theories are often reinterpreted over time, complicating comparisons.

Approaching these comparisons critically and reflectively allows early years professionals to draw meaningful insights while recognising the complexity of child development theories.

Gunilla Dahlberg’s Legacy and Ongoing Influence

Gunilla Dahlberg’s work has profoundly impacted early childhood education. Her ideas continue to shape research, policy, and practice globally. Understanding Dahlberg’s legacy is crucial for early years professionals to engage critically with contemporary approaches to child development and learning.

Impact on Contemporary Research

Dahlberg’s work has inspired diverse research streams in early childhood education:

  • Postmodern perspectives: Researchers increasingly explore postmodern approaches to early childhood, challenging universal truths and embracing multiple perspectives. For example, Olsson’s (2009) study on ‘movement of thought’ in Swedish preschools extends Dahlberg’s ideas on knowledge construction.
  • Pedagogical documentation: Dahlberg’s emphasis on documentation as a tool for reflection has sparked numerous studies. Alasuutari et al. (2014) examined how documentation practices in Finnish daycare centres influence educator-parent relationships.
  • Quality in early childhood: Dahlberg’s critique of quality measures has led to research on alternative approaches to assessing early childhood settings. Fenech (2011) explored how Australian early childhood professionals negotiate quality discourses in their daily practice.
  • Children’s agency: Studies building on Dahlberg’s view of children as competent beings have proliferated. Bae (2009) investigated how Norwegian preschool teachers’ interactions with children can support or hinder children’s expression of agency.

Influence on Educational Policy and Curriculum

Dahlberg’s ideas have significantly influenced early years policies and curricula worldwide:

  • Swedish curriculum: The Swedish preschool curriculum (Lpfö 98, revised 2010) reflects Dahlberg’s emphasis on children’s agency and the importance of democratic values in early education (Skolverket, 2010).
  • New Zealand’s Te Whāriki: This curriculum framework incorporates Dahlberg’s ideas on co-construction of knowledge and the importance of socio-cultural context in learning (Ministry of Education, 2017).
  • Australian Early Years Learning Framework: This national framework draws on Dahlberg’s concept of the image of the child as a competent learner (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009).
  • Ontario’s How Does Learning Happen?: This pedagogical document for early years settings in Ontario, Canada, incorporates Dahlberg’s ideas on pedagogical documentation and reflective practice (Ministry of Education, 2014).

Ongoing Relevance for Professional Practice

Dahlberg’s work continues to inform early years practice:

  • Reflective practice: Educators increasingly use pedagogical documentation to reflect on their practice and children’s learning. For instance, the Pen Green Centre in the UK has developed a model of reflective practice based on Dahlberg’s ideas (Whalley, 2017).
  • Project-based learning: Dahlberg’s emphasis on children as co-constructors of knowledge has supported the growth of project-based approaches. The Project Approach, developed by Katz and Chard (2000), aligns with many of Dahlberg’s principles. Read our in-depth article on Lilian Katz here.
  • Parent engagement: Dahlberg’s ideas have influenced approaches to family involvement. The Pen Green PICL (Parents Involved in Children’s Learning) framework draws on her work to promote meaningful parent-educator partnerships (Whalley, 2017).
  • Environmental design: Dahlberg’s concept of the environment as a pedagogical tool has influenced classroom design. The Reggio Emilia-inspired settings worldwide reflect this approach (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007).

Current Developments and Future Directions

While Dahlberg’s work remains influential, ongoing debates and developments continue:

  • Digital documentation: Researchers are exploring how digital technologies can enhance pedagogical documentation practices while addressing privacy concerns (Knauf, 2020).
  • Diversity and inclusion: There is growing interest in how Dahlberg’s ideas can be adapted to support diverse learners, including children with special educational needs (Urban, 2008).
  • Sustainability education: Dahlberg’s emphasis on children as active citizens is being extended to explore how early childhood education can contribute to sustainability (Ärlemalm-Hagsér & Davis, 2014).
  • Policy tensions: Researchers continue to grapple with tensions between Dahlberg’s emphasis on context-specific quality and the push for standardised quality measures in many educational systems (Moss et al., 2016).

These developments highlight the ongoing relevance of Dahlberg’s work while pointing to areas for future research and practice. Early years professionals are encouraged to engage critically with these ideas, adapting and extending them to meet the evolving needs of children, families, and communities.


Gunilla Dahlberg’s work has profoundly influenced early childhood education. Her key contributions include:

  • Image of the child: Viewing children as competent, active co-constructors of knowledge
  • Pedagogical documentation: Using documentation as a tool for reflection and meaning-making
  • Quality in early childhood: Challenging standardised notions of quality and advocating for contextual understanding
  • Postmodern perspective: Embracing multiple perspectives and challenging universal truths in early childhood education

These ideas have reshaped our understanding of child development and learning in early years settings.

Dahlberg’s theories offer practical implications for early years professionals:

  • Curriculum design: Implementing project-based learning and co-constructed curricula
  • Classroom management: Creating flexible learning environments that support children’s agency
  • Family engagement: Involving families in the documentation and interpretation of children’s learning
  • Reflective practice: Using pedagogical documentation to continuously improve teaching practices

Applying these ideas can enhance children’s learning experiences, promote their agency, and foster meaningful relationships between educators, children, and families.

Engaging critically with Dahlberg’s work is crucial for early years professionals. Her ideas serve as a starting point for reflection and innovation, not as rigid rules. Consider:

  • Contextual adaptations: Tailoring Dahlberg’s approaches to fit specific cultural and socioeconomic contexts
  • Balancing perspectives: Integrating Dahlberg’s ideas with other theoretical frameworks and empirical research
  • Ongoing learning: Staying informed about current debates and research in early childhood education

Early years professionals are encouraged to:

  • Experiment: Try implementing Dahlberg’s ideas in your setting, starting with small, manageable changes
  • Reflect: Use pedagogical documentation to critically examine your practice and children’s learning
  • Collaborate: Share experiences and insights with colleagues to collectively refine and extend Dahlberg’s approaches
  • Contribute: Engage in action research or share case studies to add to the body of knowledge in early childhood education

Dahlberg’s work continues to inspire and guide early years practice. By engaging thoughtfully with her ideas, early years professionals can contribute to the ongoing development of high-quality, responsive early childhood education that values children’s competence and supports their holistic development.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Does Dahlberg’s Approach Differ from Traditional Early Childhood Education?

Dahlberg’s approach differs from traditional methods in several key ways:

  • Image of the child: Dahlberg views children as competent co-constructors of knowledge, not passive recipients of information.
  • Quality assessment: She challenges standardised quality measures, advocating for contextual understanding instead.
  • Documentation: Dahlberg emphasises pedagogical documentation as a tool for reflection and meaning-making, not just record-keeping.
  • Environment: Learning environments are seen as flexible spaces that children can modify, rather than fixed, adult-designed areas.

These differences encourage a more collaborative, reflective approach to early childhood education (Dahlberg et al., 2013).

How Can I Implement Pedagogical Documentation in a Busy Classroom?

Implementing pedagogical documentation in a busy classroom involves:

  1. Start small: Begin with documenting one child or one project per week.
  2. Use technology: Utilise tablets or smartphones for quick photo and video capture.
  3. Involve children: Encourage children to document their own learning through drawings or dictated stories.
  4. Set aside reflection time: Dedicate short periods daily or weekly for reviewing and discussing documentation.
  5. Display creatively: Use digital frames or projectors to display documentation without taking up physical space.

Remember, the goal is meaningful reflection, not perfect record-keeping (Knauf, 2020).

What Are the Criticisms of Dahlberg’s Approach?

Common criticisms of Dahlberg’s approach include:

  • Complexity: Some argue that her ideas are too abstract for practical implementation.
  • Resource intensity: Pedagogical documentation can be time-consuming and resource-heavy.
  • Cultural bias: Critics suggest her approach may be less applicable in non-Western contexts.
  • Lack of empirical evidence: Some argue for more quantitative research to support her theories.

Despite these criticisms, many educators find value in adapting Dahlberg’s ideas to their specific contexts (Fenech, 2011).

How Does Dahlberg’s Work Relate to Play-Based Learning?

Dahlberg’s work aligns with play-based learning in several ways:

  • Child agency: Both emphasise children’s ability to direct their own learning.
  • Open-ended materials: Dahlberg’s approach, like play-based learning, values open-ended resources that support creativity.
  • Process over product: Both prioritise the learning process over predetermined outcomes.
  • Adult role: Educators are seen as facilitators rather than directors of learning.

Dahlberg’s ideas can enrich play-based approaches by adding a layer of reflection and documentation to play experiences (Lenz Taguchi, 2010).

How Can Dahlberg’s Ideas Support Inclusion in Early Years Settings?

Dahlberg’s approach supports inclusion by:

  • Valuing diversity: Her emphasis on multiple perspectives promotes respect for diverse abilities and backgrounds.
  • Flexible environments: The concept of adaptable learning spaces supports children with different needs.
  • Individual documentation: Pedagogical documentation allows for tracking individual progress without standardised assessments.
  • Collaborative learning: Her focus on co-construction of knowledge encourages peer support and interaction.

These principles can help create more inclusive early years environments that celebrate each child’s unique strengths and learning journey (Urban, 2008).

How Does Dahlberg’s Work Address Technology in Early Childhood Education?

While Dahlberg developed her theories before the widespread use of digital technology in education, her ideas can be applied to technology use:

  • Critical reflection: Dahlberg’s emphasis on reflection can guide thoughtful integration of technology.
  • Documentation tools: Digital tools can enhance pedagogical documentation practices.
  • Multiple modes of expression: Technology can offer new ‘languages’ for children to express their ideas.
  • Co-construction of knowledge: Digital platforms can support collaborative learning projects.

Educators can use Dahlberg’s principles to ensure technology use aligns with child-centred, reflective practices (Knauf, 2020).


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  • Dahlberg, G., & Moss, P. (2005). Ethics and politics in early childhood education. Routledge.
  • Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. Falmer Press.
  • Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Languages of evaluation (2nd ed.). Routledge.
  • Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2013). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Languages of evaluation (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia.
  • Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (2012). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation (3rd ed.). Praeger.
  • Elfström Pettersson, K. (2015). Children’s participation in preschool documentation practices. Childhood, 22(2), 231-247.
  • Engel, S. (2005). Real kids: Creating meaning in everyday life. Harvard University Press.
  • Fenech, M. (2011). An analysis of the conceptualisation of ‘quality’ in early childhood education and care empirical research: Promoting ‘blind spots’ as foci for future research. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 12(2), 102-117.
  • Hedegaard, M. (2012). Analyzing children’s learning and development in everyday settings from a cultural-historical wholeness approach. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(2), 127-138.
  • Hedges, H. (2014). Young children’s ‘working theories’: Building and connecting understandings. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 12(1), 35-49.
  • Henderson, K., & Tilbury, D. (2004). Whole-school approaches to sustainability: An international review of sustainable school programs. Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability.
  • Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (2000). Engaging children’s minds: The project approach (2nd ed.). Ablex.
  • Knauf, H. (2020). Documentation strategies: Pedagogical documentation from the perspective of early childhood teachers in New Zealand and Germany. Early Childhood Education Journal, 48(1), 11-19.
  • Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy. Routledge.
  • Lundy, L., & McEvoy, L. (2012). Children’s rights and research processes: Assisting children to (in)formed views. Childhood, 19(1), 129-144.
  • MacNaughton, G., & Williams, G. (2009). Techniques for teaching young children: Choices for theory and practice (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.
  • Ministry of Education. (2014). How does learning happen? Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
  • Ministry of Education. (2017). Te whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum. Ministry of Education.
  • Moss, P. (2016). Why can’t we get beyond quality? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17(1), 8-15.
  • Moss, P., Dahlberg, G., & Pence, A. (2016). The challenge of sustainability. In M. Vandenbroeck, M. Urban, & J. Peeters (Eds.), Pathways to professionalism in early childhood education and care (pp. 101-111). Routledge.
  • Nsamenang, A. B. (2008). (Mis)understanding ECD in Africa: The force of local and global motives. In M. Garcia, A. Pence, & J. L. Evans (Eds.), Africa’s future, Africa’s challenge: Early childhood care and development in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 135-149). The World Bank.
  • Olsson, L. M. (2009). Movement and experimentation in young children’s learning: Deleuze and Guattari in early childhood education. Routledge.
  • Penn, H. (2011). Quality in early childhood services: An international perspective. Open University Press.
  • Rinaldi, C. (2006). In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching and learning. Routledge.
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  • Whalley, M. (2017). Involving parents in their children’s learning: A knowledge-sharing approach (3rd ed.). SAGE.
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Further Reading and Research

  • Dahlberg, G. (2016). An ethico-aesthetic paradigm as an alternative discourse to the quality assurance discourse. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17(1), 124-133.
  • Elfström Pettersson, K. (2017). Children’s participation in preschool documentation practices. Childhood, 24(1), 98-112.
  • Moss, P. (2018). Alternative narratives in early childhood: An introduction for students and practitioners. Routledge.
  • Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., Nxumalo, F., Kocher, L., Elliot, E., & Sanchez, A. (2015). Journeys: Reconceptualizing early childhood practices through pedagogical narration. University of Toronto Press.
  • Urban, M. (2018). (D)evaluation of early childhood education and care? A critique of the OECD’s International Early Learning Study. In M. Matthes, L. Pulkkinen, C. Clouder, & B. Heys (Eds.), Improving the quality of childhood in Europe (Vol. 7, pp. 91-99). Alliance for Childhood European Network Foundation.
  • Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2013). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Languages of evaluation (3rd ed.). Routledge.
    • This seminal work outlines Dahlberg’s critique of quality discourse and her alternative approach to early childhood education.
  • Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy. Routledge.
    • Builds on Dahlberg’s work, offering practical strategies for implementing postmodern approaches in early childhood settings.
  • Rinaldi, C. (2006). In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching and learning. Routledge.
    • Provides insights into the Reggio Emilia approach, which shares many principles with Dahlberg’s work.
  • Moss, P. (2019). Alternative narratives in early childhood: An introduction for students and practitioners. Routledge.
    • Offers a comprehensive overview of alternative approaches to early childhood education, including Dahlberg’s contributions.
  • MacNaughton, G. (2005). Doing Foucault in early childhood studies: Applying poststructural ideas. Routledge.
    • Explores the application of poststructural ideas, which influenced Dahlberg’s work, in early childhood education.
  • Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education (RECE):
    • Provides resources and conference information related to alternative approaches in early childhood education, including Dahlberg’s work.
  • Nest Global, Formerly The Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles:
    • Offers workshops and resources inspired by Reggio Emilia and postmodern approaches to early childhood education.
  • Project Zero – Harvard Graduate School of Education:
    • Features research and resources on innovative approaches to learning, including documentation practices similar to those advocated by Dahlberg.
  • Early Childhood Australia:
    • Provides access to research, professional development, and resources that often incorporate postmodern perspectives on early childhood education.
  • European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA):
    • Offers access to research, conferences, and publications related to early childhood education, including work influenced by Dahlberg’s ideas.

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Kathy Brodie

Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional, Trainer and Author of multiple books on Early Years Education and Child Development. She is the founder of Early Years TV and the Early Years Summit.

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