Teaching Theory Doesn’t Need to Be Dreary!

In my past experiences as both a student and a teacher, I have found that learning and teaching about various developmental theories can be very abstract and challenging!  In the field of education, there are so many important theorists, theories, definitions, concepts and ideas that it can be hard to keep them all straight!  It can be even harder to fully understand the relevance of these theories in regards to early childhood education and child development.

After many years of elementary school teaching and through my time teaching in higher education, I finally feel like I have a handle on the many important ideas and concepts presented by theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, Maslow, etc.  I wish, however, that as a college student many years ago, I could have received the information in a more clear and meaningful way. As a current professor of early childhood education students, I feel compelled to try and present these theories to my students in a way that is not so abstract but instead relevant and practical.

The idea of using children’s literature to help teach about developmental theories came to me from an article I read several years ago.  The article, “Piaget Meet Lilly: Understanding Child Development through Picture Book Characters” by Cory Cooper Hansen and Debby Zambo (2005), discusses how the authors have used children’s literature to help their students make connections between theory and practice in early childhood education.  After reading their article, a lightbulb went off in my head.  There are so many children’s book characters that exhibit traits like Piaget’s preoperational intelligence or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  I took some time and thought about stories I have read over the years and used some of the suggestions in the article to create a list of books that can help illustrate various developmental theories.  I had small groups of students work together to first read each children’s book and then decide which theorists’ ideas were represented in the book or in specific book characters.  I was very pleased with how my students seemed to not only enjoy reading the children’s books, but how each group of students had a different take on the theories that were illustrated in each book.  Most groups agreed on the big ideas, but also had some varying viewpoints that helped us all to think more deeply about each book.  I think that we all learned from listening to the different perspectives that each group brought to the discussion.

Based on my experiences teaching students from kindergarten to college, this is just one example of how children’s books can be an asset in classrooms of any age; and now I know that teaching and learning theory can be engaging and fun!

The list below shows some of the book titles I have used to teach about different stages and concepts relating to child development theories.


Image by ww.HarperCollins.com

  • Fancy Nancy and the Late, Late, Late Night by Jane O’Connor:   This story illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The main character, Nancy, stays up way past her bedtime on a school night despite her parent’s attempts to get her to bed on time.  The next day at school, she is too tired to jump rope with her friends and also misses three words on her spelling test because she is too tired to think properly.  This shows how a child who does not get her basic needs met may be unable to function optimally academically, physically or socially.
  • Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni: This book works well to show Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation. Fish believes that all other animals must be a fish just like him, since in his life all he sees are fish. However, after meeting and interacting with a frog, Fish learns that all animals are indeed different. With his new knowledge, Fish is able to modify his old ways of thinking based on new information.
  • Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes: This book’s main character Lilly exhibits many traits of typical preoperational thinking. She is very egocentric and makes it clear that she does not yet understand the concept of conservation at this stage of her life.
  • Froggy Learns to Swim by Jonathan London: This book can illustrate Erikson’s third stage of development, Initiative vs. Guilt as well as Vygotsky’s ideas of scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development. Froggy is scared to try to swim, but because he is a frog, it is something he needs to do. His parents offer helpful advice about swimming to Froggy and never make him feel ashamed of his fear. Eventually with his mom’s support he learns to swim and then he doesn’t want to stop.


Hansen, C. C., & Zambo, D. (2005). Piaget, Meet Lilly: Understanding Child Development through Picture Book Characters. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(1), 39-45.

Children’s Books Cited:

Henkes, K. (1996). Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. New York: Greenwillow.

Leoni, L. (1970). Fish is Fish. New York: Scholastic.

London, J. (1995). Froggy Learns to Swim. New York: Scholastic.

O’Connor, J. (2010). Fancy Nancy and the Late, Late, Late Night. New York: Harper Collins.

amygarstThis post was brought to you by Amy Garst.  Amy was born and raised in Winchester, Virginia and completed both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.  She has over ten years of early childhood and elementary teaching experiences working with children from infancy to 2nd grade.  More recently, Amy taught Child Growth and Development at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Currently, Amy is an Instructional Assistant Professor and Clinical Supervisor in the Early Childhood Education Program at Illinois State University.

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