Child Development Meets Montessori

Urie Bronfenbrenner and Abraham Maslow

By Joanna Ainsworth

Ecological Systems Theory, Bioecological Systems Theory and the Hierarchy of Needs

I struggled for some time with this topic before starting to write, digging fretfully around the edges. I had hoped to unpack, unpick, and unravel, but, instead, I was met with an impenetrable wall. We know Maslow, we know Bronfenbrenner, and what is more, we know exactly how these giant theories continue to be relevant today and that we can always rely on them to underpin and guide our early years practice today in the 21st Century. Very early on I realised that the problem with my problem of engagement was deeply entangled with this sense of knowing; with over-familiarity. There is a snappy nonchalance about citing Bronfenbrenner’s ‘Ecological (and Bioecological) Systems Theory’ and Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. Over the decades we have fashioned these two theories into a super snug fit with key elements of our practice; they have become an embedded refrain, integral to our daily chatter. How then could I provoke, challenge and, in true Musings style, disrupt a little? How could I make the familiar strange?

Towards the end of the summer, I began to talk and exchange emails with Barbara, and to read, and, bit by bit the beginnings of ‘de-familiarisings’ I sought began to show themselves. These, still a little blurry around the edges, and rather more a stream of consciousness than a harmonious flow of words I’m afraid, are stuck with and presented below in the somewhat unconventional form of a mind-map of kinds.

I apologise for flitting in and out between the two theorists – they merged it’s as simple as that – this was just how it happened.

And I apologise for the limited time/space allocated to offering anything other than very basic tenets of either of the theories. For those who wish to explore further, an excellent starting point for both can be found by exploring Nursery World’s resources where, to date, there are 19 articles discussing Bronfenbrenner and 12 articles discussing Maslow.

Both Maslow and Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical models have been subject to multiple modifications over time. As far as I am aware, whilst Bronfenbrenner’s terminology and order have largely remained the same with additions, Maslow’s Hierarchy has been subject to some major re-shuffling and his terminology challenged. Interestingly though, Maslow never actually saw his Hierarchy as being fixed but as fluid (Maslow, 1943).

I have chosen two different takes on Bronfenbrenner and Maslow to illustrate here. The adaption of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory (on the left) is one of my favourites and is a collaboration of a UK artist named Ind, on a research paper on anti-racist perspectives in attachment theory (Stern, Barbarin, & Cassidy, 2021).

The modification of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrated here on the right is by Reading University (undated). Its focus on the child is something Maslow, unlike Bronfenbrenner, did not set out to do. The hierarchical order remains unchanged here but a study by Goebel and Brown (1981) exploring the shifting of the hierarchical order according to different age groups found that children (aged 9 plus) were shown to have higher physical needs, basically inversing the order. 


In 1943 Maslow first introduced his ‘Hierarchy of Needs Theory’ in a paper entitled, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, describing self-actualisation, the pinnacle of motivation, as, ‘…the tendency to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming’ (Maslow, 1943:19). Almost twenty years later, in the preface to ‘Towards a Psychology of Being’ (Maslow, 1962), Maslow wrote of the care he had initially taken over choosing this term and his subsequent frustration at how it had been misinterpreted as, ‘selfishness rather than altruism’, as neglectful of, ‘the ties to other people and to society’ and of the ‘habit of identifying ‘self’ with ‘selfish’ and with pure autonomy’ (Maslow, 1963, unpaginated).

Kaufman (2018) asks, ‘What Does It Mean to Be Self-Actualised in the 21st Century?’ and reminds us that the terminology contained within the overarching simplicity of Maslow’s hierarchy was never intended as invoking any of these things but saw self-actualisation as being, ‘motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life’ (Kaufman, 2018: unpaginated).

Maslow’s theory was not developed with the child in mind and yet we continue to apply Maslow’s hierarchy to the child; as the University of Reading states, ‘…all child developmental needs are encompassed in Maslow’s theory – physical development, emotional development, social development, cognitive and language development and aesthetic development’ (FutureLearn, University of Reading, undated).

Bronfenbrenner’s similarly elegant model of apparent overarching interlinking concentric simplicity, unlike that of Maslow, places the developing child at the very centre. More explicity than Maslow, Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory looks at the ‘ecological’, ‘…the relationships between living things and their environment’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022). Bronfenbrenner has been credited with uniting the disciplines with, ‘…before Bronfenbrenner, child psychologists studied the child, sociologists examined the family, anthropologists the society, economists the economic framework of the times and political scientists the structure’ (Lang, 2005).

In 2006 Bronfenbrenner published a revision of his original Ecological Systems Theory, renamed the Bioecological Systems theory. In his ‘mature’ form of the theory (Tudge et al. 2009) the nested systems remain but the revised model foregrounds ‘processes’ through the myriad of increasingly complex reciprocal connections over time and space: the agentic nature of the developing child.   

Just as through misinterpretation of Maslow’s ‘self’, the original nuance of ecological meaning is lost, a tendency to focus on Bronfenbrenner’s environmental context misses the ‘processes’ or the, ‘individuals’ roles in changing their context’ (Tudge et al., 2009).

If we were to look beyond the overarching simplicity of both Maslow and Bronfenbrenner’s initial theoretical models (and this perhaps paradoxically I believe is in part what has contributed to their very longevity) and more closely perhaps at how the theorists’ post conception amendments /evolutions (whether through prefaces to books or publication of new theoretical papers) evolved, then we might better understand within them the nuance of ‘ecologies’, connections and relating’s, and conveyances of ‘inter’ as opposed to ‘in’ dependence.

In early September Barbara shared this with me:

‘Babies are born with the pure knowledge that their only purpose is connection. In the womb they are physically and literally connected to the entire universe. They are born sucking. They crave touch. They cry out and expect connection in return. . . Our curse is that we learn disconnection. The myth that we ae separate is the foundational human myth and the only stories worth telling are the ones about reconnection’.

(Teacher Tom, September 2022)

Let’s focus our attentions on telling the stories of reconnection.


I proposed to Barbara that I wished to pull a 21st Century understanding of ‘ecology’ into the piece: her reply was,

Yes, I agree that ecology is also part of this conversation, and it should include not only the basic foundations for life such as clean water and sufficient food but also human connection which expresses the love essential for our healthy survival.

So there is a powerful connection with human and children’s rights and climate change and the sustainable goals.  Effectively all is interconnected and none of the developmental theories can be considered in isolation away from the concerns of today.

(Isaacs. B, personal communication, September 19, 2022)

I wonder about how the word ‘Ecology’ relates to both theories and what it meant to Bronfenbrenner in 1979, in 2006, and to Maslow in 1943, 1962, (and all the bits in between), and about what it means to us today in 2022. Today our semantic understanding of ecology has changed and perhaps has become more like this:

The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement

(OED, Oxford English Dictionary, 2022).

At the heart of this definition, I glean concern, and care. As I drove to work this morning, a radio documentary about the Ukraine was interviewing a woman and her children queuing along with hundreds of others for a single loaf of bread. Her lived trauma is heartbreaking.

Has there ever been a more crucial time than now to think about love, care, relationships? To stay with Maslow and Bronfenbrenner, use by all means their superbly accessible models as frameworks of enquiry, but to dig deeper into the ethics of care and into interconnectivity and re-kindling reciprocal relationships

Staying Power

With the passing of time there is an inevitability that nuance is lost, contextual detail left behind, and or inextricably different, lost. These theoretical models have stood the test of time partly due to the pared back simplicity of presentation and dissemination of infinitely complex ecologies. In ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ (1943) for instance, Maslow describes what he calls, ‘preconditions for the basic need satisfactions’. Reading rather like the ground rules in a Montessori classroom, these are fabulous but seem to have been distilled out of what remains today. The list: ‘Freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one’s self, freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one’s self, justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness in the group’ (Maslow, 1943: unpaginated). Where are these today? So deeply pertinent to our practice today, could these freedoms be built in more comprehensively, explicitly to the model’s structural framework: into a rights respecting framework?

It has certainly been a challenge in this space to write of such big things in a small way. One (Maslow) is a theory of motivation, and the other, Bronfenbrenner’s, a developmental framework. Both are just ‘ways of seeing’, ways of standing back and framing lived realities in ways that simplify in a systematic way so as to enable deeper exploration. I do worry that the overarching simplicity of these frameworks (perhaps paradoxically one of the driving factors of their longevity) and fabulous overarching capacity to systematise vast complexities of ecologies risks distorting our perceptions.

Might ease of access and applicability and subsequent over-reliance on these frameworks, risk loss of nuance and misinterpretation of original intended constructions of self, agency, and interdependence?

Could thought familiarity with these frameworks risk rendering us complacent, and disenable our desire to engage with more current research?

Final thoughts…

Where is the child’s voice?

And are inclusivity, diversity adequately and explicitly included in the models?


Goebel, B. L.; Brown, D. R. (1981). “Age differences in motivation related to Maslow’s need hierarchy”. Developmental Psychology. 17 (6): 809–815. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.17.6.809.

Kaufman, S, B. (2018) What Does It Mean to Be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century? New research links self-actualization to optimal creativity, well-being and self-transcendence, November 7, 2018. (date accessed 18 September 2022)

Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the Pyramid of Needs: Contemporary Extensions Built Upon Ancient Foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science5(3), 292–314.

Lang, S. (2005) Urie Bronfenbrenner, father of Head Start program and pre-eminent ‘human ecologist,’ dies at age 88’ September 26, 2005. (Accessed: 10 October 2022)

Maslow, A. 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50(4): 370–96.

Montessori, M. Spontaneous Activity in Education (Release Date: March 2, 2008 [EBook #24727]

Paat, Y. F. (2013). Working with immigrant children and their families: An application of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theoryJournal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954-966.

Tudge et al. ,  (2009) Uses and Misuses of Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory of Human Development, Journal of Family theory and Review, 1:4:198-210

Teacher Tom, These Are The Heroic Stories Of Us. Monday, September 12, 2022. (Accessed September 12 2022).

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