Children are now growing up in a world that is globally interconnected and increasingly shaped by technology and social media.  This increase in digital technology and social media means that the social nature of learning for many children is now very different to how it was in previous decades. One theory that helps us understand and explain how this increasingly complicated world impacts on children’s learning and their development is the Ecological Systems Model, now known as the Bioecological Model offered by Uri Bronfenbrenner.

Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) was born in Moscow in 1917 and at six years of age moved to the USA with his family where he later became a co-founder of the hugely important Head Start programme in the USA, which sought to support disadvantaged pre-school children.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory has placed a much greater emphasis on how wider economic, political and cultural factors impact upon children’s learning and their development. Here, we might reflect on how different governments in the UK have influenced and shaped the direction of schools and early years provision. Bronfenbrenner also emphasised how the unique biology of each child not only plays a significant part in their development but importantly, on their learning. His ideas can perhaps be best understood as the relationship between each child’s unique biology and the environments in which they grow up. An example would be where brothers and sisters born into the same family, who attend the same playgroup and same school and who have the same wider family networks will experience all of these in different ways.

Bronfenbrenner suggested that children’s development and learning can be understood and explained by thinking in terms of a number of the layers that encompass children as they grow and develop, with the closest layer to the child being the Microsystem (Figure 1) – these are often thought of as being like a Russian Doll.

Figure 1 Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of individual development

Microsystem: This refers to a child’s immediate environment, for example, their family, playgroup, neighbourhood, and peer group.

Meosystem: This refers to the connections children make between their immediate environments, for example, their home and their playgroup.

Exosystem: This refers to the external settings in the child’s environment that impact indirectly on their development, for example, their father and mother’s workplaces.

Macrosystem: This refers to the child’s wider cultural context, for example, the economy and changes in government.

Chronosystem: The patterns of events and transitions in the child’s life.

The Microsystem refers to those most immediate contacts in the child’s life. Examples would be the child’s family, their nursery or playgroup, their neighbours and their local community. Bronfenbrenner stressed how a two-way process or what he referred to as ‘bi-directional influences’ within the Microsystem can have quite powerful influences on young children (see example). What he is suggesting here is that whilst young children are influenced by the actions of others they also, in turn, directly and indirectly influence the actions of others with whom they come into contact with.

Example: Bi-directional influences

An infant is lying in her pram and for no obvious reason makes a loud and delightful cooing noise. Her mother, who is in the next room, hears the noise and runs in and picks her infant up in her arms; the infant then receives lots of hugs and attention from her mother. Whilst the infant-initiated this interaction by making the noise, it is the mother who has responded. In this way, the infant has influenced and directed her mother’s behaviour.

Bronfenbrenner would interpret this pattern of behaviour between the infant and her mother as being bi-directional. Such bi-directional influences, he believed, are very strong and can set up patterns of behaviours in adults as well as children.

The Meosystem relates, for example, to those connections that are formed between parents and staff in their child’s nursery. Parents will often talk with staff about things such as their child’s sleeping patterns and what they like doing at home. Likewise, staff will share with parents examples of activities where their child has gained success and so on. Children also start to make simple comparisons between the experiences they have in their nursery and those they have at home. They also begin to make comparisons between the friends they are making at nursery and friends in their own local community, as well as their siblings. The Exosystem is to do with those wider social systems in which children grow up, for example, the commitments their parents have to their jobs and their parents’ level of income, all of which will have a direct and/or indirect impact on children. An example is where recent increases in early years provision brought about by successive governments over the last decades have given parents much greater choice. The Macrosystem refers to the child’s wider cultural context, for example, the economy and changes in government, children’s cultures and the values of the communities and wider society in which they live, the legal structures that have been put in place by successive governments and so on. Here, one can think of how austerity over the past ten or so years have influenced the lives of many children who have found themselves living in families with much lower incomes than previously and the impact this might have had on their lives. Bronfenbrenner identified a further layer, the Chronosystem in which he attempted to explain how time relates to the environments in which children grow and develop.


Bronfenbrenner’s theory has much to offer early years practitioners; it provides a much wider focus on those vast and often unseen environmental influences that impact indirectly on the lives of children. Though Bronfenbrenner’s theory has been criticised on the grounds that it does not pay sufficient attention to the individual development of children it, nevertheless, offers a very useful means of thinking about how wider and often unseen aspects of society in which children grow up impact on their development and learning.

For further information on how an understanding of Bronfenbrenner’s ideas and those of other theorists can support practice in the early years, see the following link to my latest book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage:  https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/learning-theories-for-early-years-practice/book259408


About the author

Sean MacBlain

Dr Sean MacBlain is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at Masters and Doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.

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