In addition to person characteristics, proximal processes are also affected by the context of the developing individual. The importance of context was a constant throughout the evolution of Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human development. Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006) reiterated the 1979 metaphor that “the ecological environment is conceived of as a set of nested structures, each inside the other like a set of Russian dolls” (p. 814). However, the bioecological theory and PPCT model assert that context is only one of the factors that impact proximal processes, the “engines of development” (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000, p. 118). All proximal processes take place in the microsystem, but are also impacted by “forces emanating from multiple settings and from the relations among these settings” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006, p. 816). We will now examine these settings and their importance to early childhood education, beginning with the most proximal - the microsystem.


Bronfenbrenner (1994) defined the microsystem as “a pattern of activities, social roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given face-to-face setting with particular physical, social, and symbolic features ... in the immediate environment” (p. 1645). Young children engage in proximal processes in many settings (e.g., home, school, park, grandparents' home), but we will focus on two key microsystems relevant to this chapter: the home and early education centers.

Bronfenbrenner recommended that the physical environment should engage the developing child in activities than can be repeated with increasing difficulty, while at the same time minimizing distractions that undermine development (Bronfenbrenner, 1971). Further, Bronfenbrenner and Moms (2006) hypothesized: “Not only do developmentally generative features of the surroundings have greater impact in stable settings, but they also buffer against the disruptive influences of disorganizing environments” (p. 815). Several early childhood pedagogies place great importance on the physical environment, including the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approaches. Early childhood educators can envisage materials and activities to encourage proximal processes by perceiving the classroom from the eyes of their students

(Hayes et al., 2017). For example, what proximal processes might a child engage in while sitting at a desk and answering questions when called upon? What about a classroom with a multitude of developmentally appropriate materials from which the child can freely choose and discuss in small groups with their peers? Further, imagine a loud and hectic classroom without a predictable routine. What proximal processes might occur in this type of environment as opposed to “a context that is patterned, stable, and familiar” (Bronfenbrenner, 1971, p. 89)?

In addition to taking this child-centered approach to creating and organizing microsystems (including classrooms and outdoor play spaces), early childhood teachers should also incorporate their knowledge of child development to ensure proximal processes are encouraged for all students, regardless of ability. As all children develop at different paces, teachers should differentiate materials, activities, and interactions based on the skills and needs of the individual child, not the class as a whole (Bronfenbrenner, 1971).


Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006) defined a mesosystem as the “relationships existing between two or more settings; in short, it is a system of two or more microsystems” (p. 817). The mesosystem is an important component of context in the lives of young children because it allows for an analysis of the transitions between microsystems (e.g., drop-off and pick-up from school, moving from outdoor recess to indoor activities, the move from preschool to elementary school). The linkages (i.e., mesosystems) between home and school are of particular importance in early childhood education. Bronfenbrenner (1971) wrote extensively about the need for strong relations and communication between these two microsystems: “It is only by working jointly with the child and his parents that a day care program can achieve its objective of creating an environment that pennits the realization of human potential” (p. 88, italics in the original).

To reduce stress related to the transition between home and school, Bronfenbrenner recommended that early care educators engage in positive proximal processes with both parent and child:

It is the responsibility of the staff to assist the parents in this process by preparing them in advance, encouraging an appropriately paced withdrawal, and providing the necessary attention once the parents have left to enable the child to feel secure in the new setting.

(Bronfenbrenner, 1971, p. 89)

Further, he recommended that schools proactively encourage parental participation and engagement with their children, both at school and home: “an effective day care program must create every possible opportunity for enhancing the amount and, especially, the quality of family interaction with children both in the day care setting and in the home” (Bronfenbrenner, 1971, p. 91).

In addition to supporting transitions between these two microsystems, early childhood administrators and educators must be cognizant of cultural and linguistic diversity within the families they serve. Bronfenbrenner (1971) wrote: “So that both parents and children can feel a sense of identity ... settings should not be cast in a single mold but reflect the particular characteristics of different regions and styles of life” (p. 93). Educators should be especially proactive in partnering with culturally and linguistically diverse families to ensure that relations between the home and the school are positive, thus promoting productive proximal processes in both settings (Hayes et al., 2017).

Mesosystem analysis can also be insightful in understanding why a child may be engaging in positive proximal processes in one setting but not another. One can imagine, for example, homes in which children may be encouraged to engage with their parents in relatively egalitarian ways but come to a school in which the teacher defines herself as the clear authority figure. By contrast, parents might insist on obedience to their rules at home but children might be in a school setting in which children are given some freedom to choose which of the available activities they want to engage in.


Exosystems have an indirect influence on the proximal processes of a developing child. They are activities and interactions taking place in microsystems in which the developing child is not engaged, but yet still influence the proximal processes of the child (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). For example, an educator’s chaotic home life may reduce the quality of interactions he is able to engage in with his students, or the decisions about funding made at school board meetings may restrict the range and qualities of materials a student can engage with.

Bronfenbrenner (1971) recommended that administrators (operating in an exosystem of the developing child) should take special care in the hiring of qualified early childhood educators, as they are largely responsible for promoting productive proximal processes. He believed that such individuals could “create an atmosphere that is open and interesting, well-organized without being rigid — one in which people, adults and children, can enjoy and trust each other” (Bronfenbrenner, 1971, p. 92).


Like exosystems, the influence of macrosystems is indirect, but they operate at a societal, cultural, or sub-cultural level. Bronfenbrenner (1989b) conceived of the macrosystem as a group of people who share the same culture or sub-culture — whose shared values, beliefs, practices, resources, and sense of identity unite them into a specific group (Bronfenbrenner, 1989a; Tudge, 2008). These cultural elements indirectly influence the microsystems of developing children, thus impacting their proximal processes. Bronfenbrenner (1989a) wrote: “It is from this repertoire [of culture-wide values and beliefs] that parents, teachers, and other agents of socialization draw when they, consciously or unconsciously, define the goals, risks, and ways of raising the next generation” (p. 228). For example, the child-rearing values of a particular culture may impact how parents socialize, discipline, and raise their children. In the United States, middle-class parents and working-class parents place different value on independence; middle-class parents allow their children to make more decisions on their own, while working-class parents tend to want their children to follow rules (Tudge et al., 2017). Early childhood educators should be alert to and cognizant of the varying cultures they serve.

In addition, the macrosystem also encompasses resources in the community (e.g., funding for early childhood programs, safety, access to healthy food and clean drinking water, transportation, etc.). An early education center in an affluent area may have the resources to build a space especially designed for young children, to hire qualified teachers, and to have smaller classes. In this instance, the resources of the macrosystem indirectly influence the proximal processes children engage in with other people, objects, and symbols.


Time is the fourth component of the PPCT model and is subdivided into three different dimensions of time: microtime, mesotime, and macrotime (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Microtime refers to the time passing while proximal processes are taking place. For example, the time during which a young child engages with pouring water back and forth between pitchers. As Hayes et al. (2017) aptly described: “The term microtime evokes this sense of attending to what is happening in the moment - the child’s ‘now’ activities - rather than focusing on the outcome” (p. 107). For early childhood teachers, being cognizant of microtime allows a concentrated child to actively and purposefully engage with his or her environment without interruption, ultimately encouraging him or her to participate in proximal processes. Mesotime refers to the repetition of interactions and activities and is one of the defining properties of proximal processes: “the interaction must occur on a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time” (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). Macrotime refers to the historical time period in which the developing individual lives. Cultural beliefs, values, morals, and practices are dynamic across time and generations, even within the same population. For example, in the early part of the twentieth century most care for young children was provided by family members in the home. Post World War II, changing family systems created the need for more widespread early childhood education.

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