Recent research in psychology, sociology, health and education has seen a move away from the traditional approach to studying children in isolation from the complex contexts in which they develop. Increasingly, attention is being given to understanding childhood and children in a wider socio-cultural context where children themselves are seen as active participants in the wider ecology of life

The recognition of children as active participants in their own development has heightened awareness to including children in the research process and giving them a voice in matters effecting them – something committed to the National Policy Framework for children and young people: Better Outcomes – Brighter Futures (2014) in the Republic of Ireland and Our Children and Young People – Our Pledge (2006) in Northern Ireland.

Early childhood is an under-researched area in Ireland when compared to other periods of childhood.

It is more complex to research young children, to gain understandings of their experiences and to give them voice. Gaining access, consent and ethical approval can prove challenging. Nonetheless given the extensive policy attention that early childhood is receiving (DCYA, 2013; Ireland, 2015), the investment in social inclusion initiatives including early childhood education initiatives and the rapidly changing worlds within which young children are growing and developing it seemed appropriate to produce a special issue of the Research Digest on early childhood research in Ireland.

The response to our call for papers on researching early childhood was diverse, coming from academics, practitioners and post graduate students. Collectively the articles and summaries provide a valuable insight into the field of early childhood research. Touching on a topic of current political interest the first article Catriona O’Toole and Delma Byrne considers the experiences of Irish families as they navigate the early years sector in exploring options for childcare. With high costs and a lack of a cohesive and integrated system, this poses a range of constraints for families who often make decisions with limited support. Mimi Tatlow-Golden and her colleagues present the results of research on parents’ views and attitudes towards food marketing towards young children. Whilst most parents held negative attitudes towards such marketing, few believed that it had a strong influence on their own child’s eating. The authors make recommendations for how their research can inform public education and early years practice on the topic of food and advertising. David King’s article raises the important and under-researched issue of parental attitudes towards men working as early childhood educators. His research suggests that despite some discomfort among a minority, the majority of parents showed acceptance and openness towards men working with their children.

The next group of articles fall within the realm of education and the role of quality in early childhood education and care [ECEC] services. The historic development of early education and early primary within different spheres and the persistent division between care and education comes to the fore within these articles. Jenny Bernard provides a critical assessment of government investment in supporting quality ECEC in Ireland. She argues that provision of high quality ECEC is hampered by a range of barriers, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Mary Moloney explicitly considers the divide in the ECEC sector in Ireland in her article. She argues that recent developments within the Free Pre-School Year Scheme sustain this distinction and she advocates for greater interdepartmental collaboration to address the care and education needs of all children. Following on from this, Emer Ring assesses the role and potential of the recently established early years education-focused inspections. She concludes that such inspections offer an opportunity to affirm positive high quality practice, but highlights the need for dialogue and collaboration with the early years sector.

Considering the topic of early years practice and its impact, Sinead Mc Nally and Rebecca Maguire explore the importance of self-regulation in early childhood development and the crucial role that adult-child interactions play in helping young children to self-regulate. Their paper considers the critical role adults play in creating quality, relational early learning environments that assist young children self-regulate. Focusing on the very young child Gráinne Hickey and her colleagues provide an overview of an innovative early years service model and research programme (ENRICH) which aims to provide a wraparound intervention for children under two and their parents, with specific emphasis on multiple risk factors, gaps in treatment and engagement of harder to reach families. Sinead Matson then takes us on a historical journey of the evolution of the Montessori method and its adaption within different cultural contexts. She explores the language of ‘work’ and ‘play’ in both the Montessori methodand in Aistear, the national curriculum framework and concludes that perceived differences in language are reconcilable.

Transitions are the focus of the last two articles. Máire Mhic Mhathúna and Fiona Nic Fhionnlaoich report on a study of transition from preschool to primary school in an Irish medium context raising both issues of transition between the two settings and the role of a second language within that process. Their findings point to the importance of sharing information on children’s interests, capabilities and their second language experiences effectively across settings. The final research article by Lisa-Christine Girard and Luigi Girolametto complete the cycle in looking at how the environment of the family and the fostering of literacy plays a pivotal role in the development of emergent literacy skills prior to school entry. Their Canadian study of emergent literacy provides some reflections for our understandings of school readiness and pre-academic skills within the Irish context.

Finally there are two short summaries of larger research studies. One, by Sarah Miller and Laura Dunne outlines the findings from an RTC evaluation of the Lifestart Parenting Programme. The second reports on a collaborative investigation into concepts of school readiness by the Centre for Early Childhood Research, MIE, Limerick and the Centre for Social and Educational Research, DIT, Dublin.

Collectively the articles in this issue of the Research Digest reflect the healthy state of research into early childhood in Ireland. While they identify a number of challenges to be overcome the articles also present a firm basis from which to design future research projects with the aim of enhancing young children’s early childhood experiences.

We would like to thank all authors and the reviewers for their contributions to this issue. Special thanks are also due to all who helped with proof reading and Leanne Willars for providing the design and layout.