In Germany, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) as part of child and youth welfare has undergone major change in recent years. The expansion and further development of ECEC services is an important topic on the national political agenda. A core challenge for the ECEC system is to meet families’ rising demand for ECEC provision. To this end, service supply has to be extended and (equal) access to ECEC has to be improved. At the same time, qualified staff, as a prerequisite for such an expansion of services, is lacking in many regions.

Continuous efforts are needed at federal, state (Länder) and local authority level to promote the sustainable development of the ECEC system. Among other things, improving the structural framework conditions is crucial for pedagogical work of high quality in ECEC settings. Improvements are particularly necessary because child day care and early education in ECEC centres or in family day care is an increasingly important factor in children's lives.


Since the Day Care Development Act (Tagesbetreuungsausbaugesetz, TAG) in 2005 and the Childcare Funding Act (Kinderförderungsgesetz, KiföG) in 2008 came into force, early childhood education and care services in Germany have expanded considerably – especially for children under three years of age. The Childcare Funding Act has introduced the legal entitlement to a place in a child care centre or in family day care for children from the age of one year. As a result, new centres and places were created for this age group in line with the constantly increasing demand. Attendance hours have also increased. Data from the Child and Youth Services Statistics (Kinder- und Jugendhilfestatistik) show that full-day care in publicly subsidised early childhood education and care centres has become the predominant model and has replaced the traditional model of half-day attendance. Although the proportion of children under three years that attend publicly subsidised childhood education and care services continues to rise, there is still a gap between the demand for childcare places reported by families and the number of places available. As in most other countries, inequalities in access to ECEC persist. Participation rates are lower among children from families with a lower socio-economic status, lower educational attainment or a migrant background. Furthermore, both the availability of and demand for early childhood services continue to vary from region to region. Even more than thirty years after reunification, there are still major differences in the participation rates of children under the age of three between the eastern and western federal states. Considerable variations can also be observed between municipalities.

ECEC as a multi-level system

In Germany, early childhood education and care is part of the public welfare system, for which the federal government, the 16 federal states (Länder) and municipalities/local authorities share responsibility.

The Federal Government provides a legal framework that includes binding goals and principles for the whole sector of child and youth welfare. These are formulated in the Child and Youth Welfare Services Act (Book Eight of the Social Code, SGB VIII) and also apply to the fostering of children in early childhood education and care services (Kindertageseinrichtungen, Kinderkrippen, Kindergärten, or Kindertagespflege). The legal framework of the Child and Youth Welfare Services Act is completed, supplemented, and extended by the Länder in their own laws and regulations. These define the framework conditions for the work of ECEC services on the ground, such as curricula, funding, qualification requirements for staff, or staff-child ratios. The respective regulations can differ widely between the federal states. An overview of early childhood education and care laws in the 16 federal states can be found at the Eduserver (Deutschen Bildungsserver).

The municipalities and districts are the main responsible actors with regard to the development and planning of ECEC provision and policy implementation at the local level. They bear a large part of the funding of these services and partly act as service providers themselves. They are also responsible for meeting the legal right to a childcare place, which was introduced in 2008 and became effective on 1 August 2013.

A diverse landscape of private non-profit providers

The strong tradition of subsidiarity inscribed in “Christian Democratic” welfare states is the reason for another special feature of German ECEC: the important role of private non-profit organisations as service providers and policy actors in the field of ECEC. The principle of subsidiarity (Subsidiaritätsprinzip) underpins the organisation, funding and provision of early childhood education and care services in Germany. It stipulates that private providers have priority over public providers when setting up new services. Public providers are only obliged to intervene if the demand cannot be met by private providers. In addition to the principle of subsidiarity, the early childhood and care system in Germany is also governed by the principle of diversity of services and providers. This principle emphasizes parents' right to choose a provider as well as a pedagogical concept according to their preferences.

The majority of early childhood education and care services are therefore run by a wealth of private non-profit providers. They are predominantly organised under the umbrella of the large church-related and other welfare associations, but to a lesser extent also consist of small local associations and (parent) initiatives. For-profit providers only account for a small share of ECEC provision.

A strong socio-pedagogical tradition

Pursuant to paragraph 22 of the Book Eight of the Social Code (§22 SGBVIII), child care centres for children and family day care are called upon

  1. to encourage the child's development into a responsible and autonomous member of the community,
  2. to support and complement education and care in the family, and
  3. to assist parents in better combining employment and childcare responsibilities.

The mandate of ECEC includes the promotion of children’s social, emotional, physical and mental development. It includes the communication of guiding societal values and is to be adjusted to the individual child’s age and developmental stage, linguistic and other capabilities, life situation and interests as well as the child’s ethnic origin.

Pedagogically, early childhood education and care in centre-based settings and family day care is characterised by a holistic approach and reflected in the deeply intertwined concepts of education, care and socialization. “Education” means that children actively familiarise themselves with all aspects of the world, culture, etc. Largely based on the situational approach, children's development and learning are to be encouraged and supported in meaningful situations and interactions with pedagogical staff. Early childhood services are called upon to create fruitful learning environments involving topics that relate to children’s everyday world and interests. The concept of “upbringing” refers to all pedagogical activities through which the child learns the norms, values, behaviour, and social skills appropriate to participate in society. The concept of “care” comprises looking after and safeguarding children’s physical and mental health.

In an international comparison, the terms "education, care and socialization" characterise a key feature and strength of the mission of early childhood services in Germany. The OECD (2004) emphasises this holistic approach to education and upbringing as particularly noteworthy (OECD-Country Note 2004).

The essential principles of education programmes in the early childhood education and care sector have been agreed on by the federal states in the Joint Framework of the Länder for Early Education in Day-Care Centres (Gemeinsamer Rahmen der Länder für die frühe Bildung in Kindertageseinrichtungen)which was adopted in 2004 and updated in 2022. This framework applies to the entire phase of early childhood education in childcare centres and, in some federal states, also extends to school-age children.

Against the background of the ongoing expansion of ECEC services in Germany, questions regarding the assurance and development of structural as well as pedagogical quality of the services gained importance. Since 2019, the Federal Government therefore supports the “Länder” with additional funds for quality development in ECEC in order to further develop quality nationwide and to contribute to creating equal living conditions throughout Germany. Successive Childcare Quality Acts (Kita-Qualitätsgesetz) and investment programmes pursue quality objectives such as the improvement of child-staff-ratios and qualifications of staff and the strengthening of leadership in ECEC centres. In addition, parental fees are reduced or abolished (in some states) to lower barriers to children's participation in ECEC.

The progress achieved through the Quality Acts is the subject of an indicator based national monitoring programme (ERiK).

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