This blog post was contributed by Pauline Slot, assistant professor, and Celeste Bekkering, researcher, at Utrecht University, the Netherlands 

“As long as my child is happy.” For parents, that is the most important thing. But when is a child happy? And how can you see or observe this? And how can a professional contribute to the happiness of a child?

Well-being and involvement

One way of examining whether children are happy is to look at their well-being. Well-being and involvement are concepts that are often used in childcare to look at how a child is doing in the group. These concepts are defined in different ways. Well-being can be defined as “a state in which one feels at ease, shows spontaneity, is self-confident and enjoys its presence and interactions with others” [1], [2]. Involvement refers to the degree to which a child can become absorbed in what he or she is doing, for example in play and routines or during activities. In other words, how engaged they are in activities [2]. A high degree of involvement is the basis for learning and development, and it is also important for the child’s happiness, as will be shown below.

Well-being and involvement in childcare

The Dutch childcare quality study LKK (Landelijke Kwaliteitsmonitor Kinderopvang) and the Flemish research project MeMoQ (Measurement and Monitoring of Quality in early childhood settings) have studied the well-being and involvement of children. On average, the well-being of children in Dutch childcare is high [3]. Children feel at ease and have fun. Involvement on the other hand is lower and can be viewed as moderate. This means that children are involved in games or activities but are not always completely absorbed in them. It can be seen as a kind of superficial engagement, like when you’re doing a routine activity that doesn’t require any real effort. In order to develop and learn, a higher degree of involvement is required. In Flemish early childhood settings, the average well-being and involvement of children is moderate [2].

When we focus on specific situations, important differences can be seen. During mealtimes, the well-being and involvement of children is low, while it is high during children’s free play. While playing outside, children’s well-being is also higher, but their involvement is not. A possible explanation may be that the nature of outdoor play is more physical with for example running and racing. The involvement of children is higher during organized activities in which there is more focused attention to the children [3].

Five human needs

The concepts of well-being and involvement fit in well with motivation theories, such as the well-known Maslow’s theory of five needs [4],[5],[6].

  1. Primary physiological needs. These are the physical needs such as oxygen, food and sleep. Failure to meet this need, hampers meeting other needs. There are families where insufficient attention is paid to food and nutrition, for example when children do not eat breakfast. These children will be less able to function optimally.
  2. Safety needs. This concerns both physical and emotional security and safety. This means that a child knows that the adult is a safe base where he or she feels comforted and supported. When children don’t feel safe, they can be anxious or withdrawn which can hinder their development.
  3. Social need. This concerns a sense of belonging and that children feel accepted the way they are. This applies to one-on-one relationships with professionals and other children, as well as to group dynamics. Is there togetherness in the group – does everyone belong? If not, a child may feel left out and alone.
  4. Need for recognition and appreciation (esteem needs). This is about the sense of self-esteem, trust and respect of and for others. For a professional this means paying attention to the talents of children, instead of focusing on their disadvantages or difficulties. If there is not enough attention paid to the esteem needs, a child can feel incompetent and inferior.
  5. Self-actualization needs. This need is about being able to develop your talents. It is important to give children sufficient space for their own initiative in order to promote self-actualization. If children are not sufficiently supported, this can hinder their development.

What can we do with this in practice?

Back to the question: what makes a child happy? Is this when the child is provided with his food and drink? Or when there is an emotionally safe climate in the group, or …? Maslow’s five needs illustrate the importance of belonging, recognition and self-actualization. The results of the Dutch childcare study show the current state of quality in childcare [3]. The emotional process quality is sufficient to good, which means that there is a positive atmosphere in the group and that staff are sensitive and child-centered in their interactions. This is consistent with the observations of the well-being of individual children in the Netherlands. The educational process quality, i.e. the degree to which children are supported and stimulated in their broad development, is lower in Dutch childcare. This is in line with the lower levels of involvement observed in individual children. This pattern of higher observed emotional support and lower levels of support for children’s development and learning is a pattern found in other countries as well, such as Denmark, Flanders, Poland and Switzerland [7],[8],[9],[10]. This means that childcare seems to contribute to children’s safety and social needs, beside meeting their primary physiological needs, but perhaps more efforts are needed to address children’s needs for recognition and self-actualization.

Contributing to children’s happiness starts with making them feel at ease, but it doesn’t stop there. In order to optimally support children and contribute to their happiness, it is important to contribute to their broad talent development following the initiatives of children. This calls for the need to raise educational quality in childcare.


[1] Laevers, F., Moons, J., & Declercq, B. (2013). A process‐oriented monitoring system for the early years [POMS]. Leuven: CEGO Pubishers.

[2] Laevers, F., & Declercq, B. (2018). How well-being and involvement fit into the commitment to children’s rights. European Journal of Education, 53, 325-335.

[3] Slot, P., Jepma, IJ., Muller, P., Romijn, B., Bekkering, C., & Leseman, P. (2019). Ontwikkelingen in de kwaliteit van de Nederlandse kinderdagopvang, peuteropvang, buitenschoolse opvang en gastouderopvang.  Gecombineerde metingen 2017 – 2019. Landelijke Kwaliteitsmonitor Kinderopvang. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht/Sardes.


[5] De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A., & Hulshof, C. D. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. Academic Press.


[7] Perren, S., Frei, D., & Herrmann, S. (2016). Pädagogische Qualität in frühkindlichen Bildung und Betreuungseinrichtungen in der Schweiz (Pedagogical quality in early childhood education and care institutions in Switzerland). Frühe Bildung (Early Education), 5, 3-12. doi:10.1026/2191-9186/a000242.

[8] Hulpia, H., Vandenbroeck, M., Daems, M., Declercq, B., Janssen, J., Cleynenbreugel, C. van, & Laevers, F. (2016). MeMoQ Deelrapport 10: Emotionele en educatieve ondersteuning in de nulmeting. Kind en Gezin, Ugent, KU Leuven.

[9] Bleses, D., Jensen, P., Slot, P. L., & Justice, L. M. (2020). Low-cost teacher-implemented intervention improves toddlers’ language and math skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 53, 64-76.

[10] Wyslowska, O., & Slot, P. L. (2018). Structural and process quality in Poland and the Netherlands: A cross-national study using cluster analysis. Early Education and Development, 31, 524-540.

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