Early years education is now a global activity, as school systems expand and diverse programmes become established in countries throughout the world. We inherit a rich legacy of theories, methodologies and evidence, from the vision of early childhood pioneers to the latest empirical research. I want to step back from particular initiatives and research evaluations to consider the underlying images of the child that inform early childhood research and practice. What would be an appropriate child development paradigm for promoting quality early years education in a global context? I question the adequacy of much theory and research to encompass global childhoods, especially the dangers inherent in current knowledge-imbalances. I ask about the way child development is conceptualised within early childhood work, and the potential of a sociocultural perspective. Finally, I ask about the status of young children themselves within early education research and practice; whether they are viewed as subjects in a child development project, as participants in a process or as consumers of a service. For each theme, I will argue that we are witnessing a paradigm shift which takes us beyond idealisations about normal development, children's nature and their needs. An alternative paradigm emphasises the plurality of pathways through childhood, the respects in which early development and education is a sociocultural process, and the status of children as active participants, with their own perspective on issues in their lives.