Te Whāriki:
What is New Zealand’s Early Years Curriculum?
And how to apply those lessons to your provision

Always on the lookout for new pedagogy inspiration? Step up, Te Whāriki.

The New Zealand-based pedagogy and curriculum is becoming increasingly popular over this side of the world, and there are plenty of lessons we can take from it.

Similar in some ways to our own EYFS, there are plenty of fascinating lessons about the individual child, as well as how our interactions affect a child’s confidence and sense of community.

But before we go into it, it’s only right we have a little think about what we can actually extract when we learn about new theories…

The importance of different pedagogies

With countless curricula and philosophies circulating the world of early years, it can be challenging to know if you’re doing the right thing.

Parents, teachers, researchers and politicians can have very conflicting views about what is right for our little tots in those crucial early years. Curricula and pedagogies can often be a bit of a battleground, with clashing ideas about the purpose of early childhood education, and what the appropriate content and context for learning and development should be in early childhood.

But, it is worth being open-minded and working out what best suits your nursery, your teachers and most importantly, your children. Reading about them may just open up an opportunity to find a thing or two that would suit your setting. It could simply be:

  • Using more natural wood materials and incorporating fantasy play (Steiner)
  • More practical learning, puzzles, patterning or real-world experiences (Montessori)
  • Child-led learning through experiences of touching, listening and observing (Reggio Emilia)

For more insight into other pedagogies, have a look at our recent piece that covers everything you can learn from a wide range of different early years pedagogies.

Te Whāriki

Time to dive head first into Te Whāriki. While it couldn’t be further away geographically, in terms of its similarity to the EYFS and other English pedagogies, it actually isn’t so far.

From birth until school entry, New Zealand emphasises the critical role of social and cultural learning, and of relationships for young children. ‘Relationships’ have historically focused on relationships with people, but this approach to learning puts equal focus on relationships with places and things too.

Take planting trees, for example. That’s more than just a gardening activity, it’s about strengthening a relationship with the earth and future generations.

The value that underpins the Te Whāriki curriculum, which guides most early years pedagogy and practice in New Zealand, is that children should be:

“Competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.”

Early Child Curriculum, New Zealand Ministry of Education

The Principles

The curriculum is built around four main principles. They are:

  • Empowerment (Whakamana) – The curriculum empowers the child to learn and grow.
  • Holistic Development (Kotahitanga) – The curriculum reflects the holistic way children learn and grow.
  • Family and Community (Whānau Tangata) – The wider world of family and community is an integral part of the early childhood curriculum.
  • Relationships (Ngā Hononga) – Children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places, and things.

From here, there are five strands of child development which form developmental, cultural, and learning goals.

  • Strand 1. Well-being – Nurture and protect the health and well-being of the child.
  • Strand 2. Belonging – Children and their families feel a sense of belonging.
  • Stand 3: Contribution – Opportunities for learning are equitable, and each child’s contribution is valued.
  • Strand 4: Communication – The languages and symbols of their own and other cultures are promoted and protected.
  • Strand 5: Exploration – The child learns through active exploration of the environment.

The content is age appropriate for three different age groups: infants (birth to eighteen months), toddlers (one to three years) and young children (three years to school entry age).

The name ‘Te Whāriki’ comes from the Maori language and means ‘woven mat’. This can be visualised as learning and development being woven from the principles, strands and goals. It can also be seen that nursery teachers can ‘weave their own mat’, as Te Whāriki does not set any guidelines for content or methods. Lastly, it develops the idea that children interact with their environment and everywhere is a learning environment.

Assesment and comparison to the EYFS

The Te Whāriki curriculum does not assess children’s learning and development against pre-set milestones. It encourages teachers to understand what children are trying to achieve and what is possible. Then, the assessment is purely about supporting children and motivating them to reach their potential.

Margaret Carr brought about the idea that ‘learning stories’ were the best way to assess progress, placing the learner in the heart of the process. It can be hard to assess a child’s development with more holistic curricula, and the idea of ‘learning stories’ is to avoid assessing specific skills and simply checking against a pre-set list.

Practitioners document and photograph children’s learning experiences as a story, which sets up a picture of the child’s overall development and the activities and relationships they have engaged in. These are then shared with the children and families.

Sound familiar? Building up a child’s learning story is something we are pretty accustomed to in England. More and more emphasis is being put on detailed, in-depth learning journals, and parents are becoming increasingly interested in seeing their child’s development in this way.

Te Whāriki puts complete focus on the child and family and looks at children’s learning through their eyes – it takes into account their potential and their imagination. We could compare this to the Characteristics of Effective Learning that we have in England. At the same time, the themes and principles in the EYFS Curriculum Guidance share much with the Themes and Principles included within the Te Whāriki.

7 ways to use Te Whāriki in your provision

Understanding a new curriculum is great, but without ideas to put it into practice, it can be difficult to feel like it’s made a difference.

As we’ve already noted, Te Whāriki isn’t the polar opposite of EYFS. You might recognise some of these ideas, and that’s OK. It’s all about giving your provision a fresh lease of life, and getting a new perspective on why you do what you do.

1. Learning outdoors

Belonging, Exploration

Activities outside provide opportunities for little ones to feel the breeze, crunch the leaves, and listen to raindrops landing.

Are you really confident that your little ones are getting the opportunity to get in touch with nature on a regular basis? We can’t all be blessed with a forest in the back garden, but there are always opportunities for trips and visits.

2. Pay attention to the emotional environment

Well-being, Belonging, Contribution

So often we hear that ‘children are a product of their own environment’ and it’s important to remember they do not touch, see, or hear passively – they feel, look, and listen actively. Pay attention to what your children instinctively enjoy, you can help them learn a great deal in an environment they feel comfortable in.

3. Use natural resources or junk play

Belonging, Exploration, Well-being

Hands-on experiences with natural materials offer children opportunities to develop theories about how things work in the living and physical worlds.

Playing with these can help them understand the features of their natural environment, and develop a sense of respect and responsibility for natural resources. Think about materials such as shells, bark, sponges, stones, leaves, flowers, sticks, moss, rocks, pine cones, fur, or feathers.

4. Incorporate both independent and interactive play

Contribution, Communication

The Te Whāriki approach suggests that children should learn with and alongside others. However, it is also important to make sure that children have a strong sense of themselves. They need opportunities to play on their own, allowing their imagination and problem-solving skills to develop as well as their physical skills.

5. Messy play

Communication, Exploration

Messy play materials provide satisfying sensory experiences that can stimulate emotional well-being and growth. Children actively explore using their bodies and all their senses, as well as the use of tools, materials and equipment.

6. Music

Belonging, Contribution, Well-being, Communication, Exploration

Making music with instruments can help children develop a lot of skills as it’s a multi-sensory experience for them.

Music activities might require children to wait their turn, listen to each other, hold their instrument still until they have to play, and respond to changes in the music (playing loudly or softly when required). Children develop a respect for one another and begin to understand the ‘rules’ of participation.

7. Drama

Belonging, Contribution, Well-being, Communication, Exploration

Getting your kids to use gesture and movement to express themselves is very healthy. Children develop the capability to be expressive and they can discover different ways to be creative. Drama and acting encourages children to play and learn alongside each other.

Early Years & The Environment Guide

Interested in more helpful advice? Get your free copy of our guide on how to be more sustainable now.