Last reviewed 6 May 2022

Rachel Dearnley, Early Years Consultant and Trainer examines how this internationally respected, aspirational approach puts the child at the heart of the curriculum and takes account of their wellbeing, learning, tolerance and respect for cultural values.

Background

“A child is a treasure, to be nurtured, to grow, to flourish.”

First published in 1996, the Te Whariki approach is recognised internationally as an innovative curriculum that recognises the important role of social and cultural learning and of relationships with people, places and things.

The name Te Whariki is a Maori word meaning “woven mat” (see the diagram below). It weaves the foundational principles, strands and goals together to represent the interrelatedness of these components of the curriculum. The actual curriculum itself is provided by the people, places and things in the child’s environment, such as the adults, the other children, the physical environment and the resources. Te Whariki does not provide any guidelines for content or teaching methods. These are designed at a local level and reflect the diverse families, multiple communities, cultures and tribes that are represented in early childhood education in New Zealand.

“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.”

The updated 2017 version includes a stronger focus on bicultural practice, the importance of language, culture, identity, and the inclusion of all children.

Principles

“Stand strong, O moko. The reflection of your parents. The blueprint of your ancestors.”

Four principles underpin the Te Whariki curriculum.

Empowerment (Whakamana)

The curriculum empowers children to learn and grow. Children are respected and valued, which enables them to learn and develop their true potential. The role of the teacher is to support all children to take part in a wide range of enriching experiences which develops their competence and confidence for their future lives. Play and playfulness is highly valued and is the basis on which children develop knowledge, skills and ideas. They learn to make decisions and judgments. Because all cultures are respected and included the teachers seek the input of children and their parents when creating their unique curriculum.

Holistic Development (Kotahitanga)

The dimensions of human development are cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual, social and cultural. They are all related and connected with other aspects of learning. This holistic approach considers the child as a person who wants to learn. Teachers (Kaiako) make themselves aware and take into consideration the different views that cultures may have on child development and the role of the family.

Family and community (Whanau Tangata)

These are considered integral to the curriculum and are encouraged to participate in and contribute to the developing curriculum. A child’s wellbeing is interrelated with the wellbeing of their teachers and parents. Their culture, knowledge and community are acknowledged, and teachers respect the parents’ aspirations for their children. Diverse cultural groups have different beliefs, traditions and child-rearing practices that value specific knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions.

Relationships (Nga Hononga)

Children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things. The environment for children embraces respectful relationships, encouragement, warmth and acceptance. Children are presented with a wide range of experiences that include important cultural tools, both material and psychological. This expands children’s participation and contribution to their world.

These principles underpin the following five strands of child development.

1. Wellbeing — Children have a sense of wellbeing and resilience. Children’s health is promoted and their emotional wellbeing nurtured. They are kept safe from harm and begin to appreciate healthy eating, nutrition and take part in physical activity. They develop self-worth, identity, confidence and enjoyment, together with emotional regulation and self-control.

2. Belonging — Children know they belong and have a sense of connection to others and the environment. Each child is treated with respect and diversity is valued. Children know they have a place and feel comfortable with routines, customs and regular events. Feeling that they belong contributes to their wellbeing and gives them the confidence to try new experiences. Children see their own culture, language and world views valued, and the achievements and aspirations of each child’s family and community are respected.

3. Contribution — Children learn with and alongside others. There are equal opportunities for learning and children are affirmed as individuals. Teachers recognise and build on each child’s strengths, allowing them to make their own unique contribution. Children develop responsive and reciprocal relationships with the teacher and other children. These interactions help children learn to take another person’s point of view, empathise, ask for help, see themselves as a help to others and discuss or explain their ideas. Working together for the common good develops a spirit of sharing, togetherness and reciprocity which is valued by many cultures.

4. Communication — Children are strong and effective communicators. Children develop non-verbal and verbal communication skills. They have opportunities to experience stories and symbols of their own and other cultures. They find different ways to be creative and expressive, eg sign, mathematics, visual imagery, art, dance, drama, rhythm, music and movement. Traditional storytelling, arts and legends, proverbs and metaphoric language support children from some communities.

5. Exploration — Children are critical thinkers, problem solvers and explorers. Play is valued as meaningful learning, spontaneous play is recognised as they imagine, invent and experiment. Through play they gain confidence and control of their bodies. They learn to strategise during exploration, thinking and reasoning. They make sense of the natural, social physical and material worlds. Children learn through play by doing, asking questions, interacting with others, devising theories about how things work and then trying them out. They begin to develop attitudes and expectations that continue to influence their learning throughout life.

What inspiration can be drawn from Te Whariki?

The Te Whariki document has a wealth of information that can inspire the way we develop our own curriculum for the uniqueness of the children in our care. Here are just a few ideas that could be considered that may enhance the experiences for children.

The revised EYFS 2021 encourages us to design an appropriate curriculum for the children in our care. Te Whariki states: “Children learn and develop best when their culture, knowledge and community are affirmed and when the people in their lives help them to make connections across settings.” Relationships with family and community are highly valued.

How effective is your practice at including families/carers/community in the co-construction of a curriculum for each child? How well do you design a curriculum that builds on children’s interests and fascinations, and what they already know and can do? Is there plenty of opportunity for children to experience the awe and wonder of nature both indoors and outdoors? What opportunities can you find to immerse children in nature?

The wellbeing strand looks to teachers to provide consistency, continuity and stability within the environment, which enables children to feel safe and confident. This is fundamentally about teachers demonstrating trust and respect by acknowledging their ideas and feelings whilst responding sensitively to children.

When children start at your setting, do you take time to build a trustful relationship with parents/carers? Do key persons spend enough time with the parents/caregivers to understand the little things that are important to the child and family? For example, do you find out how nappy changes are given, how the baby likes to have their bottle, how a toddler likes to sit at a table for meals, that a pre-schooler likes to say goodbye in a certain way? Do practitioners refrain from being judgmental and avoid being seen as critical of any aspect of parenting?

Developing a sense of belonging and safety are key values within Te Whariki. The approach advocates the benefit of creating a personalised and safe environment for children in which respect and diversity are valued. When children feel loved and secure, they are much more likely to excel.

Do staff think about how they are perceived by children? Do they pay attention to what they are doing with a child and how they are communicating with them? Do they tune into children, un-busy themselves in order to slow down and be mindful and sensitive with them? Read more about this on the Pikler Approach website. How do children learn about the cultures of all families and how are these valued within the setting? How do children learn about and become involved in aspects of the local area?

The contribution strand involves developing a “positive learner identity” and awareness of their own strengths. This involves the development of emotional competence, a process which starts in infancy and involves them identifying and regulating their own emotions. Adult support is important while the brain develops coping mechanisms for self-regulation and self-management.

Do practitioners acknowledge and let children express their emotions? Do they use natural and spontaneous moments for teaching emotional skills, plus offer relevant and meaningful occasions to practise these skills? See this article on self-regulation.

Summary

  • Te Whariki was introduced in New Zealand in 1996 and updated in 2017. It is a well-respected document throughout the world.

  • Te Whariki translates as “woven matt” in Maori. The principles and strands are woven together and form the vision for children.

  • Teachers are tasked with weaving the principles and strands, in collaboration with children, parents, and communities to create a local curriculum for the setting. The curriculum is seen as “a mat for all to stand on”.

  • The approach focuses on the child and family, looking at children’s learning through their eyes.

  • It brings different approaches, philosophies and contexts together to form an approach that will be identifiable but unique from place to place.

Further reading: