Blaiklock, K. (2010). Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum: Is it
effective? International Journal of Early Years Education, 18, 201-212.
Ken Blaiklock, Department of Education, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland,
Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, has received much praise
since its introduction in 1996. There is, however, little research evidence about the
implementation or effectiveness of the curriculum in early childhood centres. This
article raises questions about the structure and content of Te Whāriki. The holistic
and integrated nature of the curriculum means that subject content areas (e.g., art,
music, science, literacy) can be overlooked. The generalised nature of the guidelines
in Te Whāriki on programme planning allows for flexibility but may result in
children being provided with an inadequate range of learning experiences. Concerns
are also raised about the value of Learning Stories, a novel form of assessment that
was designed to align with the approach of Te Whāriki.
Keywords: Early childhood curriculum; Te Whāriki; New Zealand
The New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum, Te Whāriki, was introduced in
1996 following a lengthy period of consultation with many groups and individuals in
the early childhood sector (see Carr and May 2000). The words, Te Whāriki, mean
woven mat in Maori and reflect the integrated and holistic nature of the curriculum.
A sociocultural emphasis is apparent throughout the document, as noted in the
introductory statement (Ministry of Education 1996, 9):
This curriculum emphasises the critical role of socially and culturally mediated
learning and of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people,
places, and things. Children learn through collaboration with adults and peers,
through guided participation and observation of others, as well as through individual
exploration and reflection.
The framework for Te Whāriki consists of four Principles and five Strands.
The four Principles are described as follows (Ministry of Education 1996,. 14):
The early childhood curriculum empowers the child to learn and grow.
2. Holistic Development
The early childhood curriculum reflects the holistic way children learn and
3. Family and Community
The wider world of family and community is an integral part of the early
Children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people,
places, and things.
The five Strands of Te Whāriki are also described (Ministry of Education, 1996,
The health and well-being of the child are protected and nurtured.
Children and their families feel a sense of belonging.
Opportunities for learning are equitable, and each child’s contribution is
The language and symbols of their own and other cultures are promoted and
The child learns through active exploration of the environment.
A separate section of Te Whāriki, written in Maori, discusses the significance of
the Principles and Strands for Maori language immersion programmes. The English
and Maori texts are not equivalent but “parallel and complement each other”… “The
Maori curriculum is an integral part of the document and provides a basis for
bicultural early childhood education in New Zealand” (Ministry of Education 1996,
In the English language sections of Te Whāriki, each strand is subdivided into
three or four Goals. Each Goal includes a number of Learning Outcomes. Examples
of experiences to help meet the outcomes are provided for each Goal.
Praise for Te Whāriki
Since its introduction in 1996, Te Whāriki has received widespread praise, both
within New Zealand and internationally, as illustrated in the following quotes:
“To date, Te Whāriki has been greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the early
childhood profession, to the extent that it has taken on a gospel like status” (Cullen
“Engaging with Te Whāriki allows teachers to have their own learning journey
just as children have theirs. It is for this reason that so many early childhood
professionals feel privileged to have such a sound document to work with” (Tyler,
“ Te Whāriki has had an enormous impact on curriculum development in many
countries” … “Te Whāriki has gained international prominence as an early childhood
curriculum of great substance and importance” (Fleer 2003, 243-244).
“Te Whāriki is a world class early childhood curriculum and has been a
significant factor in putting New Zealand on the early childhood world stage. (Trevor
Mallard, Minister of Education, press release, 17 January 2005, cited in Nuttall 2005,
“[Te Whāriki] that’s basically our bible. We always look to Te Whāriki to
make sure we have done it correctly.” “Te Whāriki – gives the defining word on that
issue, because it is all in there.” “The value [of Te Whāriki] is enormous … It’s
priceless I think.” (Quotes from teachers interviewed in Alvestad and Duncan, 2006,
The above statements indicate widespread support for the value of Te Whāriki
as an early childhood curriculum. Clearly there is much about Te Whāriki that
appeals to many academics and early childhood teachers. Given, however, that it is
now approaching 15 years since Te Whāriki was introduced, it is somewhat surprising
that there has been little critique of the document. Nuttall (2003) suggested that an
earlier lack of critique might have been due to a reluctance to criticise the developers
of the curriculum when their work appeared to be a way of increasing quality and
professionalism in the early childhood field. Nuttall further suggested that teachers
were supportive of Te Whāriki because they saw it as being in agreement with what
they already did.
Research Evidence about Te Whāriki
Te Whāriki is based on the following aspirations for all children:
“to grow up as competent and confident 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” (Ministry of Education 1996, 9).
There is, no doubt, widespread support for this statement but currently there is
little evidence that Te Whāriki is effective in helping children to achieve these ideals.
Nuttall (2005, 20) concluded that “there is almost no empirical evidence examining
whether Te Whāriki is actually making a difference to children’s learning and
development relative to other models [of curriculum] Without this process of
evaluation, the effectiveness of Te Whāriki remains open to doubt”.
In a review of early childhood research literature for the New Zealand Ministry
of Education, Smith et al. (2000, 67) observed “it is only in the most general sense
that the New Zealand curriculum model has been tested”. They suggested, however,
that the results of American studies of the High Scope curriculum model seem to
support the approach embodied in Te Whāriki. The High Scope studies compared the
long term effects of three types of preschool curriculum for 3 and 4-year-old children
from economically disadvantaged homes. The models compared were High Scope,
Direct Instruction, and traditional Nursery School education (Scheweinhart and
The Direct Instruction model focused on academic skills that were taught in
precisely planned 20-minute lessons. Questions and other interactions were carefully
sequenced. The only materials used in the classroom were workbooks.
In contrast, the High Scope classrooms were well resourced and organised into
separate interest areas. The High Scope curriculum was based on Piaget’s theory of
child development and provided experiences in key domains of learning including
social relations, creativity, music, language, literacy and mathematical concepts.
Children worked with teachers in small and large groups, inside and outside. They
were given choices to plan and participate in activities, and were encouraged to reflect
on their learning.
Teachers in the Nursery School model organised activities and discussions
around particular topics or themes (e.g., animals, holidays). Children were able to
move freely around the classroom and to choose which activities they wished to
participate in. Teachers facilitated learning through interacting with individuals and
small groups. The focus of the programme was on social skills rather than cognitive
or academic skills.
At the start of school, the Direct Instruction group performed slightly higher on
some cognitive tasks than the other groups. At age 10, there was little difference
between the groups in academic performance. By age 15, however, the Direct
Instruction group performed at significantly lower levels on a variety of measures
related to social adjustment and well-being. The lower outcomes for social measures
were also seen at age 23. Overall, the study concluded that programmes with child-
initiated activities had benefits over programmes that focused on teacher-directed
Smith et al. (2000, 69) suggested:
the results of the curriculum comparison study appear, therefore, to support New
Zealand’s theoretical and curriculum model. That our model has been embraced with
enthusiasm overseas, especially in the United Kingdom, is a further indication that the
model is a useful framework which can be practiced in diverse settings and using a
variety of different approaches.
It is rather a long stretch, however to use the results of the High Scope studies to
endorse the New Zealand approach. There are countless differences between New
Zealand programmes and the programmes that were found to be more beneficial in
the High Scope studies (i.e., the High Scope and Nursery models). For example, the
High Scope studies only looked at programmes for 3 and 4-year-olds whereas Te
Whāriki spans the 0-5 year age range. Another difference is the teacher-child ratio in
the High Scope and Nursery models was 1:5 or 1:6 whereas the ratio in New Zealand
early childhood programmes for 3 and 4-year-olds may be 1:15. Furthermore, the
High Scope curriculum places considerably more emphasis on early mathematical and
literacy activities (including alphabetic skills) than is found in Te Whāriki.
Such differences, combined with the great diversity of programmes in New
Zealand, means that it is highly problematic to see the results of the High Scope
studies as supporting Te Whāriki. Even if it is claimed that the studies provide support
for the general approach represented in Te Whāriki, how the approach is actually
being implemented in different centres in New Zealand is largely unknown. Smith et
al. (2000) pointed out that there was an urgent need for research into how Te Whāriki
was being put into practice. Ten years later, this research has still not taken place.
Research has been conducted, however, into the long-term effects of early
childhood education in New Zealand. The Competent Children project has tracked
the progress of a large group of children from the time they were in early childhood
education through to primary and secondary school (see Hogden 2007). The findings
of the project suggest that quality early childhood education has ongoing social and
academic benefits. However, the findings cannot be used to comment on the
effectiveness of Te Whāriki because the curriculum was not published until after the
project children had already completed their involvement in early childhood education
(see also the criticism of the project’s methodology and conclusions by Nash 2001,
and Farquhar 2008).
Te Whāriki and Subject Knowledge
The generalised and holistic nature of Te Whāriki means that teachers are
provided with little guidance about how to provide effective learning experiences in
relation to particular subject content areas (e.g., music, art, drama, mathematics,
science, literacy). In the editorial for a special issue of the International Journal of
Early Years Education, which focused on the New Zealand experience, Smith (2003,
5) argued for the benefits of the process oriented approach of Te Whāriki:
Te Whāriki, in contrast to overseas early childhood curricula (such as the UK
curriculum) is oriented towards setting up attitudinal and dispositional thinking.
Instead of being preoccupied with specific skills, which children do or do not have
when they get to school, the concern is for developing an overall enthusiasm for
learning. Te Whāriki encourages children’s autonomy, communication, exploration,
commitment and aspirations. Children and their learning, rather than subject areas,
are the starting points of educational thinking.
There is, however, no evidence that Te Whāriki is more effective in encouraging
an ‘overall enthusiasm for learning’ in comparison to a more “subject” oriented
approach. Indeed, the lack of subject knowledge in Te Whāriki may actually limit
children’s learning, a point made by Hedges and Cullen (2005). Reporting on a study
of teacher beliefs and practices in one centre, Hedges and Cullen (75) concluded:
that a curriculum’s lack of emphasis on subject content knowledge may limit learning
and teaching opportunities and children’s inquiry-based learning. Teachers described
their curriculum planning and pedagogical approaches in ways consistent with their
interpretation of Te Whāriki as focused on learning processes rather than content.
Yet, to think, theorise, and problem solve, children need to have something
substantive of interest and relevance to theorise about. In short, cognitive learning
processes require subject knowledge to make learning meaningful.
The emphasis on play-based integrated learning that is found in New Zealand
early childhood centres does not preclude the significance of subject knowledge.
Although the centre day may not be broken into separate times that focus on particular
curriculum areas, as may happen at primary school, this does not mean that subject
knowledge is unimportant. Hedges and Cullen (2005) noted that many opportunities
to promote children’s knowledge construction occur when teachers interact with
children and respond to their interests and inquiries. For these interactions to be
effective, teachers must be confident with subject knowledge and must know how to
incorporate this knowledge when facilitating children’s learning.
Early childhood teacher education programmes have a crucial role in ensuring
that graduating teachers have sufficient subject content and pedagogical knowledge.
Teachers need to be knowledgeable not only about the subject content but also need to
know how best to facilitate learning experiences related to that content. This is
particularly important in New Zealand because of the generalised nature of the
guidance that Te Whāriki provides on programme content. Te Whāriki does not say
when and how to facilitate learning in particular subject content areas. Instead, the
responsibility is placed on teachers to integrate subject content knowledge within
interactions that extend on children’s interests and build on children’s current
Given the importance of teachers knowing about subject content and subject
pedagogy, it might be assumed that these areas would be fundamental components in
all teacher education programmes in New Zealand. There are, however, no national
guidelines on how much subject content and pedagogical knowledge to include in
teacher education courses. This has resulted in the situation where some institutions
place considerable emphasis on subject content and associated pedagogy whereas
other institutions give relatively little attention to these areas (see Kane 2005).
Bennett (2005), in reviewing early childhood education in the OECD countries,
observed that two broad categories of curricular approach could be distinguished,
namely the pre-primary approach and the social pedagogic approach. The pre-
primary approach has a curriculum that focuses on goals and outcomes, often related
to cognitive development and subject related skills seen as important for school
readiness (e.g., mathematics, language and literacy). Teachers have an active role in
providing a mix of instruction and thematic work as well as facilitating child-initiated
Curricula in countries with a social-pedagogic approach contain general
principles related to broad developmental areas (e.g. physical development, emotional
well-being, communication, general knowledge). There is a focus on child-
centredness, responding to children’s interests, and the provision of quality teacher-
child and peer interactions. Subject content and methods are not specified at a national
level but are devolved to centres that have considerable autonomy to make decisions
about what to include in their programmes.
Bennett (2005) noted that there is little research that compares the effectiveness
of the social pedagogic approach with the pre-primary approach. He observed,
however, that current early childhood curriculum developers tend to favour the social-
pedagogic approach, valuing “‘open frameworks’ that encourage children to choose
and learn (with intention) from active experiences with people, material, events and
ideas rather than through direct teaching or sequenced events” (14). Bennett also
described social pedagogic programmes as being focused on child and family
interests, and where “curriculum is not referenced on external norms, but on the
identity drives and needs of children in the centre” (14).
Te Whāriki fits within the social-pedagogic category. It is a curriculum that
contains broad goals and focuses on the importance of responsive relationships
between teachers and children, along with emphasising the value of connections with
families and the wider community. In line with the social-pedagogic approach, Te
Whāriki does not provide detailed guidelines on subject content. Learning outcomes
are given for the goals of each of the five strands of the curriculum (Well-being,
Belonging, Contribution, Communication, and Exploration) but these are “indicative
rather than definitive” (Ministry of Education 1996, 44). Some examples of
experiences to meet the outcomes are provided but it is up to each early childhood
centre to decide on the content and methods that operate within the broad framework.
Bennett (2005) provides a caution about too great a focus on academic goals but
also warns against “excessive suspicion of ‘schoolification’ and reluctance to orient
children toward learning goals valued by parents, schools and society” (14). This
appears to be a valid concern within the New Zealand context. An area that is highly
valued by parents, schools and society is the development of literacy skills but this
receives limited attention in Te Whāriki. Literacy is included within one of the goals
of the Communication strand but there is little guidance about how to incorporate
effective literacy experiences within centre programmes.
The goal that focuses on literacy states: “children experience an environment
where they experience the stories and symbols of their own and other cultures”
(Ministry of Education, 1996, 78). The learning outcomes for this goal include “an
understanding that symbols can be ‘read’ by others”; “familiarity with print and its
uses”, “familiarity with an appropriate selection of the stories and literature valued by
the cultures in their community”; and “experience with creating stories and symbols”
(78). Although described only in general terms, these are all worthwhile outcomes.
What is entirely missing, however, is any specific mention of the importance of
providing children with opportunities to learn about letter names and sounds. Indeed
the words “letters” or “alphabet” are not mentioned in any of the goals, learning
outcomes or examples of experiences in Te Whāriki.
Te Whāriki does refer to the value of “symbols”, and letters could be said to be
included within this category. This may not, however, be immediately apparent to
teachers, especially as the examples given when referring to symbols are “words,
pictures, print, numbers, sounds, shapes, models, and photographs” (Ministry of
Education 1996, 78), with no explicit mention of letters. A large amount of research
evidence shows the value of children learning about letter names and sounds (see Ehri
2005). Studies have found that children’s letter knowledge at school entry is an
important factor in early reading and spelling (Foulin 2005; Hammill 2004). Given
this evidence, it is puzzling that Te Whāriki does not include specific mention of
letters when describing outcomes and experiences. It may be that the absence of this
information reflects an over reaction by the developers of Te Whāriki to concerns
about the ‘push-down’ influences of school requirements on the early childhood
Concerns about the ‘push-down’ curriculum may have also contributed to the
obtuse way that other traditional curriculum subject areas are included within the five
strands of Te Whāriki. Te Whāriki does include numerous learning outcomes related
to mathematics, science, music, and art but the location of these within the document
is not readily apparent. For example, mathematical concepts are included in some of
the learning outcomes that are listed under the following Strands and Goals in Te
Communication Goal 3: “Children experience an environment where they
experience the stories and symbols of their own and other cultures” (78).
Exploration Goal 3: “Children experience an environment where they learn
strategies for active exploration, thinking, and reasoning” (88).
Exploration Goal 4.: “Children experience an environment where they develop
working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical, and material
Another example of how learning in a particular subject area is distributed
across different parts of Te Whāriki is seen for music. Learning outcomes for music
can be found under the following Strands and Goals:
Contribution: Goal 2. “Children experience an environment where they are
affirmed as individuals” (68).
Communication Goal 1. “Children experience an environment where they
develop non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes” (74).
Communication Goal 4. “Children experience an environment where they
discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive” (80).
Exploration Goal 2. “Children experience an environment where they gain
confidence in and control of their bodies” (86).
The inclusion of particular subject content areas across a variety of different
Strands and Goals could be said to reflect the integrated nature of children’s learning.
Furthermore, it could be said that the structure of Te Whāriki allows for subject-
content to be interwoven in children’s learning across a range of contexts within
children’s daily experiences.
On the other hand, it is possible that subject content could be lost within the
holistic approach of Te Whāriki. Although there are general learning outcomes
related to subject content, there is no requirement to include these learning outcomes
within centre programmes. Te Whāriki states, ”the list of outcomes in this document
is indicative rather than definitive. Each early childhood setting will develop its own
emphases and priorities” (Ministry of Education 1996, 44). Hence it is possible for an
early childhood service to consider that it is covering all the Strands of Te Whāriki
when it may, in fact, be using an inadequate selection of learning outcomes and
entirely neglecting experiences related to one or more subject content areas.
Programme Planning Using Te Whāriki
The information on planning in Te Whāriki provides no reassurance that
children in particular centres will be provided with a comprehensive range of learning
experiences. The guidelines on programme planning (which consist of less than half a
page of the 100 page document) are phrased in general terms and suggest that each
centre should plan in its own way: “There are many ways in which each early
childhood service can weave the particular pattern that makes its programme different
and distinctive. Early childhood services should, therefore, develop their own
distinctive pattern for planning, assessment, and evaluation” (Ministry of Education
1996, 28). Centres are advised to “offer sufficient learning experiences for the
children to ensure that the goals are realised”. The difficulty with this suggestion is
that the goals of Te Whāriki are often very general (as discussed above). No advice is
given in Te Whāriki, or in any other Ministry of Education publications, to ensure that
centres plan to cover a particular selection of core learning outcomes when
considering each goal.
Te Whāriki and Assessment
Just as there is no requirement to cover particular learning outcomes when
planning for children’ s learning, there is also no requirement to focus on particular
learning outcomes when assessing children’s learning. A novel form of assessment,
known as Learning Stories (Carr 1998, 2001) has been developed in New Zealand in
an attempt to provide a way of assessing children that aligns with the approach of Te
As is the case for Te Whāriki, Learning Stories have an emphasis on the
processes of learning rather than on specific knowledge and skill outcomes. Teachers
are required to write narrative “stories” to show the learning that is occurring during
particular experiences. Learning Stories are supposed to reveal children’s
dispositions for learning instead of focusing on what children can or cannot do. The
Learning Stories approach to assessment has been endorsed in the Ministry of
Education’s early childhood assessment resource, Kei Tua o te Pae: Assessment for
learning: Early childhood exemplars (Ministry of Education 2004, 2007, 2009).
Carr (1998) suggested that five dispositions should form the basis of assessment
using Learning Stories. Each disposition is linked with a Strand of Te Whāriki and is
assessed by focusing on a particular behaviour (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Links between Curriculum Strands, Learning Dispositions and Behaviours
Curriculum Strand Disposition Behaviour Indicative of Disposition
Courage and curiosity Taking an interest
Trust and playfulness Being involved
Perseverance Persisting with difficulty -
challenge and uncertainty
Confidence Expressing a point of view or feeling
Responsibility Taking responsibility
(Adapted from Carr 1998.)
The Learning Stories approach has been widely praised (e.g., Bayes 2006;
Drummond 2003) but many questions remain about the value of this assessment
technique. Learning Stories may be useful for describing aspects of children’s
learning in particular situations but currently there is little empirical evidence that
they are an effective and practical means of assessing and enhancing children’s
An area of particular concern is that Learning Stories have not been shown to be
adequate for showing changes in individual children’s learning over time. Carr (1998
17-18) suggested that Learning Stories define progress in children’s learning in three
1. Stories become longer
2. Stories become wider
3. Stories become more complex or deeper.
Research evidence is lacking, however, as to how longer, wider, and deeper
Learning Stories can show the many changes that occur in children’s learning over
time, whether it be for dispositions or for knowledge in a particular domain of
learning (e.g., language development). Without a valid approach to assessment, it is
impossible to evaluate whether centre programmes are effective for enhancing
children’s learning and development.
Other concerns over the adequacy of Learning Stories include:
- difficulties with establishing the validity or credibility of Learning Stories
- problems with defining and measuring particular learning dispositions across
the age range of 0-5 years
- confusion about where, when, and how often to record Learning Stories
- concern that the situational specificity of Learning Stories may limit their
value for planning to extend children’s learning in different contexts
(see Blaiklock 2008).
It is now approaching 15 years since Te Whāriki was published. During that
time a very large amount of funding has been spent on implementing the curriculum
and providing extensive professional development to teachers. Substantial resources
have also been directed towards developing and implementing Kei Tua o te Pae as an
assessment resource that aligns with Te Whāriki.
New Zealand early childhood educators and academics have given considerable
support to Te Whāriki. There is, however, little evidence about the implementation or
effectiveness of the curriculum across a range of different centres. It may be that Te
Whāriki has resulted in improvements in the quality of early childhood education in
New Zealand. It is to be hoped that attention to the principles and strands of Te
Whāriki has been of value for teachers in developing responsive relationships with
children and in providing rich learning experiences.
It is, however, equally possible that Te Whāriki has been largely ineffective.
Indeed it could even be argued that Te Whāriki has actually resulted in a decline in
quality in early childhood education in New Zealand. Such a proposal would be
anathema to the many supporters of Te Whāriki. The point is, however, that currently
the research evidence is insufficient to either support or challenge the effectiveness of
Although the research evidence is lacking, this article has raised concerns about
the structure and content of Te Whāriki. I have suggested that the lack of attention to
curriculum subject content, coupled with varying amounts of subject content and
pedagogy in New Zealand teacher education courses, may result in the neglect of
important areas of children’s learning. I have also suggested that the non-prescriptive
nature of the guidelines in Te Whāriki on programme planning means that centres are
free to include, or not include, important experiences that foster children’s learning
and development in particular areas.
Furthermore, I have expressed reservations about the adequacy of the
assessment techniques that have been developed for Te Whāriki. The Learning
Stories approach, as exemplified in Kei Tua o te Pae, comes with no requirement to
assess specific domains of learning (e.g., language development). Of particular
concern is the lack of evidence that Learning Stories can be used to show progress in
key areas of children’s learning over time.
There is much to admire in the sentiments and aspirations that are expressed in
Te Whāriki. Few would question the curriculum’s emphasis on the importance of
respectful and responsive relationships and the value of empowering children to
explore, learn, and contribute within a diverse range of contexts. It appears, however,
that there is little evidence that the implementation of Te Whāriki has resulted in the
achievement of such ideals. There is now a need for carefully conducted evaluative
research, along with an examination of curriculum innovations in other countries
(e.g., Department for Children, Schools and Families 2008; Skolverket 2006), to
investigate whether Te Whāriki really is the most effective curriculum for enhancing
the learning and development of children in New Zealand.
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