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