Te Whāriki: An early childhood curriculum for inclusion in Aotearoa-New Zealand

Illustration aus dem Buch "machtWorte!"

by Prof. Helen May

Te Whāriki translates from the indigenous Māori language of Aotearoa as ‘a woven mat for all to stand on’ and is the national early childhood curriculum in New Zealand (Ministry of Education 1996). As a document it defines overall Principles and Goals for all early childhood programs. As a metaphor, Te Whāriki enables the diverse early childhood services and centers, their teachers, families and children, to ‘weave’ their own curriculum pattern shaped by different cultural perspectives, the age of children, the philosophy or structure of the program. Te Whāriki was the first bicultural curriculum in New Zealand including the dual perspectives of both Māori, and Pākehā (non-Māori) who are mainly European immigrants, but including a large Pacific Islands population and an increasing Asian population. Although the structure of Te Whāriki is bicultural (reflecting the Treaty partnership signed in 1840 between Māori and the British Crown) the curriculum is also multicultural and inclusive of other migrant peoples. For Tilly Reedy (Ngati Porou), a Māori partner on the project, Te Whāriki is about self-determination:

‘Our rights are recognised and so are the rights of everyone else… Te Whāriki recognises my right to choose, and your right to choose too.’ (1995, p. 13)

Sandy Farquhar has written:

As a first curriculum for early childhood in Aotearoa, and indeed one of the first internationally, it is remarkable that in an era of right-wing conservatism [in the 1990s], the document was able to capture the spirits of feminism Māori sovereignty, children’s rights and educational theories – at the same time as traversing the path to acceptance.’ (2010, p.150)

Early childhood education in New Zealand

The early childhood years span from birth to school age at five years. On the day of their fifth birthday each child goes to school as a celebrated ‘rite of passage’. Ninety-eight percent of three and four year olds formally attend an early childhood service; at aged one year there are 20 percent of children attending, although many more participate in informal playgroup settings. Government provides universal funding support per child in both community and privately owned programs that meet defined standards. There are a range of early childhood programs encompassing: both full and part day; different cultural and philosophical perspectives; home and centre based settings, and involving both parents and teachers as the key adults who work with children (Smith and May, 2006; May, 2009). Since 1989 New Zealand has promoted an integrated approach to care and education and all early childhood programs are under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education. This integration of care and education, and the inclusion of all ‘before-five’ year olds, helped shape the style of curriculum that emerged.

The curriculum development

Early childhood organisations and educators were originally wary of the idea of a national curriculum; concerned that it might constrain the sector’s independence and diversity. But the alternative strategy of not defining the early childhood curriculum was a potentially dangerous one since the national curriculum for schools (Ministry of Education, 1993a) might start a ‘trickle down’ effect.

The task began in 1991 when the author and Margaret Carr were contracted by the government to co-ordinate the development of a curriculum that could embrace a diverse range of early childhood services and cultural perspectives; articulate a philosophy of quality early childhood practice; and make connections with a new national curriculum for schools. The story of this development spans the two decades (Carr and May, 1993, 1999; Nuttall, 2003; Smith, 2011) and was a policy that the government wisely did not rush. It takes time to develop and implement a curriculum that is accepted, inclusive, meaningful and makes a difference for children. The draft Te Whāriki was released in 1993 (Ministry of Education 1993a) followed by trialling and professional development programs for staff. Institutions offering teacher education programs began a process of adaptation (for some) and/or a radical rethinking (by others) of their curriculum courses. In 1996 the Prime Minister launched the final version of Te Whāriki. The Ministry of Education subsequently funded several research projects towards developing frameworks for evaluation and assessment based on the inclusionary principles of Te Whāriki (Carr, 1998; Carr, May and Podmore, 1999), followed by Kei Tua o te Pae - Assessment for learning: Early childhood exemplars (2005, 2009), a project that was led by Margaret Carr. The exemplars use a learning story framework of children’s interests, strengths and dispositions. This represents a shift from internationally dominant paradigms of assessment for children based upon checklists and developmental measures of competency, skills and content (Carr, 2001). A key principle being that diversity must be accommodated.

Te Whāriki as a curriculum framework

The development of Te Whāriki involved a consultative process with many teachers and services and all the organizations. More specifically, the authors wanted the curriculum to reflect the partnership of Māori and Pakeha as a bicultural document model grounded in the contexts of Aotearoa-New Zealand. This was a challenge but became possible due to a partnership with Te Kohanga Reo National Trust - the guardian of Māori language immersion centers and a Māori pedagogy of learning and knowledge for young children. This partnership shaped the bicultural framework of Te Whāriki. The theme of empowerment was important for Māori, and ‘empowering children to learn and grow’ became a foundation Principle. Tilly Reedy emphasized the maxim for Māori that ‘Toko Rangatiratanga na te mana-matauranga - knowledge and power set me free’ (Reedy, 1995).



Empowerment: the early childhood curriculum empowers the child to learn and grow

Kotahitanga Holistic development: the early childhood curriculum reflects the holistic way children learn and grow
Whanau tangata Family and community: the wider world of family and community is an integral part of the early childhood curriculum
Nga Hononga Relationships: children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things

 The curriculum is founded on the following aspirations for children in New Zealand:

‘To grow up as 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 the world’ (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9).

These aspirations elaborated in five Aims for children (later re-named as Strands) provide the overall curriculum framework. The Principles and Strands are expressed in both Māori and English languages. They were negotiated between Māori and Pākehā early in the curriculum development process as equivalent domains of empowerment in both cultures.


Mana Atua Well-being
Mana Whenua Belonging
Mana Tangata Contribution
Mana Reo Communication
Mana Aoturoa Exploration

The Strands defined an interpretation of the major interests of infants, toddlers and young children: emotional and physical well-being, a feeling that they belong here, opportunities to make a contribution, skills and understandings for communicating through language and symbols, and an interest in exploring and making sense of their environment.

The title Te Whāriki is a powerful metaphor in New Zealand. The Principles Strands and Goals provide the framework that allows for different program perspectives to be woven into the fabric of the weaving. There are many possible ‘patterns’ for this as children and adults collectively develop their own curriculum pattern through a process of talk, reflection, planning, evaluation and assessment. The ‘Whāriki’ metaphor views the curriculum for each child as a ‘spider web’ or weaving and emphasizes a model of learning for young children as being a tapestry of increasing complexity and richness rather than a staircase of accumulated skills and knowledge.

Theoretical underpinnings of Te Whāriki

The conceptualisation of Te Whāriki around empowering aims for children was a different approach to the traditional developmental curriculum map of: physical, intellectual, emotional and social (PIES) skills, which dominated Western curriculum models. Te Whāriki is grounded in socio-cultural theory (Rogoff, 1990, Vygotsky, 1978) that places the learning experiences of children in a broader social and cultural context. Reciprocal relationships and interactions are of central importance with children actively co-constructing their own knowledge and understandings in everyday social and cultural settings (Smith 2011). Such approaches recognise the multiple pathways of development and learning, which underpin principles of diversity and inclusion. Te Whāriki also emphasised the contributions of Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner towards defining a more active role for the teacher whose task is to ‘scaffold’ children towards more complex thinking and increasing competency (Bruner and Haste, 1987). The notion of joint participation with adults and peers underpins approaches to learning, but so too are understandings of the rights of children as active participants who make a ‘contribution’ to our society – at home – at the centre etc. Anne Smith writes:

‘Children are valued as active learners who choose, plan, and challenge. This stimulates a climate of reciprocity, ‘listening’ to children (even if they cannot speak), observing how their feelings, curiosity, interest, and knowledge are engaged in their early childhood environments, and encouraging them to make a contribution to their own learning’ (2007, p. 155).

Te Whāriki also makes a political statement about children: their uniqueness, ethnicity and rights in New Zealand society. Jenny Ritchie (1996, p. 1) described Te Whāriki as ‘about countering racism.’ For people from the Pacific Nations (and other cultures), Te Whāriki provided a curriculum space where language and cultures could be in the foreground and not an add-on. For Tilly Reedy the curriculum was about inclusion: ‘Te Whāriki has a theoretical framework which is appropriate for all yet commonly individual ... a Whāriki woven by loving hands that can cross cultures with respect, that can weave people and nations together’ (1993, p.1).

Implementing Te Whäriki

There was high level of support for the curriculum by the early childhood sector relieved that: Te Whāriki was no ‘takeover’ by the school national curriculum; it respected the existing diversity; it affirmed some strongly held beliefs about early childhood practice; it was very much a New Zealand statement and not another import from abroad. On the other hand it soon became apparent that Te Whāriki was complex, partly because it resisted telling practitioners what to do: it asked each program to ‘weave’ its own curriculum pattern. Nuttall and Mulheron wrote:

‘With the introduction of Te Whāriki many early childhood practitioners are going to be thrown headlong into a major learning curve. Although the principles of Belonging, Communication, Exploration, Well-being and Contribution have long been accepted in early childhood, the way they have been defined and, if you like, packaged will be new. It is a challenge for centers now to try them out. Te Whāriki resists the temptation to provide specific ‘recipes’ for centers’ (1993, p.1).

Transforming a national curriculum into practice is a challenge. Early childhood educators in the different centers and services needed time and support to reflect upon what Te Whāriki might mean in their particular context. This was not a quick process. Many educators were unfamiliar with the theoretical underpinnings of the socio-cultural perspectives inherent in Te Whāriki. By 2000, the visual presence of the language and images of Te Whāriki was evident but teachers were sometimes limited in the way they used it and often by affirming current practice (Cullen 1996). There was an under-qualified sector staffed with adults who did not always possess the necessary theoretical understanding of Te Whāriki, and/or did not hold a teaching qualification. Subsequent government policy in the 2000s to have 100 percent qualified teachers in early childhood centers by 2012 (recently reduced to 80 percent for economic reasons) has improved the sector’s understanding and implementation of Te Whāriki, but research evidence suggests that there are still a proportion of centers unable to realize the potential of Te Whāriki, particularly in relation to its cultural and social tenets (Education Review Office, 2010, 2011).

Centers of Innovation

A significant initiative during the years 2003-2010 was the Centers of Innovation project. The aim was to: build innovative approaches resulting in improved learning and teaching based on Te Whāriki, strengthen and facilitate practices of teachers as researchers, and share the knowledge, understanding and models of practice with families and others in the early childhood sector. Centers were selected to showcase high quality practice in relation to the curriculum. Teachers working with research associates embarked on a three-year action research journey to further improve quality in relation to a particular theme or innovation (Meade, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010). An example being A’oga Fa’a Samoa’s journey with the research question: ‘What helps learning and language continuity as children make transitions within and from the A’oga Fa’a Samoa?’ This was a key issue in a full day Samoan early childhood centre implementing Te Whāriki in the Samoan language, for children whose families were of Samoan heritage but the children, and often their parents, were born in New Zealand. There are a large number of early childhood centers in New Zealand, both Māori and Pacifica whose focus is language and cultural maintenance and transmission. The framework of Te Whāriki supports these centers to weave their unique curriculum whāriki. The key innovation at A’oga Fa’a Samoa for supporting language was that small groups of children stayed with the same teacher from the point of entry and finally into the school located alongside the centre. Translating the principles of diversity and inclusion embedded in Te Whāriki is a challenge to teachers in many centers and it has been important to showcase what this might look like in various settings. A’oga Fa’a Samoa was, and continues to be, one such example (Podmore et al, 2006).

Summing up

It is almost twenty years since the early childhood national curriculum development began in New Zealand. The process is on-going. To ensure that early childhood practitioners are skilled and confident with the new language of learning development and culture provided by Te Whāriki, it has been important to ensure that the curriculum be supported by research, professional development and teacher education leadership. There are still challenges ahead. While there is much evidence of the surface expression of Te Whāriki its deeper possibilities of power sharing have sometimes seemed too difficult for teachers to consider. Deeply held beliefs by teachers, structural inadequacies within early childhood centers in relation to staff - child ratios, group size, management interests, and government requirements, can create a mismatch between the rhetoric of Te Whāriki, and the possibilities for its inclusionary pedagogical practice.


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Helen May is a Professor of Education, and the former Dean of the University of Otago College of Education (New Zealand). A key area of work in the 1990s was the development work for the early childhood national curriculum Te Whāriki, with Margaret Carr.