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Infants and toddlers

Key ideas

Te Whāriki can be viewed as a framework to explore infants’ and toddlers’ rights to high quality care and the right to be taken seriously as active and competent members of society. This view of quality from an enrichment perspective values the child as a citizen with rights in the present. These are:

  • the right to be

  • the right to become

  • the right to enjoy

  • the right to choose.

In high quality early learning settings, kaiako ensure that infants and toddlers are learning that their rights and values are being cared about and being cared for. This requires:

  • sensitive, responsive, and expressive interactions between adults and children

  • a high level of kaiako qualification, knowledge, and commitment

  • a curriculum and programme focus

  • an interest and willingness to work in tandem with parents and whānau

  • a safe and healthy physical environment.

 Kaiako helping a toddler climb

Recent evidence from research on brain development during infancy has particularly highlighted the importance of responsive and close relationships in laying the foundation for all learning.

Central to the understanding and practice of Te Whāriki is the idea that childhoods, child development, and quality infant and toddler provision are culturally bound. Culture encompasses beliefs about child-rearing practices, images of the child, relationships, and places value on different skills, traits, knowledge, and competencies.

Quality bicultural practices for infants and toddlers involves the enactment of culturally responsive early childhood practices and pedagogies that reflect Māori cultural worldviews, identities, and values. These include providing for:

  • whakapapa knowledge and connections to hapū, iwi, and tīpuna

  • communal and collective caregiving practices such as tuākana/tēina partnering

  • traditional waiata, oriori, and pakiwaitara.

Cultural learning is absorbed rather than taught. Kaiako who understand this deeply regularly ask themselves, and each other; how is this practice, or this change, or this resource, contributing positively to children’s identity and cultural wellbeing?

  • Stories of practice

    Stories of practice Stories of practice


    The bush as a context for learning

    Key points

    • Place-based education
    • Planning for learning outdoors


    Tamariki at Open Spaces Preschool near Whangarei spend three days a week in the bush playing, exploring, discovering, and of course learning. Mostly they learn about how they fit into this environment, how old stories are influencing the stories they are enacting now. We believe that to feel at ease in a place, infants and toddlers need opportunities to experience it.

    Place-based Education is a framework our centre has adopted to guide our practice. It makes us pause and reflect: how can we make the learning for this infant or toddler genuine and authentic? We believe that it all starts with infants and toddlers knowing who they are and where they come from. This identity construction is a process of intertwining the physical, social, and cultural to make the whole person.

    Our teachers are intentional in planning this approach. They provide opportunities for infants and toddlers to feel the breeze, crunch the leaves, and listen to the plop of raindrops on the forest floor. Rich oral language is used to talk about what is seen, heard, and felt. Stories of Tāne are read, secret fairy houses are built, and all the magical spots discovered are named. We have our awa, our maunga, and our centre is woven into the story of this rohe. We re-group and tell stories of our adventures. Stories we are all part of.

    Through taking this approach to curriculum design, children’s sense of belonging is nurtured and their identity as confident and competent learners develops.

    Developing tuākana/tēina relationships, roles, and responsibilities

    Key points

    • Prioritising a sense of connectedness
    • Fostering reciprocity in relationships

    Children gardening.

    Te Puna Whakatupu o Whare Āmai is situated on Te Wānanga o Aotearoa campus in Gisborne. It caters for families of staff and students of the wananga, and the local community. The majority of children attending the puna have whakapapa connections to the many iwi of the rohe.

    An important aspect of the puna practice is centred on supporting infants and toddlers to develop relationships with, and a sense of connectedness to rohe/place (their tūrangawaewae), and to people (their whānau/hapū/ iwi and mana whenua).

    A key aspect of the puna philosophy relates to supporting the infant and toddlers to develop tuākana/tēina (more knowledgeable or expert person/ less knowledgeable or expert person) relationships, roles, and responsibilities. These include the reciprocity of care and learning inherent within these relationships. Sometimes tuākana/tēina relationships and responsibilities are enacted through planned, kaiako-initiated activities that aim to embed tuākana/tēina practices in everyday routines. At other times, children’s natural desires to show affection, love, and care are fostered, valued, and further supported by teachers and whānau.

    Kaiako utilise regular events and routines such as wā whāriki (mat time) to encourage, support, and normalise tuākana/tēina relationships and responsibilities. They also acknowledge, value, and further encourage, tuākana/tēina relationships and practices that occur naturally and normally in the service. Observed outcomes of a tuākana/teina approach have been infants and toddlers:

    • learning with and from their peers
    • taking greater responsibility for themselves and others
    • showing manaakitanga, aroha and tiaki
    • being confident to take the lead in tikanga Māori, cultural practices, routines, and rituals in the puna. 

    Prioritising continuity of care for infants and toddlers

    Key points

    • Ways to implement continuity of care
    • Benefits of continuity of care 

    Child playing with paint.

    At Ngaio Childspace, continuity of care refers to the practice of children remaining in the care of the same primary teacher over the course of their first three years. This is based on literature that indicates children up to three years of age benefit from having a small number of consistent adults who know and understand their needs and temperament. For example, it has been found that infants and toddlers who remain in the care of their primary teacher are more likely to be developmentally ready for the next phase of their early childhood education.

    Continuity of care includes keeping the same group of children together, and is based on the understanding that relationships between infants, toddlers, and their educators are the focal point of early education and care. This can be done either by moving the group to a new environment, or adapting the current environment to meet the group’s changing abilities and interests.

    We have put our beliefs and the research on continuity of care into practice because we believe that the development of secure and consistent relationships will enhance the children’s healthy development, both in body and mind.

    Benefits of continuity of care for infants and toddlers
    • Develops a sense of security and trust that supports the growth of healthy attachment relationships.
    • Allows early friendships to form and be maintained over time.
    • Improves self-regulation of social interactions.
    • Allows children to become more independent and social, safe in the knowledge that there are people around that know them really well.
    Benefits for parents
    • Relationships with teachers are easier to establish and maintain when they are extended over longer periods of time.
    • Knowledge of the personality and teaching style of the teacher becomes clearer over time.
    • Children’s transitions can become a lot easier and less stressful for all those involved.
    • A trusting and authentic relationship is more likely to be formed – there is comfort in the knowledge that a teacher knows their child and their needs over a decent period of time.
    Benefits for teachers
    • Deepens the content and quality of planning as they have a more in-depth knowledge of the child. This in turn makes curriculum planning easier.
    • Improves a teacher’s ability to anticipate and respond to the needs of an individual child.
    • Teachers gain more insight as children grow and learn.
    • Engenders feelings of competence and confidence they get to know children better.
    • Teachers are better placed to know and anticipate parental preferences.

    Reference: Kerr, H. (2017). Continuity of Care: How might this look?. The Space, 47, 12-13.

    Learning the importance of Wai

    Key points

    • Prioritising localised te ao Māori
    • Learning the significance of Wai

    Child playing in a sandpit.

    Te Puna Whakatupu o Raroera Te Puāwai is situated on Te Wānanga o Aotearoa campus in Te Rapa, Hamilton. It caters for children of TWoA staff, students, and community. The tikanga of Tainui and the Kīngitanga are integral to the puna practices.

    In line with the puna’s commitment to uphold Waikato/Tainui tikanga within their programme, a specific focus for kaiako has been working with pēpi/tēina to explore the importance of wai/water to the people of Waikato/Tainui and to give recognition to the status of the Waikato awa/river to the people of the rohe/region.

    The significance of water to the education and learning of pēpi/tēina is also reflected in practices such as ‘whakarite’ or utilising water and karakia to physically, spiritually, and emotionally heal and support wellbeing. This involves placing a ‘oko wai koiora’ or water bowl in a central place, within the centre and encouraging toddlers to sprinkle water on themselves when feeling sad, lonely, or hurt. Interactions with Ranginui/Sky Father are also encouraged with opportunities for infants and toddlers to experience and make connections to the ua/rain as a means of supporting the physical and spiritual connectedness with Ranginui. Small groups of toddlers also take trips to the Waikato awa, as a way of acknowledging their tūpuna/ancestors, whakapapa, and spiritual connectedness.

    Infant and toddler learning occurs when they have the freedom to engage in their own way with wai, and grow to understand its spiritual and physical dimensions. This supports understandings of the connectedness of the tamaiti Māori to their spiritual and physical worlds (Ira Atuatanga).

    Considerations for designing a new outdoor space for infants

    Key points

    • Environments enabling autonomy
    • Primary care-giving

    Child in an outdoor playground.

    At Country Bears Early Childhood Centre, Tauranga, we have a strong focus on the wonders of nature. We value the importance of outdoor play, and this is definitely no different for our most precious children – our under twos.

    In January of 2016 we decided that we needed a specialised space for our ‘non-walking’ infants. We wanted to create a ‘home away from home’. Having a small, intimate group size was always really important. We believe that, in order to really explore and learn, infants first need quiet, calm, nurturing spaces to gain a sense of belonging. Our focus was on infants having autonomy in nature. To achieve this, spaces need to be safe and accessible for this age group.

    These thoughts and values were paramount as the kaiako team worked collaboratively to design and develop the new outdoor space. The outcome of this focus has resulted in an engaging and peaceful environment where infants and toddlers have protected sanctuary spaces to practice their developing physical skills and explore nature.

    We are inspired by RIE philosophy and strongly believe in our infants having a primary care teacher, dedicated to support the daily requirements of our children. This includes settling, bonding, sleeping, feeding and nappy changing, as well as the extended learning opportunities that are designed just for them. Through this primary care teacher approach, teachers develop an awareness of each infant’s cues, from their different cries, sounds, gestures, and movements. This in turn lets the child know that “somebody here knows me”.

    For our whānau, each primary care teacher is the point of contact for any communication around the child. If whānau feel comfortable to leave their precious child in our hands, then we are honoured and privileged to have them in our care.

    Creating an atmosphere of harmony as a priority within the emotional environment for infants and toddlers

    Key points

    • Attention to the emotional environment
    • A culture of respect 

    Child playing in a sandpit.

    When The Children’s Garden (Nelson) was established in 2016, it was agreed that the emotional well being of each and every infant and toddler was the key to ensuring a peaceful, calm, and emotionally secure and satisfying place. We were inspired by the work of Emmi Pikler and her colleagues whose wisdom made us consciously consider the ways we could achieve this. We decided each child and their family would have their own designated (primary) caregiver, who would keep a small group of children in their mind throughout their day.

    As a team we quickly saw how significant these relationships were for getting to know the intricate cues and rhythms of each infants’ and toddlers’ day. Sharing this knowledge across the teaching team, enables us all to respond to each child in ways they know and prefer. These ‘rituals of care’ involve:

    • being fully present for children
    • paying attention to the way we set up the environment
    • being respectful in the ways we respond, negotiate, and make ourselves available.

    Rituals are important for infants and toddlers at the centre as they provide familiar experiences for them on a daily basis, giving them a sense of security and trust in the people around them, and the environment they spend their time in. Some of the care rituals, such as a sleep preparation ritual, come from home. Others have been established by The Children’s Garden, such as flowers and candles at each mealtime, or soft music on arrival and departure.

    In a team review, we reflected on how our daily rituals could be enhanced to make our environment as peaceful as possible and avoid the hurried, busy times. We asked ourselves:

    • what has changed that has created these times of discord?
    • what can we do to create the peace and harmony that infants and toddlers deserve?
    • what are the care rituals for infants and toddlers that may be missing?

    We have found that when we are reflective as teachers and have children’s best interest at heart, the centre becomes a place where infants are calm and content, and toddlers confidently explore, enjoying the predictability of each ritual throughout the day. We see infants and toddlers who show concern, empathy, and kindness in their daily interactions. They treat each other in a peaceful way.

    The team takes much care in the preparation of each day and each communication to ensure the environment is rich, harmonious, and attractive. It is through this empathetic approach that we demonstrate our genuine care and concern for children.

    These quotes guide our aspirations:


    When the adults are calm, it will ‘spill over’ into the atmosphere (Awhina Day Nursery)

    The relationship is ALL (Emmi Pikler)

    Surrounded by beauty the soul grows (Leading from the Heart - The Nest, Hawkes Bay)

    Stories of practice

Reflective questions

Use these questions in team discussions to prompt and guide kaiako discussions.

  • How are relationships with whānau/hapū/iwi/community and mana whenua developed and built upon?

  • How do kaiako reflect and integrate Māori worldviews, values, and perspectives within their practice?

  • In what ways do our language and gestures let infants and toddlers know that they are competent to make choices and learn?

  • How effectively do we enrich vocabulary and conceptual understanding for our infants and toddlers?

  • How willing and ready are we to include each whānau and their aspirations for their children?

  • How well do we instil a sense of belonging and place for children, families/whānau and ourselves?

  • How effectively does the learning environment express and display visually the values and philosophy of our infant and toddler setting?

  • How well do we ensure that each infant or toddler learns and grows in a trusting environment that embraces diversity and inclusiveness?

  • What is the learning that is valued in this setting? How are we ensuring that all infants and toddlers have fair and equitable opportunities to achieve this?

  • How do we carefully plan for, and document infants and toddlers’ learning with their family/whānau's best interest at heart?

Implications for leadership

Early learning leaders are responsible for providing guidance and support for infants, toddlers, and their families/whānau entering a setting. This responsibility requires qualities of grace, humility, and respect. Leaders play a pivotal role in the following:

  • ensuring that robust settling and transitioning policies and procedures are created and maintained to minimise the stress for children, whānau, and kaiako during these crucial stages
  • embedding cultural responsiveness in all aspects of infant and toddler pedagogy and practice (This includes supporting kaiako to pay particular attention to culturally valued knowledge, values and beliefs.)
  • fostering innovation and excellence in their teaching teams through professional learning, curriculum inquiry, and internal evaluation
  • ensuring that assessment for children is in keeping with Te Whāriki and reflects the special characteristics of infants and toddlers
  • providing the support, resources, and professional learning necessary to equip kaiako with the confidence to articulate infants’ and toddlers’ learning and development
  • supporting kaiako to create an environment that is an attractive, natural, and safe place for infants and toddlers to grow and learn. (This will include creating protected spaces to which children may retreat. Leaders are responsible for ensuring that aesthetics are maintained and respected.)
  • actively promoting an environment and practices where infants and toddlers can grow their understanding of kaitiakitanga and healthy risk-taking.

Connections to the principles

Empowerment – Whakamana

The principle of whakamana emphasises the importance of children experiencing a curriculum that enhances their mana and supports them to enhance the mana of others.

Māori images of the child highlight that all children are born with mana, a spiritual trait, inherited from their ancestors. Mana is the power of being and is integral to children’s well-being, development, creativity, and sense of themselves as confident and competent learners.

Children’s mana is enhanced when they are supported to develop relationships and make friends, be respectful and take responsibility for themselves and others, and explore their worlds. Children express their mana through showing kindness, caring, and expressing love and affection.

The development of mana is supported when kaiako:

  • encourage infants’ and toddlers’ agency to explore, investigate, and express themselves freely
  • bring to their interactions an expectation that all infant and toddlers will be kind, caring, and keen to learn
  • provide opportunities for whakamana to happen in everyday activities and practice
  • are attuned and respond with expression and respect to infants’ and toddlers’ cues, gestures, and verbal communication.

Family and community – Whānau tangata

The principle of whānau tangata highlights the role of whānau hapū, iwi, and the wider community in the learning and development of children. Traditional Māori caregiving practices and beliefs can support culturally responsive early childhood provision for infants and toddlers. These practices and beliefs are located within specific whānau/communities. Developing meaningful relationships with whānau is therefore a priority.

Infants and toddlers are more likely to develop long-lasting, positive attitudes towards their identity and their learning when parents/whānau and kaiako work in tandem. This is particularly so if talk of their care and learning is a regular part of the shared conversation. Such a focus facilitates the transference and continuity of infants’ and toddlers’ interests and experiences between home and early childhood settings. When things seem familiar, well being, curiosity, and competence are more likely to flourish.

The development of Whānau tangata is supported when kaiako:

  • practise respectful and authentic relationships with whānau and the wider learning community as a most treasured and valued aspect of an early learning setting
  • welcome infants and toddlers into the environment recognising the beliefs, values, and history of the whānau
  • suspend judgement and take time to listen, respond, and act upon parent/whānau aspirations and concerns
  • offer sound professional knowledge and guidance when it is asked for by parents and whānau.

Holistic development – Kotahitanga

Kotahitanga frames human development as a weaving of social and cultural dimensions and recognises that children experience their world, a-hinengaro (cognitively), a-tinana (physically), a-whatumanawa (emotionally), a-wairua (spirituality).

The spiritual dimension is fundamental to holistic development in that it connects to all the other dimensions. Kotahitanga is expressed in ways that infant and toddlers engage with the spiritual, being peaceful and loving, communicating in their own ways with their worlds.

The nature of learning and development is holistic. Emotional, social, and cognitive development are all equally important aspects to consider in creating effective learning environments for infants and toddlers.

The development of Kotahitanga is supported when kaiako:

  • take time to know and understand the varying cultures and characteristics that infants and toddlers and their family/whānau bring to a setting
  • weave this knowledge into their curriculum design for infants' and toddlers' learning
  • draw on emerging research, showing that healthy brain development involves a combination of cognitive, social, and emotional learning
  • capitalise on infants’ and toddlers’ natural tendency for playfulness, experimentation, and curiosity.

Relationships – Ngā Hononga

Ngā Hononga is about the way children learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places, and things. In high quality contexts for infants and toddlers, each of these three elements is thoughtfully considered from a rights and responsibility perspective.

Connections to past, present, and future are integral to a Māori perspective of relationships. This includes relationships to tīpuna who have passed on and connections through whakapapa to maunga, awa, moana, whenua, and marae.

Traditional Māori cultural tools and practices, such as waiata, mōteatea, and pepeha have been used for generations to support children’s learning about themselves and their place in the world. For example oriori or personalised lullabies were repeatedly sung to infants to affirm, who they were, their preciousness, whānau aspirations for them, and how they should be treated. Pakiwaitara or traditional stories supported children’s understandings of culturally valued traits, competencies, behavioural aspirations and norms, and their physical and spiritual connectedness to tīpuna, whenua.

The development of Ngā hononga is supported when kaiako:

  • plan activities and events that promote tuākana/tēina relationships and abilities while also acknowledging the incidental, everyday expressions of these
  • offer a calm and attractive environment rich in the symbols, language, and cultural practices of the infants and toddlers attending
  • balance the right of infants and toddlers to direct their own learning with developing their responsibilities to protect people, places, and things from harm
  • make links with the past, present, and future in curriculum design and implementation.